Joe Konieczny is a Toronto based writer and creator whose practice can best be described as deep learning. In his writing, this takes the form of meticulously researched and contextualized historiographies of artists and institutions on the African continent. Recent and upcoming works include a memorializing of the late curator Okwui Enwezor, analysis of works by Myriam Syowia Kyambi and Bulelwa Madekurozwa, and a forthcoming manuscript on the 2022 edition of Rencontres de Bamako. Joe’s creation is informed by meditative research on the intersections of postmodern cultural theory, Marxist political critique, and a fascination with the apocalyptic potential of new technologies. Created with a mix of archival film, machine learning logic, and non-visual technologies, Joe’s works push the boundaries of formal visual analysis by attempting to propose a new and more inclusive archive informed by his anticolonial politics.

Outside of his personal practice, Joe has held a range of institutional experiences. As half of the curatorial braintrust Serious Curators Against Monotony (S.C.A.M.) he has worked with groups including Toronto-based Silverfish Magazine and the Joan and Martin Goldfarb Study Centre at York University. Joe is a facilitation assistant for Ways of Attuning, a study group at the Critical Distance Centre for Curators, a manager for the Avrom Yanovsky Teaching Collection, and an independent art critic. He is always looking for collaborations, so don’t hesitate to get in touch.



Joe Konieczny Projects


Toronto / Tkaronto based artist, curator, and historian.

Find me on Instagram, LinkedIn, and Google Scholar.

Get in touch:
joe [at] joekonieczny [dot] com

Exhuming Brookes’ Legacy: Depictions of Slave Ships in the Work of Betye Saar



Introduction

Considered emblematic of the genre, Betye Saar’s assemblage utilize a harmonious balance of found and created objects to communicate themes of disharmony and oppression. Speaking directly from her experience as a Black woman living through the height of Jim Crow era segregation, Saar’s most iconic works such as The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972) are simultaneously humorous and thought-provoking. Bifurcated over two distinct periods, Saar’s work with the infamous Brookes diagram speaks most directly to the artist’s political beliefs and motivations. While much has been written about other periods of Saar’s work, precious few existing sources consider both spurts of activity with the image. In particular, the contemporary work debuted through Roberts Projects at Art Basel Miami has been woefully under analyzed, despite a rich irony and clearly deep intended significance. Existing writing points to more commercial and collections-oriented reading of the work, though many deliberate choices by Saar suggest a more nuanced and ironic meaning.

This research offers a more complete understanding of Saar’s interactions with the diagram, in particular its context within broader discourses around Black Radical Politics. It is through a consideration of the material and social histories of the relevant artworks that an ontology emerges allowing for consideration of the Brooke’s diagram (and associated Saar works) through Cubitt and Francis’ scholarship on “atrocity materials” and “universal symbols” respectively. This synthesis of existing cultural studies, visual theory, and sociological literature on Black Radicalism reveals a new and more productive readings of key works in Saar’s canon, though a particular emphasis will be placed on Diaspora’s Spirit(1996), I Will Bend But I Will Not Break (1998), a cumulative exhibition entitled A Woman’s Boat: Voyages (1998), and finally a contemporary revisitation Gliding Into Midnight (2019). Across these select works, an informative and scholarly account of Saar’s heavily researched process emerges. Saar’s use of this work in particularly ironic and suggestive instances reflects an affective intention which is almost reverent of the diagram’s power, and perhaps event portends future work on the subject by the artist.



Early Years

            Saar was born Betye Irene Brown to Jefferson Brown and Beatrice Lillian Parson in a South Los Angeles hospital, late in July 1932. Like so many other Black Americans, Betye’s heritage is far more complicated than simply “African American.” The Brown family could trace their ancestry back to enslaved Africans, Irish immigrants, and Indigenous tribes.[1] In her dissertation at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Art Historian Jessica Dallow quotes from Betye’s poetry, in particular a poem from her exhibition Ritual and Remembrance and Personal Icons at the California African American Museum in 1998. In her writings, the artist heavily identifies with “Creole” identity, bemoaning the state of being “Enslaved by the ‘one-drop’ rule.”[2] Indeed, it seems from early on in her artistic career, the complicated journey of Black Americans to their contemporary situation was a preoccupation of Betye’s. Following attempts to enroll in an arts academy which were aborted due to the segregation and apartheid social order of the day, Betye managed to earn her B.A. in design at UCLA in 1949.[3]Though her focus was on domestic design, particularly textiles and interiors, Betye was a true interdisciplinary artist, writing poetry, directing films, and sculpting.[4] A few years after her graduation, Betye married prominent Los Angeles are art collector Richard Saar, adopting his surname and the name by which her practice is most known.

