No, she will not be your servant
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.
“A CALL TO ARMS” (1997) is part of the Betye Saar exhibition in L.A.