Exhibition Review

Fueling the Flame Through Remembrance: Betye Saar and Jim Crow

Alexandria Deters | March 20, 2019

Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow, 2018 - 2019, New-York Historical Society, New York. Photo by Glenn Castellano, Image courtesy of New-York Historical Society.

The New-York Historical Society’s exhibitions Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow (September 7, 2018 - March 3, 2019) and Betye Saar: Keepin’ It Clean (on view through May 27, 2019) were in active conversation with each other when viewed together. When I went to see these exhibitions on a cold Friday evening in January, I expected to see works from Saar’s washboard series and to learn more about a dark period in US history. What I left with instead was an even deeper appreciation for Saar and for the many brave women and men that came before her to make her work possible.

Black Citizenship begins at the end of Civil War and continues through to right after World War I, and focuses on African Americans struggle, strength, and resilience in adversity in fighting to attain equal rights and full citizenship. I had learned about these struggles in my history classes growing up, the horrors of Jim Crow which lead to the Civil Rights Movement. My classes though never looked at the details however, to learn about the communities and individual men AND women that helped to create change. Such as the Ida B. Wells, who the exposed mass lynching’s and through that exposure ignited the fight to end them, and the thriving African American community in Harlem. It was by focusing on these individual people, the local places of New York, paired with objects from the time that provided the fuller understanding of the truly constant struggle that African Americans faced in the years after the Civil War.

After this reeducation about the dark history of Jim Crow and its continuous legacy as an adult, I left with a deeper more sober understanding of the narratives that were created then and are still seen now.

This understanding made walking into Betye Saar: Keepin’ It Clean, the solo exhibition of the famous WOC(*Women of Color) artist Betye Saar, and seeing her washboard works (created between 1997 and 2017) hit me with full impact. The washboards she uses in her assemblage pieces are authentic, have wear and the look of use. You can imagine while looking at them the grueling endless hours a woman had spent over them cleaning their clothes and most likely her employers.

Betye Saar: Keepin' It Clean, 2018 - 2019, New-York Historical Society, New York. Photo by Glenn Castellano, Image courtesy of New-York Historical Society.

Taking the time to look at each one of Saar’s washboards, you confronted with imagery and items that was original used to subject POC (*People/Persons of Color) but she has remade them to become shields of defiance, a call to arms. The derogatory imagery she uses is pulled straight from history, such as the ‘mammy’ which is seen not only repeatedly in her works but I see able to see this characterization explained in context in Black Citizenship. Her juxtaposition of symbols of servitude the ‘docile friendly mammy’ with guns of protest, forces the viewer to confront what these objects mean and still do.

By doing this Saar recreates the washboards from objects representing labor and modern-day enslavement to shields of defiance, a call to arms.

As we have learned recently in the news the calls to arms is real and necessary. Every day the headlines are see that expose newly (publicly) discovered racism in the people we elected and respect, such as partaking in ‘blackface’, shows how little we have moved on as country. In fact this behavior it is still defended and the legacy of the ‘Jim Crow’ has evolved into the “New Jim Crow”. It is this that makes Saar’s work not just contemporary but of the moment, history happening now. With messages like on her washboards like “EXTREME TIMES CALL FOR EXTREME HEROINES”, one cannot help that the spirit of Ida B. Wells lives and grows strength in women like Saar and the Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who has thrown the Congress in a tailspin with confrontation of facts and refusal to back down on her beliefs.

Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow, 2018 - 2019, New-York Historical Society, New York. Photo by Glenn Castellano, Image courtesy of New-York Historical Society.

That is why Betye Saar: Keepin’ It Clean hits modern viewer so hard, because it hits home. We still live in a society where institutional/societal racism is the norm and the blatantly derogatory stereotypes/tropes that were used in the 1800s have not left in the past where they should. Saar’s work does not speak but screams louder than ever and forces you to confront and change.

Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, The New Press; 1 edition (January 5, 2010)
Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow Classroom Materials, New-York Historical Society: https://www.nyhistory.org/sites/default/files/newfiles/Black%20Citizenship%20in%20the%20Age%20of%20Jim%20Crow%20Curriculum.pdf
Betye Saar: Keepin' It Clean, Exhibition catalog, Craft & Folk Art Museum, Independent Publisher, 2018

Alexandria Deters is an artist, writer, and researcher in the Bronx. She received a BA in Art History and a BA in Women and Gender Studies at San Francisco State University in 2015 and in 2016 received her MA in American Fine and Decorative Art at Sotheby’s Institute of Art, New York. She has written for Gallery Gurls, EL CHAMP, and POZ.com and currently works at Peter Blum Gallery, New York.

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