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low seated chair made of partly painted branches with curving arms and extended branches at each corner and attached glass, bones, plastic, metal and dried creeper vine
Betye Saar
b. 1926
Purchased with funds realized from the sale of a work donated by Mr. and Mrs. Alexander Rittmaster (Sylvian Goodkind, class of 1937) in 1958 and with funds realized from the sale of a work donated by Adeline Flint Wing, class of 1898, and Caroline Roberta Wing, class of 1896, in 1961

Who is Sitting in "Ancestral Spirit Chair"?

 Brooklyn Quallen ’25 is a STRIDE scholar currently working with Emma Chubb, Charlotte Feng Ford ’83 Curator of Contemporary Art. 

I cast a long shadow, 
Backwards, my spirits wander,
from Willow Glen Gardens to zigzag
       to Louisiana to Iowa to Missouri
       to Virginia's Shores. 
Blue illusions beckon and my spirits sail,
       Some to Irish seas
       and some crawl deep into the belly of
a slave ship.
In search of the unknown,
       my spirits pass through the Spirit Door,
       Seek the dark corner of the Ancestral Chair,
       Breathe on the embers of Africa and
       Recall the memory of fire. 
Betye Saar, "Diaspora" (1992)


Betye Saar's Ancestral Spirit Chair is by no means an unassuming piece of furniture. It dominates its space with its branching back covered in glass bottles. It draws the eye with dots of paint on its surface. It is also adorned with bones, dried creeper vines, and bits of metal. It plays with temporality; the branches represent what the chair was before—a tree—but also signal its present artistic role as the ancestral seat of the Spirit. 

Saar was inspired by the Kongo tradition of bottle trees for this piece. Bottle trees are trees that have been garlanded with bottles and other kinds of vessels that protect a household through invoking the dead. Those items tie a good spirit to the tree. They also block or ward off evil. Enslaved Africans who were forcibly removed from their homes brought this tradition with them to the Western hemisphere, where they adapted the practice. Robert Farris Thompson argues that bottle trees were present in the Caribbean as early as the 1790s. As the slave trade expanded, this tradition took root in the American South, where it is still seen today. 

black and white photograph of a house with trees in the yard in front of it, some real trees and some trees constructed out of pieces of metal and branches
Eudora Welty, an author, took a photo of this house with bottle trees in Simpson County, Mississippi during the time she worked for the WPA in the 1930s and ’40s. It appears in her book of photographs, One Time, One Place: Mississippi in the Depression (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996, p. 45). It is considered one of the earliest depiction of a bottle tree in the United States. Image © Eudora Welty Collection, Mississippi Department of Archives and History. 

With Ancestral Spirit Chair, Saar adapts the bottle tree. She uses elements of nature—the tree branches—but bases them in a functional object—the chair. When I first saw the sculpture, I assumed that the viewer would engage with it by sitting in it. And I'm not alone in that—a coworker of mine told me that they actually saw someone try to sit down! That was not the artist's intention, though. But at the end of the day, it is still, technically, a piece of furniture, a chair to be sat in. That begs the question, then: who, if anyone, should sit in Ancestral Spirit Chair?

In an SCMA Art Break, Saar said that her intention was that, in interacting with this piece, the viewer would be going back in time to the early days of the slave trade. Saar likened it to regressing back to Africa, seeking her roots and her history. The chair, then, would have held an ancestor or a ruler. There is almost a sense of anticipation created by this piece, like someone will sit if you wait. Perhaps that is more to do with the feeling that the chair is for someone, someone who is lost to history—or obfuscated from its written records. Someone should be sitting there. Now, though, the chair is for a ghost, a memory. Saar is evoking a presence, but also an absence. 

two photographs showing close-ups of a sculptural chair, with glass bottles dangling from tree branches adorned with scraps of metal
Betye Saar (b. 1926). Detail of Ancestral Spirit Chair, 1992. Painted wood branches, glass, bones, plastic, metal, and dried creeper vine. Purchased with funds realized from the sale of a work donated by Mr. and Mrs. Alexander Rittmaster (Sylvian Goodkind, class of 1937) in 1958 and with funds realized from the sale of a work donated by Adeline Flint Wing, class of 1898, and Caroline Roberta Wing, class of 1896, in 1961. SC 1992.42. 

This piece was originally displayed in the exhibition, Diaspora (1992), alongside Saar's shadow painted on a piece of silk and hung such that the viewer would have to walk around the shadow in order to enter the space where Ancestral Spirit Chair was placed. On the floor, visitors saw a diagram of a slave ship and the poem that she wrote specifically for this piece, excerpted above, which addresses migration and memory. An important theme in Saar's oeuvre is healing from the wounds of slavery and racism by lancing them, which she sees as a way to force an open examination of all of their horrors. Chattel slavery stole people from their homes, rulers from their kingdoms, and ancestors from their thrones. One reason that bottle trees exist in the southern U.S. is because of the generations of enslaved people who kept and transformed this tradition. This sculpture asks us to think about how we interact with history. It asks us to acknowledge how the wounds of history still ache for Black people today. It asks us to consider why, exactly, Ancestral Spirit Chair is empty. 

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