Exhibition Explores The Enduring Legacy Of Slavery And The Representation Of African American Women
The New-York Historical Society presents Betye Saar: Keepin’ It Clean, a solo exhibition of work by the key figure of the Black Arts Movement and feminist art movement of the 1960-70s, on view now through May 27, 2019. The exhibition features 22 works created between 1997 and 2017, from the artist’s ongoing series of washboard assemblages utilizing the washboard as a symbol of the unresolved legacy of slavery and oppression that black Americans, particularly black women, continue to face.
Betye Saar: Keepin’ It Clean, which fuses the historical and collective memory of race and gender in the United States with personal autobiography, joins Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow (September 7, 2018 – March 3, 2019) as part of New-York Historical’s new initiative to address topics of freedom, equality, and civil rights in America. Presented in the Joyce B. Cowin Women’s History Gallery, part of the recently inaugurated Center for Women’s History, the exhibition is organized by the Craft &Folk Art Museum, Los Angeles and coordinated at New-York Historical by Wendy N. E. Ikemoto, Ph.D., associate curator of American Art.
“The washboards of Betye Saar’s Keepin’ It Clean series transcend the traditional boundaries of material culture and art to shed light on persistent gender stereotypes,” said Dr. Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of New-York Historical. “The exhibition furthers the efforts we at the New-York Historical Society have made over the past decade and a half to educate the public on the enduring legacy of slavery and African Americans’ struggle for full rights as citizens. Saar’s art accomplishes what we always try to achieve: to challenge conventional wisdom, provoke new thought and action, and ensure that visitors make important connections between the past and the present and are inspired to action.”
Saar first encountered assemblage with her grandmother in the Depression-era neighborhood of Watts in Los Angeles, where she witnessed Simon Rodia creating his iconic “Watts Towers” from found and recycled objects. Further influenced by the assemblages of Joseph Cornell, Saar began in the 1960s to collect and recycle everyday items featuring racist caricatures. Her breakout piece, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972), re-imagined the well-known “mammy” figure with visual references to the art and iconography of Black Power and the Black Panther Party. In this piece and many others, Saar depicts black women in revolt against enslavement, segregation, and servitude.
The washboard assemblages in Keepin’ It Clean often evoke mammies—racialized, derogatory symbols of black servitude—reimagined as strong and defiant workers who combat subjugation. Armed with brooms, bars of soap, guns, and grenades, they are tasked with removing the stains of racism and misogyny from American society. In works such as National Racism: We Was Mostly ‘Bout Survival (1997) and Gonna Lay Down My Burden (1998), bars of soap that are worn with age and use are branded with “Liberate Aunt Jemima” stickers.
In Saar’s more recent washboards, such as in Extreme Times Call for Extreme Heroines (2015), clocks suggest both the perpetuity of oppression and the urgent need for change. In other recent works, such as Birth of the Blues (2015) and Banjo Boy (2015), male figures allude to young black men killed by police violence.
To give a deeper context to the washboard assemblages, two related tableaux and a selection of washboards from Saar’s personal collection are also included in the exhibition. A Loss of Innocence (1998) features a white christening gown hovering above a child’s chair and a framed photograph of an African American girl. From a distance, the gown appears to be covered with decorative patterns, but up close, its stitching reveals racial slurs that besiege the child as she matures. In I’ll Bend, But I Will Not Break (1998), Saar superimposes a diagram of a slave ship onto an ironing board, merging the histories of slavery and black female domestic labor.
Historian and visual artist Nell Painter joins Valerie Paley, chief historian and director of the Center for Women’s History at New-York Historical, for a conversation about Painter’s practice and the intersection of art and history on Friday, February 22. Throughout the fall and winter, a slate of public programs related to Betye Saar: Keepin’ It Clean and Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow explores the history of race in America. On December 18, scholar Randall Kennedy discusses the desegregation of the United States armed forces, an important but oft-neglected chapter in American history. On January 15, experts examine how fugitive slaves shaped the American story—from the Revolution to the Civil War—while on February 13, historians uncover the history of how free African American activists fought for their status as citizens before the Civil War. On February 26, Professor Khalil Gibran Muhammad discusses how the legacy of Jim Crow continues to reverberate throughout American society today and illuminates how much work is still left to be done on the path towards racial equality and civil rights for all. As part of the Museum’s free Justice in Film series, Cabin in the Sky (1943) is shown on March 1. On March 9, New-York Historical welcomes U.S. Senator Doug Jones, who served as U.S. attorney in Alabama where he famously prosecuted members of the Ku Klux Klan for their roles in the 1963 Birmingham Church bombing.
On select weekends, families can experience the African American history explored in Betye Saar: Keepin’ It Clean by meeting Living Historians who portray Harriet Tubman and others who exemplified strength and perseverance throughout the past. On Sunday, March 10, the DiMenna Children’s History Museum hosts a Reading into History Family Book Club meeting to discuss Zora and Me by Victoria Bond and T.R. Simon, the 2011 John Steptoe New Talent Award-winning novel inspired by the young life of author Zora Neale Hurston. At the meeting, families take part in an inter-generational discussion about the book and an in-person Q&A with both authors and take a guided tour of the exhibition. The event concludes with a book signing.
Betye Saar: Keepin’ It Clean is organized by the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Los Angeles, CA. Exhibitions at New-York Historical are made possible by Dr. Agnes Hsu-Tang and Oscar Tang, the Saunders Trust for American History, the Seymour Neuman Endowed Fund, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature. WNET is the media sponsor.