            Though she is hesitant to embrace the label of activist, Saar was not one to allow discrimination or prejudice to end her budding career. Following her marriage in 1952 and birth of daughters Lezley in 1953 and renowned assemblage artist Alison in 1956,[5] Saar enrolled in education and printmaking courses at California State University at Long Beach.[6]Saar studied until 1962, primarily working with etchings and intaglio. The Museum of Modern Art in New York’s archival annotation of Girl Children (1964) as exhibited in Betye Saar: The Legends of Black Girl’s Window (2019-20) particularly elucidates this time, quoting youngest daughter Tracye Saar-Cavanaugh’s descriptions of her childhood playtime in the artist’s Laurel Canyon home and studio.[7] Breaking more personal and racial barriers, Saar was exhibited in her first solo show in 1964,  an experience whose difficulty was undeniably augmented by her race and gender.

            Existing scholarship implies two major factors that may have caused Saar’s career-defining shift into assemblage work- encounters with existing artists such as Joseph Cornell and community activation around the Watts Towers built by Sabato Rodia between 1921 and 1954.The Joseph Cornell Exhibition was staged in Saar’s adopted hometown of Pasadena between December of 1966 and February of 1967 and has been noted as particularly influential in multiple biographies of the artist.[8] Though the celebrated assemblagist and filmmaker was in the twilight of his life at the time, his surreal and experimental works are often credited with helping cultivated newfound interest in assemblage practices which came to be emblematic of the Black Arts Movement- of which Saar is closely associated.[9] The exhibition was a retrospective with little scholarly output, but existing sales posts for the catalogue online point to a well executed and innovative display process, particularly for a time when the curator was diminished if not frequently non-existent.[10]This show is frequently credited with being the genesis of Saar’s interest in three dimensional works.[11] The aforementioned archival notes from MoMA suggest that it is this encounter which led to the creation of one of Saar’s most iconic works, Black Girl’s Window (1969).[12] While this is certainly an alluring theory, it should be noted that the previously discussed work was created at the peak of the Black Arts Movement and reflects myriad themes which were quite popular at the time, making this somewhat unlikely.

            Though its influence has been discussed extensively in existing literature, including great works by Neil,[13] Blum,[14] and Jones[15], the influence and legacy of the Watts Towers sight in assemblage works at the time cannot be understated. Constructed by Rodia, an Italian immigrant and fellow outsider, it is notable that the two works with the most relevance to Saar’s practice (which focuses heavily on themes of Black Liberation) were created by white artists with a complicated relationship to American hegemony. As discussed in excerpts from Jones’ book South of Pico, the Watts Tower Arts Centre- initially founded as an outdoor community space adjacent to the site itself- became a centre of organizing for Black cultural life throughout the Black Arts Movement.[16]Though it may be difficult to categorize the towers as assemblage works themselves, the visual and social anchor was clearly profoundly important for the community which utilized it.

            Saar’s work with the Brookes diagram takes place nearly 25 years following community activations like the Watts Summer Festival, yet the radical milieu of the period clearly shaped Saar’s beliefs and practice. Notable works across Saar’s portfolio seem to reflect upon this coming and going of movements and community action. Works like Last Dance (1975) and Still Ticking (2005) evoke a silent meditation on the passage of time, suggesting almost an ambivalence by Saar to the advances (or lack thereof) in race relations over the artist’s lifetime.[17] Though these works are ultimately outside of the scope of this research, they undeniably invoke many of the same themes and political lines as Saar’s encounters with the Brookes diagram. Future scholarship can and should focus on a broader review of Saar’s works with a focus on general themes of slavery and dislocation.



