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“My secret heart seeks the dusty, musty, forgotten corners./It constantly haunts, hunts, collects, gathers objects, images, feelings.” In her 1993 poem My Secret Heart, Betye Saar—whose sculptures, using diverse cultural imagery to reflect on injustice and African American life, form one of the most influential bodies of work in recent American art—tells us about the processes of witnessing, remembering and collecting at the heart of her work. Often, she draws on the experience of travel.

A map in the middle of this beautiful book, Betye Saar: Heart of a Wanderer, details the artist’s journeys over 50 years, from trips to Morocco in 1968 and Guatemala in 2018. Following it are facsimiles of pages from her sketchbooks, the travelogues she kept, everywhere from her native US to Haiti, Mexico, France, Nigeria, Egypt and Malaysia. Through drawing, collage and text, she would reflect her experiences, revealing how she soaked up cultures that were new to her, engaging with their customs and the materiality of lived experience. “I love to get off a plane at a place and I don’t understand the language… I don’t understand why they dress [the way they do]. Right away I’m in an adventure.” Saar’s reflections form far more than humdrum travel diaries; they have informed a singular body of work in recent American art.

Collector of everything

Heart of a Wanderer relates to the exhibition of the same name at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston (until 21 May) and accompanies the exhibition and book Fellow Wanderer, focusing on Gardner’s travel albums. It is an inspired association, especially as Saar had a residency at the Gardner Museum in 1994 and gave a lecture then, noting Gardner’s “eclectic” habit of collecting everything from “musicians, artists, family” to “fine art, plants, all sorts of things”, and highlighting museum pieces she gravitated to. She noted that they “were mostly the pieces that seemed to relate to my assemblages”.

Saar’s sculptures, a combination of found materials and prints, drawings and paintings by her own hand, were born of an early—almost innate—collecting impulse alongside epiphanies she had when encountering other artist-gatherers’ works. They include Simon Rodia’s Nuestro Pueblo, commonly known as “Watts Towers”, those visionary structures made between 1921 and 1954 of existing and crafted elements in South Central Los Angeles (where Saar was born in 1926 and grew up), and the brilliantly composed boxes of Joseph Cornell (1903-72).

Saar allied the composition of her diverse materials to an activist spirit. Her best-known work, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972)—which repurposes a racist “mammy” doll, giving her a rifle alongside her broom—was born of a need “to channel my righteous anger” at the loss a few years earlier of Martin Luther King, but also, she said, “at the lack of representation of Black artists, especially Black women artists”.

It is as close as a mass-produced art tome gets to an artist’s book—a covetable object in its own right

Numerous other examples of her assemblages across the decades punctuate this book, which is tall and thin in format, allowing them to be reproduced in a way that accentuates their rich materiality and distinctive form. They each relate to the book’s main event: the facsimiles of the sketchbook pages, which are set in sections, on colours unique to different continents, with each section beginning with a die-cut frontispiece over one of the sketchbook pages. It is as close as a mass-produced art tome gets to an artist’s book—a covetable object in its own right.

Seeking spirituality

The drawings reproduced here are never trifling sketches or notation. Instead many are fully-fledged pieces, using paint and wash and printed materials from cut-out photographs to stamps and banknotes. In a marvellous page in her Haiti sketchbook from 1974, for instance, she constructs a kind of shrine from paint, graphite, a Haitian stamp and other items. And as Saar said of her work in response to a question at that Gardner Museum lecture, “it’s the spirituality that I’m after”.

This is writ large here. As the exhibition and Gardner Museum curator Diana Seave Greenwald notes in her introductory essay, channelling these spiritual experiences of travel into sketchbook pieces and, ultimately, the assemblages leads to “a new multifaceted… experience for the viewer”. Saar is “creating a new kind of rapture”, she adds.

If the Gardner connection allows Greenwald to expand on the correlations with the Boston collector—Gardner’s choice to place a 19th-century Chinese statue on an 18th-century Italian cabinet speaks powerfully to her own sense of assemblage—it also serves to emphasise their differences. As Greenwald aptly puts it: Saar’s pieces “problematise the colonial networks, wealth disparities, and unequal power dynamics that facilitated Gilded Age travel and museum building”.

Slavery

The point could not be made more powerfully than in Saar’s assemblage, ironically titled Globe Trotter (2007), in which a time-worn doll in a cage stands on a tabletop above a globe.

Inevitably, this conjures the history of slavery. In her superb essay, An Inner Me, a Looking Through, a Looking Into, Makeda Best, the newly appointed deputy director of curatorial affairs at the Oakland Museum of California, illuminates the different ways that Saar’s travels, and the sketchbooks and objects she produced as a result of them, respond to African American traditions and, as Best puts it, create “a diasporic consciousness”. She alludes, for instance, to the sketchbooks’ evocation of mojo or gris-gris bags produced as objects relating to Hoodoo, the beliefs and practices of enslaved Africans in the southern US.

The collage Green Vision at the Villa (1994), with its coral, urns and green hues, is Saar’s vision of a lost civilisation in the Mediterranean

Best explores scrapbooking as an urgent political act, a historical form of resistance to stereotyping among African American communities and is also instructive about the particular qualities of collage versus assemblage. She reflects on Saar’s characterisation of herself as a shaman, who “mixes and transforms information into another form”.

This spiritual element is also addressed by Stephanie Sparling Williams, the Black feminist theorist and associate curator at the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, Massachusetts. In her essay Orientating Acts: Toward a Beauty and Mystery she explores how Saar used travel to orient herself towards place and culture and, in Saar’s own words, to act as a form of “medium, the connection between the material and the message”. Williams looks closely at the role of memory as Saar conceives her work, which she links to wider feminist cultural histories. She looks at patterns in Saar’s collecting of objects and poetry, concluding that the sketchbooks, writings and assemblages exist “somewhere between ethnography and phenomenology”. Analysing Saar’s practices in the context of the phenomenologist-philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, she argues that Saar’s travels led to an acute understanding of how the world is structured and, as a result, can translate this information, or “orient” her audiences to what she has learned, through her work.

This idea of translation is a crucial point across the three essays. Pondering Isabella Stewart Gardner’s curiosity, Saar observed “in our own path, we are searching for that link between ourselves and others”. She added: “That’s what I would like to have in my work.” This lovely book is a testament to how eloquently and uncompromisingly she has achieved her aim.

Betye Saar: Heart of a Wanderer, by Diana Seave Greenwald (ed) with contributions by Makeda Best and Stephanie Sparling Williams.

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum/Princeton University Press, 208pp, 71 colour illustrations, $45/£38 (hb), published 4 April

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