The following is adapted from a conversation between artist Betye Saar (b. 1926) and Wendy Ikemoto, PhD, Associate Curator of American Art at the New-York Historical Society, at the The Excelsior Hotel in New York City on April 23, 2018. This piece also appears in the catalog for Betye Saar: Keepin’ It Clean, on view in the Joyce B. Cowin Women’s History Gallery at New-York Historical Society through May 27, 2019.
When Martin Luther King was assassinated, I reacted by creating a woman who’s my warrior: Aunt Jemima. Aunt Jemima is a derogatory image of black women … So I created a piece called The Liberation of Aunt Jemima. I gave her a rifle. It wasn’t that I was advocating violence through weapons, but I thought if you saw a weapon—if you saw a gun—you would know that she meant business. I used the image of the gun to imply that kind of violence, but her true violence was her spirit—that she wanted to overcome, that she wanted to move on from where her position was. [The Liberation of Aunt Jemima is currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum in Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power through February 3, 2019.]
From that, I worked with a lot of objects that dealt with the home and the kitchen in particular because they were about women’s work—black women’s work. Even though slavery was abolished, black people still had to be in the kitchen. There were a series of objects fabricated about black servants—salt and peppers, sugar bowls, creamers. And these objects—a man, Uncle Tom, the woman, Aunt Jemima—I used to signify the burden or the slavery of still being a domestic and still being black. Other objects I’ve used that are household things are chairs and tables, clocks, scales. And my current series is washboards.
I really like the washboard because I like the way it looks, and because it is an object about cleaning up your act. That’s why this exhibition is called Keepin’ It Clean. It means more than just keeping your clothes clean—but keeping your morals clean, keeping your life clean, keeping politics clean.
Part of the installation will be my collection of vintage washboards. When I traveled through the United States, I found many washboards that were handmade. They’re very interesting. When people could not afford to buy a washboard, they took a plank of wood and made grooves in it, or put wire across it. And then washboards became very fancy with glass and all sorts of things, and different sizes. A small, portable washboard, maybe 10 by 15 inches, was carried when you traveled to wash your lingerie—a little glass one, very delicate.
Each of these objects has its own story. Finding something old that has its memory has always been important to me. I’ve had men come to me and say “I’m from really humble beginnings, but I always remember the washboard my grandmother had, my great aunt had, or my family had because we didn’t have a washing machine.” People (it doesn’t matter what their race is) say “I remember that!” and they take a mental trip back to the person who had it. . . . People will say “we still have that hanging on our back porch.” So there’s an immediate emotional reaction to seeing that object.
Another part of the exhibition will be the washboards that I have given another life as art objects. These washboards all had titles—some the title of the company that fabricated it. Supreme Washboard was one of them. I tried to adapt these titles to a theme or a title of my work—like instead of Supreme Washboard, I would just erase the Washboard part, and it became Supreme Heroine, referring to Aunt Jemima. So there was always a clue on the washboard of a title that I could use.
Most of the washboard pieces have the female character because the washerwoman was a woman. I’m sure some men had to do it. For example, when the Chinese came to the West Coast of the United States, a lot of them did laundry. Washing machines hadn’t yet been made—probably a washboard was involved. But mainly it was the washerwoman. It’s women’s labor. I guess all women’s labor during the past was about cleanliness, was about nurturing, was about feeding—cooking the food, keeping the plates clean, sewing, making the clothes, mending.
Lately, there have been a lot of assassinations of black males. From that came the Black Lives Matter movement. And so I have a couple of washboards that are about the black male. One is called Banjo Boy. It has a young boy playing the banjo, and it refers back to the young boy who was walking innocently through a parkway and was shot by an out-of-uniform guardsman. That guardsman was acquitted. That’s when I think the anger grew—not only in the black community but in any community that is interested in promoting justice and ending the assassinations of black males. There’s Banjo Boy and then there’s the other one called Birth of the Blues.
About the musical use of the washboard, it’s true—the washboard is a musical instrument. It’s strummed, and it’s very portable. It’s like bones—how bones were used—to make the clatter sound. Birth of the Blues covers that, in a way.
There are also three small tableaux in the exhibition. Two will be in corners. One will be I’ll Bend, But I Will Not Break, which is an ironing board—a vintage ironing board—that has the pattern of a slave ship on it, and a photograph transfer of a black woman ironing. There’s an old-fashioned flat iron chained to the ironing board. In the corner there’s a rope, like a clothes line, with a sheet hanging on it. And the initials on the sheet are KKK. I thought: this is really weird. In order for a klansman to go out, he had to have a clean sheet, and a black woman—an Aunt Jemima type—had to wash that sheet. It was about keeping something clean to do a dirty deed. It’s just an ironing board and a wash line, but the political implications are strong.
Another tableau is a child’s dress—a christening dress. It’s over a child’s chair with a photograph of the child. That one is also in a corner because when the lighting is right, it makes a shadow and has this ghostly image. It moves around. It’s beautiful to look at. But it has a sad message too because on the garment are all the derogatory names that children are called—which is when prejudice and racism start, in childhood—like tar baby, nigger baby, darkie. It’s like the ghost of racism still haunts us.
The other tableau is a washboard in a tub on a little table, and then behind it are the other washboards.
The walls will be the color of water. Water has different colors depending on how much light comes in and whether it’s at the beach or a lake or a river. So the wall that has the exhibit of vintage washboards may be a darker blue, and the others graded. As it turns the corner, it turns to another shade of blue.
The color of the walls is important. The lighting is important. I want the art to say “come over here and look at me, see what I’ve got to say.” I don’t want to dictate how people should feel when they see my installation, but I want them to experience something that makes them think about the work. At the Craft & Folk Art Museum [where “Keepin’ It Clean” originated], I had people come to me, and they’d always put their hand over their heart, and mentally I’d say “aha! I’m doing my job—they experience something.” I want it to be just really subtle, really natural—a natural kind of enjoyment or pleasure about something. And I want viewers to get a hint about the political aspect of the work, and about the historical aspect of it, and about the period after slavery or even during slavery when women’s work had the responsibility of keepin’ it clean.
– Betye Saar, as told to Wendy Ikemoto, New-York Historical Society
Top Photo Credits: Betye Saar: Keepin’ It Clean at New-York Historical Society. Photo: Nick Juravich.