At the core of “Betye Saar: Heart of a Wanderer” at the Gardner Museum stands a revelatory work: “Globe Trotter,” 2007, a rickety bamboo table topped with a delicate birdcage; an old globe, yellowed and obsolete, is tucked below. Inside the cage, a doll knit of ragged swatches of cloth perches next to a flaking mirror. Whatever the voyage, it seems anything but a tourist sojourn; the piece clouds the sunny implications of its title with ambiguity and dread. It makes a powerful point: Travel by choice is privilege, and for much of human history, mass movements of humanity have rarely been free.
The exhibition, conceived by the Gardner’s curator of the collection Diana Seave Greenwald, covers underexplored ground for the artist. Saar, now 96, is likely best known for her 1972 piece “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima,” a harrowing reclamation of the “Mammy” figure concocted during slavery in the United States and reinforced in the Jim Crow South to project the notion of the “happy slave.” The piece grotesquely caricatures the popular pancake syrup-promoting character as a wild-eyed figurine in a diorama with a shotgun close at hand and an upright fist, a symbol of the Black Power Movement of the 1960s and ‘70s, in the foreground. Saar, a central figure in the Black Arts Movement alongside it, had made one of its most powerful declarations: The new culture would not stand alongside the old; it would tear it down, by whatever means necessary.
The Gardner deserves credit, 50 years later, for diverging from the artist’s core offering while keeping her message whole. “Heart of a Wanderer” has a softer edge than the explicitly political work that made Saar’s name — it’s predicated on the artist’s far-flung meanderings starting in the 1970s, sketching ideas and collecting objects that would feed into her work — but it has an edge all the same.
The exhibition’s clarifying device is the museum’s founder, Isabella Stewart Gardner, who, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, did no small amount of wandering herself. The museum often shoehorns her into the narrative of its exhibitions, a perpetual homage; this time, it’s something else entirely. A block of text on the wall comes right out and says it: “What is the significance when a white person with great privilege and status, at the height of colonialism, acquires, transports, and arranges objects by colonized people in a museum?” it reads, to my amazement. And then: “How about when an artist of color, who aims to critique racist and imperial structures, creates works that incorporate objects and symbols from colonized cultures on the other side of the world?”
Gardner is the soft target of the exhibition’s full-throated critique of Western wealth’s blithe fascination with “the exotic,” a blanket notion for anything not European, or white. In the antechamber to the main gallery, a pair of curiosity cabinets — a convention popular in the salons of wealthy Victorians to display the sparkly plunder brought home from the colonies — stand side by side, one by Gardner, and the other by Saar.
The gilded opulence of Gardner’s is off-the-rack fetishization of unrelated fancy bits, at least to my eyes. Saar’s, in weathered turquoise, evokes instead notions of scavenging and make-do. Tidily arranged on its wizened shelves are old bottles, a rusted alarm clock, a jacknife, a wooden fish. Its sense is one of aftermath — fragments salvaged from an irretrievably broken whole. She calls it “Objects, Obsessions, Obligations,” 2013.
Inside the exhibition proper, “Globe Trotter” sits at the axis of a display cut in quarters by perpendicular sections of wall. Each quadrant is its own discreet journey: “Americas” engages Saar’s formative, early sojourn to Haiti, as well as her experiences in Mexico and the US Southwest. In “Asia,” her collage piece “Occidental Tourist,” 1989, captures the arrogance of the conquering West with an antique photo of a tubby Brit, mustachioed, monocled, and sporting a paper parasol, the epitome of entitled cliche. In “Europe,” her “Midnight Madonnas,” 1996, appropriates the iconography of European Christendom — the Madonna and child are Black — alongside an antique photo portrait of a Black woman and her baby. In “Africa,” Saar’s looping cursive tracks the page of a steno pad with sombre verse: “From the earth of Africa,” she writes, “my feet became ships/endlessly sailing/my belly, deep in the belly of a slave ship/with the deep sea below/often became my grave.”
Her words are the most blunt expression of the exhibition’s pervasive theme, and they suffuse the display with a fitting unease. Saar’s wanderings are freighted with duality: the revelations that cultural difference can provide, and the spectral trauma of centuries of forced movement, oppressor to oppressed.
In “Americas,” an array of bright sketchbooks capture the charge of discovery in Haiti, where Vodou imagery and ritual infused her work with a vibrant dread; nearby, “Redbone + Black: Squaws,” 2001, a mixed-media collage, bundles up American trauma across the colonial spectrum. A faded antique photograph of two Native American women with a pair of infants on their laps is overlaid with wrinkled parchment; one of the two infants is Black.
Saar made it after one of many trips to the American Southwest; I loved it for its subtle, insistent power. The figures fade into the parchment, obscured like a memory meant to be erased. But a Zuni amulet anchors the photograph in place, while tiny bird figures encircle it like a protective shroud. “Redbone,” the exhibition notes, was a mostly pejorative term in the 19th and 20th centuries for people of mixed Black and Indigenous heritage; for me, the piece represents an erasure not quite complete, and a gesture of solidarity to endure.
Saar’s assemblage pieces, some of them not much larger than a jewel box, are dizzyingly intricate, and often a mash-up of cultures at far points: “Legends in Blue,” 2020, features a little Egyptian sarcophagus flanked by sparkly blue buddhas; “Kingdom of the Spirits,” 1991, a tiny wooden vitrine, is like a natural history specimen box that, instead of butterflies and beetles, pins under glass a cornucopia of global faiths. I noted Egyptian, Islamic, Christian, and Buddhist symbols among them. Both are visual delights: alluringly intricate, mysterious, complex. I like to see them as harmonious mashups of a cross-fertilized world — the long tail of colonialism, a final equilibrium struck from its violative traumas.
The trauma is far from over, of course, and Saar can be jarringly direct about that, too. A pair of pieces titled “Migration: Africa to America,” I and II, 2006, are installed in the wall that separates “Africa” from “Americas.” Each piece occupies a window cut in the wall so as to be seen from both sides. They’re forlorn, haunting things, both with a hand-carved idol, visible from “Africa,” and an antique photograph of a Black woman in 19th-century finery on the “Americas” side. “Migration II” has the only Aunt Jemima to be found anywhere here, a wood-carved effigy of the character that frames its hand-tinted photograph.
For all Saar’s wanderings, the “Migration” pieces hit home. Powerful and poignant, they leave you wondering what “home” even means for a culture and people torn from theirs and denied for centuries the chance to truly reroot, an ocean away. Saar reclaims agency with her own travels, but never forgets that she and countless others began their journeys cut adrift.
BETYE SAAR: HEART OF A WANDERER
Through May 21. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 25 Evans Way. 617-566-1401, www.isgm.org
Murray Whyte can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.