Defining the Brookes

            Paramount to understanding Saar’s later works is an adequate and materialist history of the Brookes ship as well as its associate iconography. Most histories in the western canon are shockingly white-washed, and the true violence of the slave trade is often shocking and jarring to new readers. According to archives of the Brookes (also sometimes written as Brooks), the ship was larger than most vessels constructed in its Liverpool port, spanning over 13 feet longer than was average among 606 ships surveyed in one study.[18] Due to poor record keeping and intentional obfuscation and destruction of manifests, it is impossible to know the exact number of slaves transported, but it was surely in the thousands. Yet contemporary research has shown how the Brookes is far from an accurate representation of a typical slave ship. For one, nearly every single voyage taken by the ship was after the passing of the Slave Trade Act of 1788 (commonly referred to as Dolben’s Act) which limited the number of slaves allowed to be legally held in a ship.[19] Largely passed in response to negative publicity in the slave trade following a series of well-known incidents, in particular the Zong massacre, the act limited the number of slaves to 1.67 per ton, which drastically limited the total number held inside the Brookes.[20] While initial voyages may have held nearly 615 captives, after the act was passed (and for the creation of its diagram) the Brookes held around 470 enslaved.[21] This has led to a great deal of contemporary criticism of the diagram, with claims that it centres the view of oppressors and those complacent in oppression as opposed to the actual victims of slavery themselves. Often compared to contemporary images like the iconic 1972 of Thi Kim Phuc escaping an American napalm attack, the Brookes has transcended these inaccuracies to become one of the most iconic depictions of slavery to this day.

            Yet the image’s place in a global network of iconography was far from natural, and instead the result of a deliberate activist campaign. The Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade (commonly referred to as SEAST in academic literatures) published the diagram in 1789 following a series of parliamentary inquiries led by sympathetic MPs in the House of Commons. Marcus Rediker’s examination of life on the slave ship suggests that members of SEAST believed that the image could eventually lead to the abolition of chattel slavery across Europe and the Americas.[22]Writing on the legacy of the image within contemporary culture, Rediker remarks that the image has the power to make real the brutality of the Atlantic crossing in a way that words could not.[23] Marcus Wood has been particularly pointed with his criticism of SEAST, writing in Lumen that the inaccuracies and white perspective of the diagram “raises many questions about the nature of descriptions of blacks by English abolitionists in the late eighteenth century, and about descriptions of the middle passage in particular.”[24]Wood comments particularly on the positioning of the African slaves as simply stuck in their spaces across the trip. While slaves were not able to stand and walk, they often and frequently rebelled against their captors during their trip across the Atlantic. Wood remarks that the decision to portray the captives as passive is as much an editorial choice as any other portrayal, catalyzing more uncertainty around the intentions of the abolitionists- notably not all SEAST members were in favour of ‘abolition’ as we have come to understand it today.[25] Though it is almost certainly outside of the scope of this paper, new studies in very recent years have revealed this and other details which suggest a sort of secondary irony to Saar’s works with the diagrams. Her utilization of the icon as a weapon for commentary and communication is shaped and changed by new social understandings and material histories of the very ship it was inspired by.

            Despite its unclear factual standing, the Brookes diagram has been a mainstay of cultural commentary surrounding chattel slavery. Cheryl Finley’s exploration of the diagram in world arts is a useful crutch here, examining how particularly in the diasporic context the image has become a part of Black artistic identity.[26]Along with other leading art historians like Jane Hattie Carpenter, Finley argues that the image serves almost a ritualistic function which was indulged by the pseudo-spiritual nature of Saar’s artistic process.[27] This irreverence for the image, which will be shown  to be a key theme in Saar’s own work particularly in the 1990s, and may even account for its infrequent appearances within her broader portfolio.



Methodological Lenses

            Two texts serve as the basis for a renewed look at Saar’s works with the Brookes diagram- Geoffrey Cubitt’s conceptualization of ‘atrocity materials’ and Jacqueline Francis’ interrogation of so-called ‘universal symbols.’[28] Though seemingly every lens imaginable has been applied to Saar’s works, it was particularly surprising to see no existing work connecting Cubitt’s writings to assemblage at all. These texts are most suitable for understanding the Brookes specifically within Saar’s assemblage, but many of their core claims could theoretically be extended to other works within the Black canon. By synthesizing Cubitt, Francis, and existing Saar works, a new perspective on the Brookes forms which could potentially apply to other notable assemblage works within the Black Arts Movement.

