Betye Saar: Keeping it Clean
Craft and Folk Art Museum
By Shana Nys Dambrot
Through August 20th
One of the most potent aspects of assemblage is that it deepens and amplifies the power of its message by not only depicting but actually embodying the history of its components. This is one of the reasons the form first attracted Betye Saar, the woman would go on to become its queen. A painting of an old washboard for example, may evoke ideas of labor, era, and related issues of action and society. It might be nostalgic for a myopically idealized shard of the old days. A work of art made with an actual, old-in-its-bones, careworn, yet still potentially functional washboard — using it as both the material and the site of the art — does all that and more. In its tactile, to-scale, intimate physical literalness it brings the whole body, not only the eyes, into the reception of its meaning. Each one is an object cradled and grabbed by so many sets of hands, it fairly reaches out for your own. These objects’ burnished, patinated, splintered petrification embody the passing of time and the endurance of its own form, in fact and in culture. Looking at the suite of mostly older (the original series dates from the 1990’s) as well as several newer (2014-17) assemblages executed on vintage washboards, it’s easy to see why, besides making art with them, Saar would also keep a personal, unadorned collection. Some dozen of these are also on view as part of Keeping it Clean, and offer a fascinating micro-exhibition in themselves.
The washboard is a perfect object for Saar’s creative enterprise, whose particular magic has been the fusion of aesthetic, narrative, politics, and innovation into singular objects who triumph at all facets of their tasks in art and in society. With the washboard one confronts an accessible, universally recognizable, historical-era specific kind of product — one that is a natural framing device both visually and conceptually. For Saar, the washboard is a site where issues and ideas about race, class, gender, labor, power, and history thoroughly intersect. And moreover, by presenting these ideas against this quaintly old-timey backdrop, Saar paradoxically calls attention to the fact that the legacy of racial oppression is still very much with us today. Looking at her work made of well-aged parts, we realize, the societal damages their iconography represents rightly belong in the past too. And yet, here we are in the era of the Black Lives Matter movement and everything that lead to its coalescence. In Saar’s own words, the new pieces are intended as reminders “that America has not yet cleaned up her act.”
If America likes, it can borrow some of the bars of old cracked soap, here and there added to the sculptures, another reminder that all of this is about the human body in the end. Most are embellished and integrated with a variable formula of pasted collages as though from advertising copy, vintage graphics and photographs, words and slogans from the hopeful to the hate-filled. The recurring motif of certain mottos (which also form some individual works’ titles) like “We was mostly ‘bout survival” and “Extreme times call for extreme heroines” tie the works together across the decades of the series, in a further reminder that this work is both historical and active in the present. Some have vintage photographic images, for example of male musicians, in a wry gesture referencing the heartbreaking fact that violence against young black men is a persistent plague, one which is currently manifesting in unjustified, unpunished police killings. Works like “Birth of the Blues” are inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement in a bittersweet recognition of history, progress, and apparent regress in our society.
The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972) is said to be Saar’s single most well-known work. In its depiction of the stereotypical mammy as a militant warrior with a gun, it was and remains both an alarming and very funny work of appropriation and protest. As with subsequent revisitations of this idea of the well-armed Black housekeeper, it stirs a conflicting range of emotions from empathetic frustration to satisfaction at the prospect of her justice, even though one eschews violence in theory. “Liberation (Washboard)” from 2014 as one of the newer pieces, demonstrates the enduring power of that lancing red, that ample bosom, the figure’s hold of a broom in one hand and an assault rifle in the other, her apron an American flag with far too few stars. It saddens, bemuses, and cognates. The interwoven connotations of gendered and moralized domesticity, cleanliness, dirtiness, politicization, and suspicious nostalgia, well, those are rooted in manufactured images too, linked to ostensibly harmless pop culture caricatures, like Aunt Jemima was. Each generation has their own, they come and go. Jemima abides.
The washboards also make use of a time-honored tactic of radical reclamation of derogatory language and symbols by their targets. We see this frequently in not only Black but LGBTQ music, arts, and culture but also in feminist movements like radical craft in which traditional kinds of “woman’s work” is repurposed as political action — and the genre of assemblage is perhaps the most ideally suited to this approach. An installation of fresh laundry in the gallery serves as a powerful reminder that some KKK white sheets were probably washed spotless by black slaves on these very boards. But they have a new life now, working for the resistance.