Betye Saar: Black Doll Blues at Roberts Projects brings together a selection of nineteen new watercolor works on paper, portraits of Saar’s personal collection of Black dolls. Referencing the underrepresented history of Black dolls as seen through Saar’s artistic lens, the works on view distill several intersecting themes, imagery, and objects in Saar’s oeuvre, highlighting her prominent usage and reinvention of derogatory imagery.
Characterizing Saar’s unique practice over more than six decades, these watercolors showcase the artist’s experimentation with vivid colors, layered techniques, and new interest in flat shapes. While Saar has previously used painting in her mixed media collages, this is her first exhibition focusing on her watercolor works on paper. The exception in this exhibition is Rock-a-bye Black Babies, a tableau that features a child’s rocker holding dolls from Saar’s personal collection.
From 1880’s European brown bisque dolls to dolls hand-made with found materials by enslaved people, up to more recent examples such as Mattel’s 1968 first Black Barbie (Christie) or Addie of the American Girl Dolls, Black dolls often embodied the experiences and narratives of those who made them and/or received them. The Black dolls represent and reflect part of historical Black American culture.
As one of the artists who ushered in the development of Assemblage art, Betye Saar’s practice reflects on African American identity, spirituality and the connectedness between different cultures. Her symbolically rich body of work has evolved to demonstrate the environmental, cultural, political, racial, technological, economic, and historical context in which it exists.
“In the past, much of my work has explored racial injustice by reframing and empowering derogatory images of Black people. While some may view these dolls as derogatory representations of Black people, and I agree some of them are, I didn’t create these paintings in the same spirit of empowering Aunt Jemima,” she said. “These paintings purely depict the Black dolls as they create the purpose of providing love and comfort.”
Saar began her collection in the 1960’s after buying a doll she found at an antique store on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood. Saar only ever made one doll, a healer doll inspired from other dolls in her collection.
“I wanted to make a doll that was a witch, or a special kind of healer doll casting a spell, so she has her finger like that. She has little beaded teeth — I got the idea by looking at this other doll ”(next page) - Betye Saar
“My Black doll collection has grown to include handmade rag dolls, mass produced dolls and some tourist souvenirs. Some I find at flea markets, some are sent to me from friends and family members. My daughter Alison just gave me a Topsy-Turvy doll for my birthday that she bought at a flea market in Maine last month."
I like the topsy turvy dolls because this was a doll that was made to satisfy white children, as well as black children. It’s two of the same doll, but it’s a little trick — in one you have a white doll and a black doll.” - Betye Saar
“I loved the freedom of watercolors and the vibrant colors I could produce, I enjoyed using them as rich, saturated, bright colors.” - Betye Saar, Forbes Magazine