The black revolution was always in your living room: the Watts riots, the marches, these horrific images of hoses and dogs attacking protesters. When Martin Luther King was assassinated, I thought, what can I do? I had friends and neighbors whose teenage sons went to the South to protest but, you know, as a woman, I couldn't do it. As a mother, I couldn't do it. Making art was my vehicle to express my anger and the pain that I felt.
In the 1960s, those of us artists who hung out in the Brockman Gallery, one of the first galleries opened by members of the black community in L.A., decided to attend the National Conference of Artists meeting in Chicago. Artist David Hammons and I took the red-eye and stayed at the same hotel, across the street from the Field Museum. We walked over to the museum and went to the basement floor, which was filled with African, Indonesian and South Pacific art. Both of us were transformed by that exhibition.
There was one particular shirt that an African chief had worn; it looked like a gunnysack with a hole in the top. Everyone in his tribe had contributed a lock of their hair or a rolled-up piece of hair and stitched it to the shirt. Maybe it was because we were the only ones in the space full of all these weird objects and masks that we just felt so much energy coming from it. When we came back to L.A., David started doing his hairpieces — with hair on wire and things like that — and I started making altars and not so much sacred, religious things, but pieces with some kind of special power or energy.
Around 1972, for a Berkeley exhibit, I created a piece called The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, a mixed-media work with images of the black domestic servant stereotype, with a central figure of her wielding a broom and a gun. That piece became my icon, but I was very hesitant about it. Even now, there are African-Americans who feel Aunt Jemima is a derogatory image. They don't understand the significance of taking something negative and transforming it into something positive, which was my intention.
My new show at Roberts & Tilton Gallery in Culver City was inspired by a recent visit to a house in Vence, France, where Matisse had lived from 1945-48. Here I saw a photograph of Matisse's The Red Room. I thought, I'm going to paint the whole gallery red. It became a personal challenge, because it's a color I'm uncomfortable with. In metaphysics, red is the lowest color as far as the light vibration goes. In astrology, it's the color of Mars, the god of war. Also, it's the color of blood. I went through all my past installations and art inventory to see how much red I could find and I started making red objects.
—As told to Catherine Wagley
Betye Saar is a Los Angeles assemblage artist who participated in the early black arts and women's movements.