Two Artists with Different Viewpoints on Slavery

Posted by: Valeria Marcus


Betye Saar and Kara Walker are famous African American artists who grew up in different generations.  Betye was born on July 30, 1926 and Kara was born on November 26, 1969, and both have a unique artistic approach about slavery, injustice, and the African American experience in our nation.

Betye Saar grew up during the great depression, the civil rights era, and witnessed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  All three major circumstances shaped her mindset of the kind of America she and black people had to cope with to survive.  Betye’s artistic journey and fame was built on the image of Aunt Jemina, but she wanted to depict her in a more positive light to challenge America.  Because Aunt Jemina during her childhood was always negative in her exterior facial expression and attire. She received a Guggenheim Award in 1972 for her works, ‘The Liberation of Aunt Jemina, which bought racial and gender inequalities to light in America. In 2007 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, Activist Angela Davis gave a talk and said the Black Women’s Movement started with Betye Saar’s work, ‘The Liberation of Aunt Jemina.”  Ms. Davis went on praising her depiction of Aunt Jemina as a revolutionary figure, and a woman to be reckon with in American culture.  For Betye had made her point in her art with a woman’s body form easily to relate all women struggling to be free.

However, Kara Walker’s art has a completely different approach to the African American woman in the context of slavery, injustice, and inequality. For Kara doesn’t sugar coat the brutality and excruciating experience her race endured during an unequal America and the painful experiences.  Kara’s claim to fame at a tender age of 28 when she was the youngest ever to win the Macarthur Genius Award for her blackout cut-paper silhouettes, that explores race, gender, sexuality, violence, and identity.

The Antebellum South was the most negative experience of slavery and racism in America in the 19th Century.  Kara depicts historical narratives with painting, text, shadow puppetry, film, and sculpture to illustrate the psychological aspect caused by unjust slavery.  However, in the beginning critics were against her artwork because it was for a white audience, which America were the slave owners, so why would she entertain and put her own race down in the 20th century.  The unrest continues with Kara’s new body of silhouette, drawing and text displaying slavery harsher in the 21st century. For instance, her sculpture of ‘The Sugar Sphinx’, a bleached version of Aunt Jemina with her bare bosom staring America in the face, that’s degrading slavery and the African American woman.  Kara’s body form is grounded in modernists artists from Matisse to Brancusi.  And she thinks the whole problem with racism and its continuing legacy in this country is that we simple love it, “Who would we be without the struggles”? said Kara. Her latest sculpture silhouette is a violent scene between masters and slaves in the old South.  It coincides a bit with the violence between America in the last several years with police officers.

While Betye Saar was a witness to devastating despair events as a young adult set her off in a direction less negative in her artwork.  Today, at age 91 Ms. Saar’s artwork is more biographical and mystics echoing a different kind of racial tension.  But In 1999 Ms. Saar’s echoed these words, “I felt the work of Kara Walker was sort of revolting and negative and a form of betrayal to the slave, particularly women and children; that it was basically for the amusement and the investment of the white art establishment”.  But two years earlier, she staged a letter writing campaign asking that Walker’s work be censored and destroyed,” She’s in deep trouble, said the photographer Carrie Mae Weems at a symposium held at Harvard in 1998 about the use of black stereotypes in image culture.  “But then so are all of us—-in deep trouble”

Photo of Betye Saar courtesy of Hammer Museum, UCLA

  • Quote source-Ms Angela Davis-Article on Influences: Betye Saar-written by Ms Saar 9/27/16.
  • Quote source-by Ms Saar on Kara Walker’s art -Article by Francey Russell-6/20/14
  • Quote source-Carrie MAE Weems-International Review of African American Art 15 no2 44-7 ‘98
  • Quote Source-Kara on her own art-The Washington Post-Article by Blake Gopnik-4/15/2004

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