            Written in review of the ‘1807 Commemorated’ project at the University of York in England, Cubitt’s writings on so-called ‘atrocity materials’ establishes a new and important perspective on the cultural salience of images like the Brookes. The author chooses to define atrocity materials as a “diversity of materials- images, texts, objects, audio-visual installations, and so on- whose common feature is their capacity to depict, represent, evoke or imaginatively reconstruct the physical brutality of slavery and the physical sufferings of the enslaved.”[29]Recalling previous commentary on Saar as a ritualistic actor, one begins to understand the salience of an ‘atrocity material’ in the creative process. Importantly, Cubitt points specifically to not just the ways that this material changes the creation of a work of art, but also the myriad ways it affects audience interaction with the work. In his work with curators on the subject, the author quotes numerous museum professionals who delicately argue in favor of a total whitewashing of history, echoing criticisms of SEAST’s publication and proliferation of the diagram in the first place. Yet there is criticism to be had here too- this curatorial perspective centres the viewer’s emotions and experience, which is not always the intent when invoking spiritual and atrocious materials. In many ways, Anglo fragility surrounding authentic discussions of race and power has a chilling effect artistic discourses reminiscent of “free speech” moral panics of recent years.

            Drawing from an interview with Thai American artist Skowmon Hastanan, Jacqueline Francis’ scholarship on the ‘universal symbol’ contends that the Brookes diagram’s social and epistemic power has progressed beyond narrow conceptions of African American culture. Francis also recalls Wood’s previously discussed criticisms of the Brookes’ description, as well as myriad other historical and contemporary uses of the image that reflect its stature as an “image of black endurance and African triumph.”[30] The author continues on to examine instances of ships and the Brookes within Hastanan’s work, calling specific attention to Ship Fever Red Fever (Thai Chitralada) (1992-2002) in which small printed miniatures of Thai women replace the black male bodies depicted on the original flyer.[31] Glazed in nail polish, Hastanan clearly comments on how capitalist structures dislocate, subjugate, and move populations in the Global South. This example serves Francis’ ultimate goal of showcasing the true internationalism of the Brookes diagram, serving as what could be understood as a ‘universal symbol’ or ‘significant’ in semiotic terms.[32] Francis quotes Judith Butler to best describe this framework, writing “If, as the philosopher Judith Butler has argued, ‘universality belongs to an open-ended hegemonic struggle,’[33] these artists and their works are part of the discursive fray. They summon the Description in order to add to it, abstract it, and ultimately destabilise it…[it] mobilises a new set of demands in response to current oppression.”[34] This universality is essential to understanding Saar’s fascination with the Brookes diagram and its potency within her own cosmology of symbols.



Initial Encounters

            Saar’s works with the Brookes ship began in the second half of the 1990’s, beginning with the notable work Diaspora’s Spirit (1996), first shown at the Olympic Arts Festival in Atlanta. The work itself is visually impressive. At 72 inches tall and 20 inches wide, the work is taller than most patrons who attend the exhibition. The façade of the work is made of etched steel, with a somewhat unclear transferral of a bird’s eye view of the ship’s holding bay- the angle of the Brookes that Saar continues to work with to this day. The work’s name signifies its meaning- the almost sarcophagus cover-like work serves almost as a signpost or gathering point for a lost and wayward people. Saar is directly equating the slavery and exile of the Jewish diaspora to the enslavement and dislocation of African people to the New World. Some depictions of the work take care to place a great deal of soil and dirt at the base of the work, expanding the sense of place created by the work.

            Traditional readings of the work, including those by mainstream reviews in the Los Angeles Times and other outlets, have taken care to specify that the work is universal and broadly appealing in nature. One reviewer went as far as to say it universalized the experience of diaspora- yet I offer a different reading that takes a markedly different approach.[35] If this work is to be read as a signpost, a marker, a gathering point- as most reviews agree- then it is almost assuredly meant for the community it depicts. In its purest state, a sign is simply the existence of annotating information which augments or directs the current experience. There is nothing inherently universal about a gathering point or space. Additionally, the most common object of comparison (the lid of an Egyptian coffin) was inherently exclusive, reserved for the most holy or chosen within society. Instead, I may suggest that Saar is comparing the plight of the Israelites or the Pharaohs to the contemporary African diaspora. Diaspora’s Spirit serves as a rallying point for an imagined journey of return- that myth being central to the very concept of a diasporic group in the first place. It is striking that many of the readings demanding a universality to the significance of the work itself were created in the 1990s themselves, perhaps reflecting shifting sentiments between then and the present moment. Contemporary scholarship like Francis understands that universal understanding and significance may reflect a variety of interpretations and epistemologies as opposed to an omnipresent reading of the work.

