Betye Saar: ‘We constantly have to be reminded that racism is everywhere’

In 1972 Betye Saar made her name with a piece called “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima.”

She reconfigured a ceramic mammy figurine– a stereotypical image of the kindly and unthreatening domestic seen in films like “Gone With The Wind.” (Think Aunt Jemima, with her head scarf and apron.)

But Saar’s mammy held a pistol in one hand and a shotgun in the other.

The Liberation of Aunt Jemima/Courtesy Roberts Tilton

Saar’s work is now in the permanent collections of high profile museums like The Whitney, The Met, and LACMA. She has a new exhibition at the Craft and Folk Art Museum in her home city of Los Angeles. The show is called Keepin’ It Clean.

Much of the work on display is created with antique wooden washboards that Saar has been collecting for years.

“I’ve always been attracted to the washboard,” she said. “My grandmother was from Lake Charles, Louisiana, but she moved to Los Angeles in the early 1900’s. She lived in Watts and her back porch always had a washboard on it.”

Saar was born in Watts and raised in Pasadena. She’s light skinned – a mix of Black, Irish, and Native American heritage. She said race wasn’t a big part of her identity when she was young, but as she grew older and the Civil Rights movement started, she began to recognize that race played a role in her life. That revelation became the backbone of her work.

A Loss of Innocence, Courtesy Roberts Tilton

The show features a piece that focuses on how children encounter racism. Saar took an antique lace dress that would be worn for a christening and embroidered it with derogatory names like pickaninny, nigger baby and tar baby. The dress hangs from the ceiling over a small framed image of a black child.

Saar said she designed the installation to symbolize the loss of innocence that children experience when they are exposed to racist slurs.

Saar Portrait, courtesy CAFAM

“No matter how much food you have or how much beauty surrounds you, there is still the ugliness of racism,” she said.

Saar said she was young when she was first called “nigger.”

“I remember talking to my mother and asking her ‘Why why did they say black nigger?’ And this was my mother’s way of describing racism: ‘Children are like flowers in the garden, they’re all different colors. And you’re just one color and sometimes people don’t like that color. But that’s not who you are.'”

Now, at 91, Saar has been reflecting on her life’s work.

“You know, when you get that age, you kind think, well, what was I here for? What have I contributed?” She said. “And I think that art is my vehicle to express the emotions that I feel about racism.”

“I never looked that much into the future about what’s going to
happen, except that I know that this is my last decade. I don’t really envision moving into the 100s. I don’t particularly want that. Because I want to be able-minded. I want to, you know, have a good mind and still make things and enjoy my family and everything. So I just live for the moment, and I plan next week, but not too much further.

Saar continues to make new work.

“I’ve just got so much stuff and so many ideas, I don’t know how I can get it all done,” she said. “That’s what makes me happy. Finding an object and putting it together with two or three other objects and saying, ‘This is going to tell a story.’”

Press Play met up with Saar at the exhibition and asked her more about her work and her life as an artist. Excerpts from the conversation with Saar are below.

“I can tell you exactly what influenced me from Los Angeles: the Watts Towers. My grandmother lived on 113th. Once a week, my sister and I would walk with her up to the main street in Watts and to do the shopping and we would pass Simon Rodia building the Watts Towers. And I said, ‘What is that funny thing?’ It was like a childhood fantasy. ‘What is this magical thing that he’s building?’ And as I became a person who could drive and go places, I would go and see the Watts Towers. I was fascinated because he was recycling. And that’s what I do – I recycle.”

Watts Towers

“It took me to be an adult to figure out, ‘Oh, that’s where my influence comes from.’ I think when you look at some of the things that he’s done, you see tools impressed in the cement and a corn cob and things like that – like he would put anything in it, like pliers or screwdrivers. So I just like that idea of taking something other, changing the function of it, and making it into art. So that’s that’s my strongest connection to Los Angeles.

“After the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, I felt such rage. On television, you could just turn to any station and see people marching– and the Police Department the Fire Department turned fire hoses and dogs loose on them. It was really kind of vicious and brutal. So the anger just built and built and built. I had three kids, so I couldn’t march and I couldn’t go down there. But I could make art. I could make art.”

Extreme Times Call for Extreme Measures, Courtesy Roberts Tilton
Supreme Quality, Courtesy Roberts Tilton

“I created ‘The Liberation of Aunt Jemima’ from a plaque that I found at a flea market. It’s something that was used in the kitchen at the time. It’s like, slavery was abolished, but they still made black images in the role of being servants. In the kitchen was Aunt Jemima. Her apron was a pad to write your shopping list on and her hand was a pencil. There was a whole line of figurines like this– Uncle Tom salt and pepper shakers and sugar holders. Supposedly the person who invented the Aunt Jemima syrup was African-American, but the person who did the publicity for it was a woman in blackface.

“I started out collecting postcards of derogatory images of black people and I said, ‘No wonder black people are so tired, because the only image they see of themselves are these derogatory images.’ So that was why I made Aunt Jemima a warrior; not only to fight racism, but to change the image. Aunt Jemima came to my rescue. So I gave her a gun. That’s how I got even.”

I’ll Bend But I Will Not Break, Courtesy Roberts Tilton

“I collect things. And in this case the washboard is an ordinary tool of labor, which is woman’s work, you know, keeping things clean. I realized in making these washboards that for the Ku Klux Klan to wear clean sheets, they would have been washed by a black woman on a washboard.

“We constantly have to be reminded that racism is everywhere.”