Betye Saar is an accomplished, respected artist known for challenging racial and gender stereotypes through the visual arts. Her work generally centers around assemblage pieces and she is well-known for her “washboard” art. Saar uses the washboard as a symbol of the role of black women in positions of servitude. They are meant to be reminiscent of the strength and fortitude of black women even as they’ve been stereotyped in American culture.
In a recent exhibit of Saar’s work at the Craft & Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles, twelve of her washboard pieces are on display. They picture the stereotypical “black mammy” (what we typically see as Aunt Jemima) posing happily with her brooms and signature head wrap…and armed.
“Historically, the mammy was the ultimate image of black female servitude in the American psyche,” writes UCLA historian Steven Nelson in the exhibition catalog. “She was kind and giving. She cooked and cleaned and did the laundry. She took care of the children. She was harmless.”
Saar’s mammy is a warrior.
The gun control lobbyists often paint the 2nd amendment as a threat to minorities. Saar’s art blasts that idea apart by reminding her audience that black Americans and the 2nd amendment have a long and vital history. From protection against the KKK to the protection of civil rights workers and marchers, the right to bear arms has been of the utmost importance in black history.
One piece (Call to Arms) from 1997 has mammy perched atop a clock, with rifle rounds for arms. Another has her holding a rifle and a grenade.
Saar has been making her washboard pieces since 1971. Her show will run at the Craft & Folk Art Museum until August 20th.