            While the transferral of the Brookes diagram to the curved front of Diaspora’s Spirit is the work’s most obvious signifier of the slave trade, the rusted chain on the bottom of the work, which is often overlooked in scholarly review, is equally deserving of our consideration. Saar frequently leans on the same assembled works or signs to form a pantheon of references and hidden meanings across her own portfolio of work. This rusted chain is a frequent guest in many of the artist’s works, particularly those which relate to location and slavery. The chain, logically, may be read as a shackle or bond keeping the diasporic group in place. Yet the age of the chain is quite relevant to its repeated appearances. The intentionally rusty chain acts almost as a commentary on the passage of time, the extended period of chattel slavery experienced by Africans. Though it is old and rusted, the structure maintains its integrity. Lacking a keyhole from the head-on perspective, the chain almost has an impossibility or inevitability. These themes, often associated with the experiences of the African Diaspora as well, appear to have no escape from the normal perspective. It is only from a change in location and deliberate movement that the potential for freedom can be revealed to the onlooker. Cementing its status as an immovable object with its own presence and gravitas, the bolts to hold the sculpture to the ground are deliberately visible and industrial. The base of the work seems to taunt the viewer, juxtaposing the potentiality for escape with the very symbols of imprisonment.

            The chain is a common thread across both Diaspora’s Spirit and a later work,I Will Bend But I Will Not Break (1998), in which the old metal holds a flat iron to a board. Seemingly simple at first, the assemblage showcases a domestic scene deeply layered with rich ironies. A clothesline runs across the top, holding a pressed and clean white sheet with a initials KKK embroidered neatly in gold along the right fringe. Situated in the foreground is an ironing board, on to which both the Brookes diagram perspective used previously, and the image of a mammy have been heat transferred. A stovetop flat iron sits almost menacingly along the base of the board, with the long aforementioned chain holding it in place.

            Amid the rich tapestry of significances in the work, the mammy stands out as the most immediately obvious and accessible. Working almost like an atrocity material in of itself, the mammy is a racial caricature created by white Americans to help pacify and rationalize their relationship to slaves. In most depictions, the Mammy is a large Black Woman often with exaggerated features and lips, who is caring and nurses white children. Melissa Harris-Perry’s writings are essential to understanding how a figure of alleged domesticity can exist in an otherwise deeply ironic work. According to Harris-Parry’s review of literature and records, the average slave- and wet nurse in particular- was young. These girls were likely terrified, having lived most of their lives suffering coerced labour and often sexual experiences as well.[36] The author suggests that the Mammy exists as a figment of white imagination in which the Black Woman consented to this exploitative and abusive relationship with the white family. This myth of benevolence is essential to the Jim Crow apartheid system and appears in other Saar works- notably The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972). Though the scene in I Will Bend But I Will Not Break creates a feeling of domesticity, the actual person performing the labour is nonexistent- as if she has been vanished from the historical record and defined solely by her oppressors. This suggests almost a continuance with the previously discussed Liberation of Aunt Jemima work- perhaps the domicile has armed herself as shown in Liberationbefore freeing herself from the constraints of her slavery. Or, perhaps more darkly, her rebellion was ended by a chain that refuses to break and an omnipresent largely white audience whose eyes these objects cannot escape.

            The sheet, which serves as a backdrop as well as focal point for the work, further highlights the ironic and cruel significance of I Will Bend But I Will Not Break. The embroidery makes the owner of the sheet very clear and leaves little doubt as to who would be the worker ironing it. It is almost as if the cruel white master has demanded of his domestic that she prepare the very costume he wears to the lynching and beatings of her peers. Its brilliant and pristine white indicates a level of care and concern that causes the previously discussed chain to once again stand out against a backdrop of cascading nothingness. The red and orange rust of the chain causes it to almost glow with a radioactive toxicity, forming a perfect metaphor how the oppression of members of the African Diaspora has been created and maintained by a political economy which is consumed and fixated on a default whiteness. By reminding the viewer of the direct racial attacks which have decreased in today’s so-called ‘post racial’ society, Saar invokes her mixed heritage to reaffirm the existence of the United States as a White and settler project.

            A final cruel irony is the heat transfer process by which the Brookes diagram itself was placed upon the ironing board. This process of branding and heat transfer was particularly important to Saar, as evidenced by its prominence in her sketchbook pages dedicated to the work.[37] This excruciatingly painful process of branding and marking was often used to label slaves as property. Nearly all of the slaves aboard the Brookes would have experienced this torture, and its violence and danger reaffirm the power of the diagram in its transference. The iron itself is equally hot, and as it heats and flattens the images of contemporary racism demonstrated by the KKK sheet, the histories of past and present oppression and compressed and branded together. It is through the heat and weight of the transfer that White emotions are smoothed and calmed by the red-hot fires of Black suffering.

