Be­tye Saar’s lat­est works about racism and sex­ism

Since the 1960s black power move­ment, Be­tye Saar has used sym­bols of op­pres­sion to show how racism and sex­ism are en­trenched in Amer­i­can cul­ture

The Guardian Weekly - - Contents - By Nadja Sayej

In 1972, a black cul­tural cen­tre in Berke­ley, Cal­i­for­nia, put out a call for artists to help cre­ate an ex­hibit themed around black he­roes. One African Amer­i­can artist, Be­tye Saar, an­swered. She cre­ated an art­work from a “mammy” doll and armed it with a ri­fle.

Ac­cord­ing to An­gela Davis, a Black Panther ac­tivist, the piece by Saar, ti­tled The Lib­er­a­tion of Aunt Jemima, sparked the black women’s move­ment. Now, the artist has a ret­ro­spec­tive in New York with Be­tye Saar: Keepin’ It Clean, which fea­tures 24 works made be­tween 1997 and 2017 from her con­tin­u­ing se­ries in­cor­po­rat­ing wash­boards.

“It’s about keep­ing ev­ery­thing clean, keep­ing pol­i­tics clean, keep­ing your life clean, your ac­tions clean,” said Wendy NE Ike­moto, the New York His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety’s as­so­ciate cu­ra­tor of Amer­i­can art. “She wants Amer­ica to clean up its act and a lot of her art has to do with this idea that we haven’t cleaned up our act.”

Saar, 92, was born in Los An­ge­les and turned to mak­ing po­lit­i­cal art af­ter the as­sas­si­na­tion of Mar­tin Luther King Jr. “Af­ter his as­sas­si­na­tion in 1968, her work be­came ex­plic­itly po­lit­i­cal,” said Ike­moto. “That’s when she started col­lect­ing these racist, Jim Crow fig­urines and in­cor­po­rated them in her as­sem­blages.”

Saar was part of the black arts move­ment, the cul­tural arm of the black power move­ment of the 1960s and 1970s; she was also a sec­ond wave fem­i­nist, which put her at a cross­roads. “The black arts move­ment was male-dom­i­nated and the fem­i­nist move­ment was white-dom­i­nated,” Ike­moto said. “Be­ing at the in­ter­sec­tion of both move­ments, she be­came one of the most prom­i­nent black fe­male artists for pre­sent­ing strong, recog­nised women who are fight­ing off the legacy of slav­ery. I think it did open doors for other artists to fol­low.”

This trav­el­ling ex­hi­bi­tion, from the Craft and Folk Art Mu­seum in Los An­ge­les, shows Saar’s con­sis­tent mes­sage through her wash­board se­ries. “Many of her works tackle broad is­sue of re­vi­sion­ing deroga­tory stereo­types to agents of change, his­tor­i­cal change and power,” said Ike­moto. “Many art­works fea­ture descen­dants of Aunt Jemima and mammy fig­ures armed to face racist his­to­ries of our na­tion.”

Among the pieces on show is Ex­treme Times Call for Ex­treme Hero­ines, a wash­board piece Saar made in 2017 that fea­tures a mammy doll hold­ing a ri­fle with a scope. The wash­boards, used as can­vases, are loaded with sym­bol­ism.

“The wash­board be­comes her frame for the art, it’s the star,” said Ike­moto. “It’s the struc­ture of black labour and she is mov­ing it from a space of in­vis­i­bil­ity to high­light it. She is also us­ing this hum­ble ob­ject of hard labour to sub­vert no­tions of fine art.”

Each wash­board is like a puz­zle to be de­coded, filled with small de­tails that ref­er­ence Amer­i­can his­tory. There are Black Panther fists, ref­er­ences to po­lice bru­tal­ity and phrases from Langston Hughes. There are also ref­er­ences to Mem­phis,

The wash­board be­comes her frame … It’s the struc­ture of black labour

the city where King was as­sas­si­nated, and to the Con­golese slaves who were killed un­der the Congo Free State. Some wash­boards in­clude phrases such as “na­tional racism”.

“It’s in­ter­est­ing how racism is so en­trenched in our na­tion, it has be­come a na­tional brand,” said Ike­moto. “She takes some­thing that is a sign of op­pres­sion and vi­o­lence, some­thing pe­jo­ra­tive and deroga­tory, and trans­forms it into some­thing rev­o­lu­tion­ary.”

Not all of the art­works are on wash­boards, how­ever. One piece from 1997, We Was Mostly ’Bout Sur­vival, is on an iron­ing board, em­bla­zoned with an im­age of a British slave ship.

“I think this ex­hi­bi­tion is es­sen­tial right now,” said Ike­moto. “I hope it en­cour­ages di­a­logue about his­tory and our na­tion to­day, the ra­cial re­la­tions and prob­lems we still need to con­front in the 21st cen­tury.”

All of Saar’s work is made with re­cy­cled ma­te­ri­als. “Assem­blage is about us­ing re­cy­cled ma­te­ri­als, found ob­jects from the past,” said Ike­moto. “Just by re­cy­cling as­sem­blages, her work is sug­gest­ing we haven’t got­ten over these his­to­ries. The slav­ery of Jim Crow still holds cur­rency to­day. The idea is that with each cy­cle of his­tory, the world gets a lit­tle bit cleaner.”

A de­tail from Lib­er­a­tion, 2011, paint­ing on wash­board, by Be­tye Saar ROBERT WEDEMEYER

▲Left, Ex­treme Times Call for Ex­treme Hero­ines, 2017; Dark Times, 2015 ROBERT WEDEMEYER

▲Be­tye Saar, Supreme Qual­ity, 1998

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