No, she will not be your ser­vant

Los Angeles Times - - ARTS & BOOKS - By Carolina A. Mi­randa carolina.mi­randa@la­times .com

They stand as most un­usual sen­tinels around the perime­ter of the gallery. A black mammy fig­ure in a red dress holds a broom and a ri­fle. An­other in a dot­ted apron clutches a high-pow­ered ri­fle. Yet an­other, decked out in blue dress and white apron, bran­dishes a large pis­tol in each hand, along with a look of to­tal ex­as­per­a­tion.

In Amer­i­can pop­u­lar cul­ture the mammy fig­ure was a de­pic­tion of ser­vil­ity. But in the hands of Los An­ge­les artist Be­tye Saar, she be­comes a war­rior, bran­dish­ing weapons, con­tend­ing with in­jus­tice, fac­ing the dark­est chap­ters of Amer­i­can his­tory.

A small, taut show at the Craft & Folk Art Mu­seum through Aug. 20 gath­ers roughly two dozen works made over the last cou­ple of decades. “Be­tye Saar: Keepin’ It Clean” fo­cuses on works that em­ploy vin­tage wash­boards in ex­plor­ing as­pects of black fe­male iden­tity in U.S. his­tory. (Wash­boards are a nod to one of the few pro­fes­sional op­por­tu­ni­ties avail­able to black women at the turn of the 20th cen­tury: the gru­el­ing work of laun­dry.)

“His­tor­i­cally, the mammy was the ul­ti­mate im­age of black fe­male servi­tude in the Amer­i­can psy­che,” writes UCLA his­to­rian Steven Nel­son in the ex­hi­bi­tion cat­a­log. “She was kind and giv­ing. She cooked and cleaned and did the laun­dry. She took care of the chil­dren. She was harm­less.” Saar makes her fierce. In one as­sem­blage, “A Call to Arms,” from 1997, the artist takes a mammy crumb brush and gives her ri­fle bul­lets for arms.

Saar, who turns 91 at the end of the month, made the first such as­sem­blage in 1972. “The Lib­er­a­tion of Aunt Jemima” (now in the col­lec­tion of the Berke­ley Art Mu­seum) fea­tures a mammy fig­urine clutch­ing a ri­fle and a grenade. A black power fist rises be­fore her. It re­mains a key work of Amer­i­can art and of the Black Arts Move­ment of the 1970s.

In ad­di­tion to the wash­board pieces, the show con­tains some of the works in­cluded in the artist’s ret­ro­spec­tive at the Scotts­dale Mu­seum of Art in Ari­zona last year.

How­ever, the col­lec­tive army of mil­i­tant mam­mies is per­haps most strik­ing — toxic kitsch trans­formed by the hands of an artist into tren­chant to­kens of power.

Carolina A. Mi­randa L.A. Times

“A CALL TO ARMS” (1997) is part of the Be­tye Saar ex­hi­bi­tion in L.A.

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