            Ultimately, these works were exhibited together as part of a broader retrospective of Saar’s work concerning movement and travel, titled A Woman’s Boat: Voyagesstaged at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, California later in 1998. The curatorial concept was steeped in Jungian psychology, suggesting that colonization and decolonization are the epic adventures described in the late scientist’s works.[38] According to contemporary writeups and reviews of the exhibition, the mood of the gallery space was gloomy, and ultimately failed to present a coherent narrative. While the works Saar created are impactful and this grouping is both interesting and logical, it seems that the curatorial concept prevented authentic communication of what makes Saar’s works so engaging. Sadly, this was the last work regarding the Brookes diagram for many years, with Saar taking her practice in a notably different direction.



Contemporary Revisitation

            Associations between the Brookes and Saar’s artistic use of irony are only deepened by her sudden return to the diagram after years of silence. Gliding Into Midnight(2019) was debuted through a show curated by Stephanie Siedel at the Miami ICA during Art Basel, for which Saar is contracted to attend by her gallery Roberts Projects.[39]The work was placed in a stunning dark room in a quiet and separate space from the rest of the show which included more upbeat works including Oasis(1988). The viewer is immediately taken aback by a blue spotlight suspended overhead providing almost an artificial sunlight to the work, a form of progressive modernity not typically seen in Saar’s assemblage. Hovering a foot or two above the ground is a dark canoe filled with stones and filled with black castings of hands facing towards the sky. Below the canoe lies an equally sized cut-out of the Brookes diagram, taken from the same perspective used in previously discussed works.

            Rendered useless by the pile of stone filling its cavity, the canoe can certainly be seen as representative of the many ships enslaved Africans traveled upon across the Atlantic Crossing. Difficult to make out in photo reproductions, the sides of the boat itself are adorned with symbols from ancient Egyptian and Nubian numerology, suggesting a call back to ancient magic or power from which the Diaspora has been disconnected. Floating above the place it should naturally rest, there is something haunting about the canoe’s magical presence, as if it comes from another world or is only temporarily passing through our own. The hands which stick out from the piled rock are part of this haunting feeling. Thirteen total black hand castings are featured, a haunting number not only for its significance in Western culture, but its odd nature indicating amputation and suffering, perhaps at the hands of a slaveowner. The hands reach up to the blue sky, emerging from the ground almost like zombies from a grave. They seem to thrive and shine in the open air of modernity, glossy with attention from the glamour of the surrounding show.

In order to understand the significance and placement of the work within the Saar show at Art Basel, it is necessary to also grasp the realities of an international art fair. A place like Art Basel is extremely loud, with wealthy members of the public, collectors, museum professionals, and artists loudly talking as they move from booth to booth. The goals of most patrons is far from a genuine appreciation of fine arts, but instead a commercial and business-like extraction of wealth and capital from the creative industries. The stillness and slowness of this haunting canoe exists almost in direct opposition to the hustle and bustle of the Miami ICA show floor. Augmented by its placement in a private room, the work invites Art Basel attendees to step away from the hubbub of the show and reflect privately on their own whiteness.

There are a myriad of other potential readings of this work, all of which stand outside of the scope of this scholarship yet are well-deserving of recognition. In particular, readings related to death and aging could be relevant given the artist’s advanced age, spiritualism, and cryptic naming. Futility and frustration could also be seen, given the canoe’s rendered uselessness.

Assembling Traumatic Histories

            In its use across all of these works, the Brookes diagram may be seen as its own found object within the broader context of assemblage theory as applied to Saar’s works. The artist clearly intends for the diagram to be used as both an atrocity material as defined by Cubitt, reinforced by its status as a Universal Symbol, to act almost as a confrontational element in opposition to a white audience. Saar’s work with the diagram treats it not as an image but rather an existing spirit of resistance that is merely signified by the icon itself, almost like a visual form of a name. Though it may not always be appropriate to consider images as found or assembled objects, it is undeniable that the Brookes diagram’s role in Saar’s work is similar to that of other found objects like mammy statues and old rubbish.

