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New-York Historical Society opens exhibition of works by Betye Saar
Betye Saar (b. 1926), Supreme Quality, 1998. Mixed media on vintage washboard, metal washtub, wood stand. Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, CA. Photo: Tim Lanterman, Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art.


NEW YORK, NY.- 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 November 2, 2018 – 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 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.






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