A pioneer of second-wave feminist and postwar Black nationalist aesthetics, Betye Saar’s (b. 1926) practice examines African American identity, spirituality, and cross-cultural connectedness. The Trickster (1994), recently acquired by the National Gallery of Art, reflects Saar’s continued introspection, her assertion of the aesthetic and conceptual power of African cultural forms, and the belief that art can be made from anything. This is her first assemblage to enter the National Gallery’s collection where it joins one print and two mixed media works by her.
Made from a seven-foot-tall antique heater adorned with a necklace of bells, chains, and vintage keys, The Trickster depicts Eshu, the trickster god of the Yoruba people that protects devotees while engaging in mischief. Saar has represented the trickster figure throughout her career, beginning in the early 1970s with hanging leather pieces. This totemic variation represents not only the enduring significance of the figure for Saar, but also demonstrates her command of her materials on a monumental scale.
Since 1969 Saar has produced potent, evocative assemblage sculptures that explore themes of race, gender, ancestry, and spirituality. Her work is part of a storied tradition of artists working with found objects in Southern California and aligned with multiple art historical movements, including Black Arts, feminist art, and Neo-Dada, while remaining a reflection of her personal history and singular view. Saar’s assemblage practice began with the reappropriation of racist memorabilia she encountered at flea markets and yard sales, turning hurtful imagery into symbols of empowerment, most notably in the assemblage The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972). The collections of African and Oceanic art at the Field Museum in Chicago later sparked her interest in ancestral arts, ritual objects, and spiritual power. Saar’s symbolically rich body of work has evolved over time to demonstrate the various cultural, political, and technological contexts in which it exists.