             Even in the twilight of her life, Saar is an active sculptor and artist who continues to practice well into the COVID-19 crisis. Interviews in publications surrounding the Art Basel exhibition suggest a return to the themes of the work, and in particular the Brooke’s personal significance as an image of movement and transformation. This may portend future work on the subject, which is bound to be reviewed equally as well and consider many of the same themes. Ideally, the synthesized lens described in this text will apply to future works by the artist, her daughter or other Black Women working with the Brookes diagram in particular.






Works Cited

Baca, April. “On Dis/Appearance and Familiar Objects: Betye Saar at LACMA.” Art Journal 79, no. 2 (April 2, 2020): 114–16.

Bernier, Celeste-Marie. “″THE SLAVE SHIP IMPRINT″: Representing the Body, Memory, and History in Contemporary African American and Black British Painting, Photography, and Installation Art.” Callaloo 37, no. 4 (2014): 990–1022.

The Museum of Modern Art. “Betye Saar | MoMA.” Accessed April 4, 2022. https://www.moma.org/artists/5102.

Blum, Paul Von. “Recovering the Rubble: African American Assemblage Art in Los Angeles.” Journal of Pan African Studies 4, no. 5 (September 1, 2011): 248–62.

Butler, Judith. Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left. Phronesis. London: Verso, 2000.

Carpenter, Jane Hattie. “Conjure Woman: Betye Saar and Rituals of Transformation, 1960–1990.” ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2002. https://search.proquest.com/docview/276296540?pq-origsite=primo.

CUBITT, GEOFFREY. “Atrocity Materials and the Representation of Transatlantic Slavery: Problems, Strategies and Reactions: Geoffrey Cubitt.” In Representing Enslavement and Abolition in Museums. Routledge, 2011.

Curtis, Cathy. “Optical Allusions.” Los Angeles Times. July 4, 1998.

Dallow, Jessica. “Family Legacies: Race, Gender, and Inheritance in the Art of Betye and Alison Saar.” Ph.D., The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Accessed February 6, 2022. https://www.proquest.com/docview/304627905/abstract/5A2ED97714B6468EPQ/1.

———. “Reclaiming Histories: Betye and Alison Saar, Feminism, and the Representation of Black Womanhood.” Feminist Studies 30, no. 1 (2004): 75–113.

“Dolben’s Act,” 1:177–78, 2007.

Finley, Cheryl. “Committed to Memory: The Art of the Slave Ship Icon.” Accessed April 4, 2022. http://ezproxy.library.yorku.ca/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=awn&AN=10300808&site=ehost-live.

Francis, Jacqueline. “The Brooks Slave Ship Icon: A ‘Universal Symbol’?” Slavery and Abolition 30, no. 2 (2009): 327–38. https://doi.org/10.1080/01440390902819045.

French, Jade Elizabeth. “Still Tickin’: Betye Saar, Ageing and Assemblage.” Women (Oxford, England) 32, no. 1 (2021): 70–85. https://doi.org/10.1080/09574042.2021.1883266.

Ganas, Julie. “Of Everyday Objects and Icons: A Closer Look at Betye Saar’s I’ll Bend But I Will Not Break.” Visual Inquiry 9, no. 3 (2020): 141–48. https://doi.org/10.1386/vi_00017_1.

Greenberger, Alex. “Betye Saar, Hugh Hayden Conjure Mysteries with Everyday Objects in Standout ICA Miami Shows.” ARTnews.Com(blog), December 2, 2021. https://www.artnews.com/art-news/artists/betye-saar-hugh-hayden-ica-miami-1234612093/.

Harris-Perry, Melissa V. Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America. Yale University Press, 2011.

Jennifer McCabe. “Betye Saar: Still Tickin.” Panorama2, no. 1 (2016). https://doi.org/10.24926/24716839.1555.

Jones, Kellie. “Black West: Thoughts on Art in Los Angeles.” In New Thoughts on the Black Arts Movement, by Lisa Gail Collins and Margo Natalie Crawford, 43–74. New York: Rutgers University, 2006.

———. South of Pico: African American Artists in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017.

Mair, Kimberly. “Objects of My Affection: Joseph Cornell and the Corporeal Aesthetics of Assemblage.” Third Text 21, no. 6 (2007): 707–18. https://doi.org/10.1080/09528820701761293.

Morrow, Alissa Deeanne. “Protest Art and the Reagan Administration.” M.A., California State University, Dominguez Hills. Accessed February 6, 2022. https://www.proquest.com/docview/1770436643/abstract/A2B50892D6604489PQ/1.

Neil, Al. “Visionary Assemblage: A Builder’s Psychosis.” The Capilano Review 2, no. 1 (n.d.): 7–14.

