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
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