It is fitting that the exhibition Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow coincides with Betye Saar: Keepin’ It Clean, for it is the legacy of Jim Crow that the contemporary artists Betye Saar tackles. Black Citizenship begins with the struggle for equality during the tumultuous years of Reconstruction and ends with the late-19th and 20th century challenges to legalized discrimination that culminated in the civil rights movement. In between appear objects that epitomize the concerted campaign of racial violence and anti-democratic actions that defined Jim Crow.
Among these are several gross stereotypes that ridicule black figures as ludicrous and inept and, by extension, unfit for the rights and responsibilities of citizenship: Jim Crow Ten Pins (ca. 1890–1910), Jim Crow and Buy Broom tin figurines (late-19th century), and a pair of prints called “The Darktown Bicycle Club on Parade” and “The Darktown Bicycle Club—Knocked Out” from Currier & Ives’ popular “Darktown” series (1890s). This is precisely the type of derogatory imagery that Saar collects and incorporates into her assemblages.
But she transforms them.
The stereotypical and cartoonish Jim Crow-era mammy in Liberation (washboard) (2014) now holds a rifle. That in Busy Bee (1997) cradles a bullet. The mammy crumb brush in A Call to Arms (1997) is both literally and figuratively “armed” with bullets. And the washerwomen in Dubl-Handi (Blue) (1998) and Dubl-Handi (Red) (1998/2014) clean not clothes but firearms. By weaponizing these figurines, Saar transforms objects designed to denigrate into heroines liberating themselves from that very denigration. They stand like warriors throughout the Joyce B. Cowin Women’s History Gallery, ready to combat the forces of racism and sexism that would hold them down. As Saar explained during a conversation with me, these mammies want to overcome. Their power resides in their desire to break past the barriers imposed upon them.
Those barriers are visible throughout the exhibition in references to the terror and violence of slavery and Jim Crow. The armed mammy in A Call to Arms (1997), for example, appears with a rope around her neck. Behind her is a lynching postcard that pictures corpses hanging in a ghostly echo of her own form. In I’ll Bend, But I Will Not Break (1998), Saar imprints onto a vintage ironing board a diagram of bodies packed into the cargo hold of the 18th-century slave ship Brookes. The conflation of ship and board as vessels of forced labor is reinforced by their analogous shapes and by the way the artist chains the iron to the board in the same manner that slaves would have been shackled to the slave ship. The apron worn by the gun-toting mammy in Extreme Times Call for Extreme Heroines (2017) is likewise emblazoned with the Brookes pattern. Layered on top of the Jim Crow figure, the diagram links the subjugation of black people under slavery to their continued subjugation under oppressive post-slavery labor systems.
This notion—the repetition of history, the persistence of the past—underlies much of Saar’s oeuvre. It is evident in the reappearance throughout the exhibition of certain photographs, certain patterns, certain shapes, and certain objects that recur and return and reemerge like motifs in a musical score. It is evident in the stopped clocks that proliferate throughout the gallery: when measured by the constancy of racial oppression across centuries, time stands still. And it is evident in Saar’s use of assemblage: the very act of recycling vintage objects in the present day speaks to their enduring relevance and challenges facile conceptions of history as a narrative of linear progress. History has not passed, Saar’s work suggests. It acts upon the present. One need think no further than Black Lives Matter and #MeToo to understand the contemporary legacy of racial and sexual discrimination, the ongoing challenges facing Saar’s mammy freedom fighters, and the continued urgency of her art.
And so the pairing of Black Citizenship and Betye Saar—one featuring 19th– and early-20th century objects and the other contemporary art—is not so much about the change across centuries as it is about the coincidence between them. It reminds us, as we like to say at the New-York Historical Society, that history matters—that the past is ever-present and the work of history never finished.
Read historian Dominique Jean-Louis’s exploration of Black Citizenship, Betye Saar, and black women’s labor. See Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow on view through March 3, and Betye Saar: Keepin’ It Clean on view through May 27.
Written by Wendy N. E. Ikemoto, PhD
Associate Curator of American Art