The work of sculptor Betye Saar combines references to her African-American, Irish, and Native-American heritage. Drawing on dreams, her studies of tarot, palmistry, and vodun (voodoo), and eclectic cultural borrowings, especially from Asia, Egypt, and Africa, the artist collects both natural and manmade objects. These she transforms into small assemblages or larger sculptures such as this.
The chair’s crown of branches and bottles is a reference to a Central-African-derived tradition in the rural American South of placing bottles in trees to attract and capture evil spirits and possibly to engage the aid of helpful spirits. Saar has added other objects to “empower” the chair: bracelets are gifts to the spirits; animal bones honor the dead; small mirrors on the tips of the branches deflect evil spirits; and a closed jackknife is a symbol of protection. Ancestral Spirit Chair was originally part of the site-specific installation Diaspora, created in Los Angeles in 1992, and is included in Saar’s poem of the same title (excerpted below):
...In search of the unknown
my spirits pass through the Spirit Door,
Seek the dark corner of the Ancestral Chair,
Breathe on the embers of Africa and
Recall the memory of fire.
What if your memory is like a garbage dump—old thoughts rotting like forgotten meat at the bottom of the pile? Things you forget are like old shoes: maybe they’re too smelly to donate to Salvation Army, so you let them slip away. You get a new pair. The dump is home to things that have slipped away. Some of these things have been loved—like your pair of old shoes—but most (used tissues, plastic wrap, receipts, orange rinds) slip out of your hands and into the trash almost without remembrance. Things like these have come and gone, unnoticed.
But what happens when you dig in the pile? What will you find? Betye Saar has been digging. She has found things—glass bottles, bones, plastic, and metal—that might have been discarded forever. We could call her an excavator of bygone days or an archeologist of memory, bringing dark and buried things into the light. Here—in this throne for her ancestral spirits—she has literally dug through the basement of time, pulling objects (old medicine bottles, empty nips of liquor, long forgotten salt shakers, fleshless animal bones) from the rubble and reassembled them in a way that gives them new meaning and new life. But isn’t that what remembering is? Isn’t it a process of mining through the deep caverns of your mind, extracting wisps of partially decomposed meaning, and re-composing them into a new whole?
: Betye Saar, American (Born 1926). Ancestral Spirit Chair,
Painted wood branches, glass, bones, plastic, metal and dried creeper vine.
60 x 46 x 32 in.; 152.4 x 116.84 x 81.28 cm. Purchased with the proceeds from the sale of a work donated by Mr. and Mrs. Alexander Rittmaster (Sylvian Goodkind, class of 1937) in 1958 and with funds realized from the sale of a work donated by Adeline Flint Wing, class of 1898, and Caroline Roberta Wing, class of 1896, in 1961. SC 1992:42a-c
Painted wood branches, glass, bones, plastic, metal and dried creeper vine
Purchased with the proceeds from the sale of a work donated by Mr. and Mrs. Alexander Rittmaster (Sylvian Goodkind, class of 1937) in 1958 and with funds realized from the sale of a work donated by Adeline Flint Wing, class of 1898, and Caroline Roberta Wing, class of 1896, in 1961
ID Number: SC 1992:42a-c