“I am intrigued with combining the remnant of memories, fragments of relics and ordinary objects, with the components of technology,” the artist Betye Sarr once said of her work, which she creates by transforming found objects into poignant critiques on race and gender. “It’s a way of delving into the past and reaching into the future simultaneously.”
Saar’s assemblage art is the focus of a new solo exhibition, “Betye Saar: Keepin’ It Clean,” opening today at the New-York Historical Society. The 22 works featured in the show, all created between 1997 and 2017, come from the artist’s washboard series and include pieces such as “Extreme Times Call for Extreme Heroines,” which includes a wooden figure of a smiling black woman holding a broom and an assault rifle under an analog clock.
The image calls to mind Saar’s most famous work, “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima” — a piece made in 1972 that similarly depicts the derogatory figure of the “mammy,” pulled and collaged directly from the ubiquitous pancake mix packaging. Like “Extreme Times Call for Extreme Heroines,” “The Liberation” layers racist iconography, images of domesticity and weapons onto household objects to address how these parts, when taken together, speak to the political environment in which they exist.
“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 Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of the New-York Historical Society, in a statement. “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.”
The exhibition, running through May 27, 2019, joins the New-York Historical Society’s current installation, “Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow,” in an ongoing initiative at the museum that focuses on conversations around freedom, equality and civil rights in America.
Top Image: Artist Betye Saar, shown here setting up her "Tangled Roots" exhibit at the Palmer Museum of Art on the University Park campus of Penn State in 1996. Courtesy of Penn State University.