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Mojotech - Betye Saar.

Mojo: an amulet or charm whose "power" depends on both the user's strength of belief and his or her motive in making it. Mojos are found in a variety of folk sources and religions.

Technology: the application of science, especially to industrial or commercial objectives.

Mojotech: a transformation of debris from a technological world, empowered and given new meaning by the artist.

Looking carefully

Betye Saar's five-panel, twelve-and-a-half-foot-long installation on wood bursts forth like a sunrise. A highly symmetrical work, the far ends are dark like a deep blue night sky. A mossy green baseline grounds the piece on both sides. The center opens up with a blaze of orange that melds into white and silver at the apex of the work.

Mojotech is a work with visual energy. All the objects used in this piece have been given a new life. Transistors, resistors, condensers, clusters of wires, diodes, switch boxes, coils, wires and other assorted castoffs from the technological world have been integrated with objects from popular and religious culture--plastic skeletons and skulls, dolls, crucifixes and hearts. Saar has combined the old with the new, the occult with the technological, symbols of modern life with symbols of sprituality and death.

The resulting form suggests two metaphors simultaneously: a cityscape and an altar. Taking another look at the work, it appears that the debris of technology floats in the dark at the far ends of the work. In the center, these diverse elements become organized in highly structured edifices that resemble buildings and skyscrapers. While the far ends and three-quarters of the piece are grounded in a green base line, the buildings at the center have at their foot, and perhaps as their foundation, a collection of spiritual mementos.

Saar tells us that her use of blue and green is a specific reference to nature. It follows that the use of orange, gold, silver and white may suggest life, energy, insight, spirituality. The highly symmetrical order of the piece suggests that even in a technological world, a sense of order, beauty and mystery can be created. Perhaps Saar is reminding us that a technological world without a sense of respect for beauty and mystery is one which ultimately denies us our sense of humanity.


Betye Saar's childhood was not unlike that of many children today. She lost her father at the age of six; her mother worked and, thus, she had to learn to amuse herself. Betye developed her imagination by making up songs and stories and collecting found objects out of which she could make things. She also was witness to the creation of the Watts Towers. Built by Simon Rodia, these towers were assembled out of wire and cement and decorated with broken pieces of glass and pottery. Rodia was a model of resourcefulness and imagination.

Such work has its roots in many folk cultures. As a black artist, Saar works in the African tradition of creating sculpture by integrating diverse decorative elements with powerful symbols. Africans used materials from their environment--shells, beads, feathers, wood--to create forms which expressed ideas about their spiritual beliefs and were designed for use in ritual celebrations. Saar extends this tradition by making her art out of contemporary debris--the discarded shreds of a technological world and its popular culture.

We can find strong parallels between Rodia's work and Saar's. Both use materials that have been found in the every day environment. Both artists have labored under certain financial restrictions which have made them very resourceful in finding their "art materials." Both, as well, have collected these materials carefully. They have both sought materials of a certain nature and organized them according to aesthetic criteria; that is, they have used families of shapes, colors and textures to create new forms.

In the end, both have sought to build "new cities." Rodia's towers spiral upwards, rising above an ordinary and even impoverished cityscape. They remind us of the great ingenuity, will and creativity of the individual; they are a testament to the human spirit and the manner in which the human imagination can soar to unexpected heights. By contrast, Saar's Mojotech suggests that our rapidly advancing technology does not exist apart from our human need for a spiritual grounding

Key concepts

* By altering, manipulating, merging and integrating diverse materials and symbols, artists can create new forms and give materials new meaning.

* African culture, has a history of transforming materials from the environment into symbols and objects.

* Artists often create metaphors by implying that one thing is like another.

* Some artists are very resourceful in finding materials which they can use to make their images; often a kind of "intuition" helps them find things they can use later in an imaginative way.

* Works of art that are room-size are called installations; their large scale helps to make an impressive statement.

Betye Saar

Betye Saar is a Los Angeles artist, born in 1926. She grew up in Pasadena, where her childhood was consumed with "making things" to amuse herself while her mother worked. She remembers having a "super-super-powerful imagination." She invented stories and songs, enjoyed collecting bits of glass and all kinds of things. She always had the sense that someone else's trash might be her treasure.

Saar pursued her college education in art, training as a costume designer at the University of California in Los Angeles. She married and raised a family of throe daughters. She resumed her artwork, working in printmaking and then making assemblages in boxes with family mementos. She discovered the boxes of Joseph Cornell and this stimulated her to pursue such work further.

Her early work dealt with the social and political concerns of blacks in the 1960s. Since then, she has been awarded two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and has exhibited widely. Her more recent work has involved an exploration of her own heritage and beliefs. Currently, she is working on a collaboration with her daughter, Alison, who is also an artist. Entitled "Secrets, Dialogues, Revelations: The Art of Betye and Alison Saar," this travelling exhibition can be seen as follows:

Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, Illinois: July 14-Sept. 16, 1990

Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, Massachusetts: Jan. 6-Mar. 3, 1991

Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, Ohio: Mar. 22-May 25, 1991

The Oakland Museum, Oakland, California: June 29-Aug. 25, 1991

Saar has completed three public art commissions: On Our Way can be seen in the Metrorail Station in Miami, Florida; Fast Trax can be seen in the Newark train station, Newark, New Jersey; and L.A. Energy can be seen on 5th Street in downtown Los Angeles.

Suggested activities

The following activities can be adapted for any grade level.

* Suggest that your students make an inventory of how much time they spend watching television and playing video games. Initiate a brainstorming session to identity things they might do should they find the television suddenly out of order. Sort through these ideas with your students, helping them identify those which might develop their imagination. Encourage students to substitute imaginative activities for television watching. Make a place in your room to display stories, songs, images, constructions, etc. which students do at home on their own.

* Ask your students to inventory the number of technological objects they encounter in the course of a normal day. Make a chart on which they can identify the function of the object and how it extends our human abilities; the level of the technology involved--simple to complex; and the degree to which they understand how it works. Ask them to consider what technological advances they anticipate in their future. They might consider addressing a new need or combine several existing objects into a new hybrid. Have them develop a visual image or model of such a development, noting its function and importance to human beings.

* Ask your students to clean out their rooms, looking for brokent toys and whatever "technological debris" they might have from broken transistor radios, clocks, household appliances, etc. Have them bring a bag of these "discards" to school. As a class, begin to sort through them looking for families of colors, patterns and textures. Discuss the possibilities for giving these objects new meaning by: incorporating one or more broken parts of toys or objects into a drawing or assemblage that changes the meaning of the object by changing its context, i.e., part of a broken toy now becomes the body of a robot; integrating diverse kinds of objects and images together in a box that would create a sense of beauty and mystery; making a class installation on a bulletin board, organizing these objects into a new image--a city of the future, space stations, robots, people, animals, etc. Have students work in pairs to develop various parts of the total image.


Munro, Eleanor, Originals: American Women Artists. New York: Simon and Schuster/Touchstone Books, 1979.

Karen L. Carroll is Chair, Department of Art Education, Maryland Institute, College of Art, Baltimore. Maryland.

Note: "Art as a Verb," a videotape which includes shots of Mojotech and comments by several block artists, including Saar, is available for $30 from the Maryland Institute, College of Art, office at Graduate Studies, Baltimore, Maryland
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Looking/Learning
Author:Carroll, Karen L.
Publication:School Arts
Date:May 1, 1990
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