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.