Radburn, Nicholas, and David Eltis. “Visualizing the Middle Passage: The Brooks and the Reality of Ship Crowding in the Transatlantic Slave Trade.” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 49, no. 4 (March 1, 2019): 533–65. https://doi.org/10.1162/jinh_a_01337.

Rediker, Marcus. The Slave Ship: A Human History. Viking, 2007.

Saar, Betye. Betye Saar: Uneasy Dancer. Milan: Fondazione Prada, 2016.

———. Girl Children. 1964. Etching, 44.9 x 34.5 cm.

Shepperson, Arnold, and Keyan Gray Tomaselli. “Semiotics in an African Context : ''science" vs ‘Priest-Craft’ - ‘Semiology’ vs ‘Semiotics’.” IMATRA : International Semiotics Institute., 1992. https://researchspace.ukzn.ac.za/handle/10413/8774.

The Morgan Library & Museum. “Sketchbook Pages for I’ll Bend But I Will Not Break,” September 12, 2020. https://www.themorgan.org/exhibitions/online/betye-saar/sketchbook-pages-i%E2%80%99ll-bend-i-will-not-break.

Tani, Ellen Y. “Keeping Time in the Hands of Betye Saar: ‘Betye Saar: Still Tickin’.’” Edited by Roel Arkesteijn and Sara Cochran. American Quarterly 68, no. 4 (2016): 1081–1109.

Wilson, William. “Building Shelter in the Storm of Alienation and Exile.” Los Angeles Times. December 23, 1997.

Wood, Marcus. “Imaging the Unspeakable and Speaking the Unimaginable: The ‘Description’ of the Slave Ship Brookes and the Visual Interpretation of the Middle Passage.” Lumen: Selected Proceedings from the Canadian Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies / Lumen : Travaux Choisis de La Société Canadienne d’étude Du Dix-Huitième Siècle 16 (1997): 211–45. https://doi.org/10.7202/1012450ar.

Zelazko, Alicja, ed. “Betye Saar.” In Encyclopaedia Britannica, n.d.



[1] Dallow, “Family Legacies.”

[2] Dallow, 8.

[3] Tani, “Keeping Time in the Hands of Betye Saar.”

[4] Saar, Betye Saar.

[5] Saar.

[6] Dallow, “Family Legacies.”

[7] Saar, Girl Children.

[8] Dallow, “Family Legacies”; Zelazko, “Betye Saar.”

[9] Mair, “Objects of My Affection.”

[10]Please see the catalogue listed on WorldCAT.

[11] Dallow, “Family Legacies.”

[12] “Betye Saar | MoMA.”

[13] Neil, “Visionary Assemblage: A Builder’s Psychosis.”

[14] Blum, “Recovering the Rubble.”

[15] Jones,South of Pico.

[16] Jones, “Black West: Thoughts on Art in Los Angeles.”

[17] French, “Still Tickin’.”

[18] Radburn and Eltis, “Visualizing the Middle Passage.”

[19] Radburn and Eltis.

[20] “Dolben’s Act.”

[21] Radburn and Eltis, “Visualizing the Middle Passage.”

[22] Rediker,The Slave Ship.

[23] Rediker.

[24] Wood, “Imaging the Unspeakable and Speaking the Unimaginable,” 213.

[25] Wood, “Imaging the Unspeakable and Speaking the Unimaginable.”

[26] Finley, “Committed to Memory.”

[27] Carpenter, “Conjure Woman.”

[28] CUBITT, “Atrocity Materials and the Representation of Transatlantic Slavery”; Francis, “The Brooks Slave Ship Icon.”

[29] CUBITT, “Atrocity Materials and the Representation of Transatlantic Slavery,” 229.

[30] Francis, “The Brooks Slave Ship Icon.”

[31] Francis.

[32] Shepperson and Tomaselli, “Semiotics in an African Context.”

[33] Butler,Contingency, Hegemony, Universality.

[34] Francis, “The Brooks Slave Ship Icon.”

[35] Wilson, “Building Shelter in the Storm of Alienation and Exile.”

[36] Harris-Perry,Sister Citizen.

[37] “Sketchbook Pages for I’ll Bend But I Will Not Break.”

[38] Curtis, “Optical Allusions.”

[39] Greenberger, “Betye Saar, Hugh Hayden Conjure Mysteries with Everyday Objects in Standout ICA Miami Shows.”
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