A Secretary to the Spirits

In 1975, the author and activist Ishmael Reed (b. 1938) invited Saar to create a series of collages for his book of poetry A Secretary to the Spirits. In another form of “call and response,” each of Saar’s collages is inspired by and named after one of Reed’s poems. Saar employed a layered approach that echoes Reed’s poetry, which combines references to the ancient and the contemporary, the spiritual and the mundane.

In the title piece of the series, a robed Black man who resembles a saint from a medieval gospel book holds a slice of watermelon in his hand. Beneath him we find the repeating image of a character—based on an offensive caricature—who has appeared in some form on packaging for Cream of Wheat since the 1890s. “Slavery is illegal, yet African Americans are still shackled by derogatory images,” Saar has written. Colorful borders of red patterned fabric catch the light like gold leaf in an illuminated manuscript. In all of the collages, Saar, who trained as a designer, made deft use of found patterns, such as decorative endpapers and perforated borders in The Return of Julian the Apostate to Rome, and musical staves in Tea Dancer Turns Thirty-Nine and Memo to Stevie Wonder. She also created repetition with found and custom-made rubber stamps in the shapes of stars, palm trees, and a Black saxophone player taken from the design of the cigarette paper brand Blanco y Negro.

All collages are from the collection of the Morgan Library & Museum, gift of the Modern and Contemporary Collectors Committee, 2017