Arms elbow deep in white suds,
Soul washed clean,
Clothes washed clean,–
I have many songs to sing you
Could I but find the words
“A Song to a Negro Wash-Woman”
by Langston Hughes
Wall text of the first (above) and last stanza of this Langston Hughes poem, an elegiac ode to the over worked and unappreciated Negro wash-woman, coupled with ten of Betye Saar’s own vintage washboards, set the tone for this poignant, powerful, and political show entitled Keepin’ it Clean. At 90, the venerable Betye Saar still clearly has plenty of “fire power,” as demonstrated by this quietly explosive body of work—about half from the mid to late 1990’s (Saar began collecting washboards in the 1990’s) and the other, more recent pieces are from 2015-17.
Saar burst on the art scene in 1972 with her now iconic “Liberating Aunt Jemima” assemblages. By appropriating and subverting the wildly offensive racist and sexist stereotypical image of Aunt Jemima used in advertising, Saar created a new narrative of resistance. Her work here (twenty and forty years later) builds on that substantial body of work that is still relevant today as our hopes for a post-racial society appear to be faltering. Saar’s continued use of the seemingly endless supply of Aunt Jemima’s (often wood or ceramic vintage “bric–brac”) becomes a full frontal attack on bigotry, ignorance and apathy. The exhibition installation is similar to a symphony, with the constant image of Aunt Jemima as a leitmotif whose consistent repetition only amplifies the pain surrounding these images and deepens the meaning behind each piece.
The 2017 “Extreme Times Call For Extreme Heroines” (mixed media and wood figure on vintage washboard, clock) is one of the few in the round sculptures here: most are wall reliefs or tableaux in the corners of the room. One is struck dumb by the loopy, smiling, cartoonish Aunt Jemima’s who is starting to break out of the confines of the old wooden washboard which frames and tries to constrain/contain her. All the while she is nonchalantly cradling a semi-automatic rifle (almost invisible next to her apron). Affixed to the top of the wooden washboard is a thrift store analog clock, which is stopped (frozen in time), a reminder perhaps of the never-ending labor-intensive domestic job. The explicit title is printed on the wood frame. It is a metaphorical call to arms exacerbated by the unexpected juxtaposition of the toy gun and the grotesquely stereotypical Aunt Jemima. Time, Saar may be suggesting, is running out.
I’ll bend, But I will not Break
Beautifully crafted, bold yet subtle, the works are paradoxically charismatic and intimate, often luring the viewer ever closer to the painted/printed/stamped/collaged surface to examine details, only to deliver an unexpected one-two punch with the skillful blending of text and image. An example of the efficacy of this technique is the 1998 tableaus entitled “I’ll bend, But I will not Break,” a mixed media piece composed of a vintage, weather beaten wooden ironing board, a rusted late 19th century pressing iron (which is shackled to the ironing board), and a pristine monogrammed sheet hanging from a clothesline with four clothespins. If you see the piece before reading the title, you will be startled to see a gold monogram with the ignominious initials “KKK.” It takes you aback. Makes you recoil.
This loaded symbol of hatred is purposely and unobtrusively placed on the very edge of the sheet where you might not notice it. In the curatorial text, which accompanies this chilling work, Saar is quoted as saying “in order to wear a clean sheet to the Klu Klux Klan thing, a black woman had to wash it”…(and presumably iron it). Overlaid very delicately on the wood ironing board is a stenciled image of a slave ship from an aerial view with the bodies of the enslaved people crammed together and flattened like Egyptian art. This same haunting schematic appears in many of the pieces. It can be misconstrued at first merely as an abstraction, or pattern (a function of figure/ground ambivalence) before the viewer can fully discern the figures and their circumstances.
In “We Was Mostly ‘Bout Survival” (2017, mixed media), Saar uses another vintage ironing board, but this time the board is folded flat against the wall. In this position it resembles a bird’s eye view of the deck of a ship. The theme here is of the lamentable slave journey to America. The recurring nightmarish image of the bodies filling every square inch of the ship is once more stenciled onto the ironing board, bodies in rust and background in ochre. Saar’s color sense is restrained in the service of the image. The ubiquitous washing board with the tired, used-up bar of soap appear as well to reinforce the point. Saar’s intentional use of dialect known as African-American Vernacular English in the title speaks to other ways African-Americans are debased and humiliated. Saar distills these woeful images into a sublime visual poetry that resonates now more than ever.
The exhibition quietly builds to a crescendo with the haunting and ghostly tableaux entitled “A Loss of Innocence” (1998, mixed media with vintage dress, chair, framed photo).
This piece is different from the others in the exhibit as it suggests a family memento of a sacred event. Hanging from the ceiling and almost reaching the floor, a delicate white christening dress hovers like an otherworldly spirit over a small, whitewashed wooden child’s chair, upon which rests a vintage photo of an unsmiling black child in a similar outfit. Exquisitely lit in a way that creates two strong shadows, the piece seems larger than it really is. Its sense of nostalgia is interrupted when, upon closer inspection, one notes dastardly racial slurs (too nasty for me to use here) printed on pieces of fabric (literally labels) which are affixed along the bottom of the dress, once more taking the viewer on a difficult and dark journey. This delicate piece speaks volumes about the intersection of racism and religion (after all, for the KKK the burning cross was their calling card). Saar was a pioneer in the appropriation and use of inflammatory imagery and text in the early 1970’s and she has inspired the likes of Kara Walker, Lorna Simpson and Ellen Gallagher, whose art all mines similar territory. Betye Saar’s recent work is among the most nuanced and powerful in this exhibition, proving that even at the age of 90, she still has her moxie while clearly enjoying the zenith of her remarkable career.
Nancy Kay Turner is an artist, arts writer and educator who has written for ARTWEEK, ARTSCENE and Visions Magazine. She fled NewYork for the sun and fun of California and has never looked back.