Arts & Leisure

Artists Betye Saar and Isabella Stewart Gardner Find Common Ground in New Exhibitions

Two of Betye Saar’s assemblages for the exhibition, made out of objects she collected throughout her travels. (Photo by Belle Fraser/BU News Service)

By Belle Fraser

Boston University News Service

While artist Betye Saar and art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner were separated by a century, the two women’s travel chronicles come together in the “Heart of the Wanderer” and “Fellow Wandererexhibitions, which opened at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on Feb. 16. 

“These exhibitions explore each woman’s unique way of traversing time and space in foreign countries, the impressions their trips left, the significance of their travels, and their shared interest in archiving,” says Persephone Allen, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum director of public programs.  

Betye Saar, an assemblage artist born in Los Angeles in 1926, collected objects from her journeys abroad and turned them into pieces that speak about race, feminism, religion and migration. As a leading figure in the 1970s Black Arts Movement, Saar’s work has always had a political edge to it. 

“The idea of accumulating objects in real life and creating a personal narrative that would better tell your own history was something that had a history as well as a place in African American culture,” said Makeda Best, a curator, writer and historian that worked on the project. 

During trips to Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas, Saar put together scrapbooks of what she saw through photos, drawings and paintings. These are featured in “Heart of the Wanderer,” as well as assemblages she built with the knick-knacks brought home from her travels. 

Gardner, nearly a century before, happened to go to many of the same places as Saar and kept a visual record of her findings. She had a similar passion for travel and was a big collector, as evident throughout the museum. Saar visited the museum in 1994 and resonated with Gardner’s style. 

“When you first walk into this place, you’re overwhelmed by all the things you see,” Saar said in 1994. “This lady liked to collect…fine art, plants, all sorts of things. I gravitated to things that seemed to relate to my assemblages.”

These connections were finally tangibly realized when Saar, who is now 96, agreed to exhibit her sketchbooks and sculptures alongside Garner’s travel albums. The parallels of their international trips were not one Saar initially recognized. 

“She did not know about the travel connections,” said Diane Seave Greenwald, an art historian and curator of the exhibition. “She had never really been asked about her own travels before all that much. So, she was really interested to learn that there were these connections and was excited about it.” 

While the curators were trying to relate the two women’s work, it was also important to recognize the fundamental differences in their experiences. Gardner was a wealthy white woman who leisurely jet-setted; Saar is a Black woman who traveled frequently for work. 

“Travel meant something different to each woman, but at the same time they’re still coming together around it,” Best said. “As a curator, I was really questioning how you would maintain the voices of each woman. How would they occupy space? How would you create an exhibition that would give each woman’s vision space and context?” 

The result is a colorful, detailed and personal look into the journeys of the two women and how these trips influenced the way they understand the world around them. These exhibits complement one another while standing strong in their own right. 

“She used, in her assemblage, a sort of kinship with Isabella Stewart Gardner –– this interest of gathering, and reassembling and remixing,” Greenwald said of Saar’s approach.

“Heart of a Wanderer” and “Fellow Wanderer” are both open until May 21 at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.