Betye Saar: ‘We constantly have to be reminded that racism is everywhere’

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In 1972 Betye Saar made her name with a piece called “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima.”

She reconfigured a ceramic mammy figurine– a stereotypical image of the kindly and unthreatening domestic seen in films like “Gone With The Wind.” (Think Aunt Jemima, with her head scarf and apron.)

But Saar’s mammy held a pistol in one hand and a shotgun in the other.

Saar’s work is now in the permanent collections of high profile museums like The Whitney, The Met, and LACMA. She has a new exhibition at the Craft and Folk Art Museum in her home city of Los Angeles. The show is called Keepin’ It Clean.

Much of the work on display is created with antique wooden washboards that Saar has been collecting for years.

“I’ve always been attracted to the washboard,” she said. “My grandmother was from Lake Charles, Louisiana, but she moved to Los Angeles in the early 1900’s. She lived in Watts and her back porch always had a washboard on it.”

Saar was born in Watts and raised in Pasadena. She’s light skinned – a mix of Black, Irish, and Native American heritage. She said race wasn’t a big part of her identity when she was young, but as she grew older and the Civil Rights movement started, she began to recognize that race played a role in her life. That revelation became the backbone of her work.

A Loss of Innocence, Courtesy Roberts Tilton (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

The show features a piece that focuses on how children encounter racism. Saar took an antique lace dress that would be worn for a christening and embroidered it with derogatory names like pickaninny, nigger baby and tar baby. The dress hangs from the ceiling over a small framed image of a black child.

Saar said she designed the installation to symbolize the loss of innocence that children experience when they are exposed to racist slurs.

Saar Portrait, courtesy CAFAM (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

“No matter how much food you have or how much beauty surrounds you, there is still the ugliness of racism,” she said.

Saar said she was young when she was first called “nigger.”

“I remember talking to my mother and asking her ‘Why why did they say black nigger?’ And this was my mother’s way of describing racism: ‘Children are like flowers in the garden, they’re all different colors. And you’re just one color and sometimes people don’t like that color. But that’s not who you are.'”

Now, at 91, Saar has been reflecting on her life’s work.

“You know, when you get that age, you kind think, well, what was I here for? What have I contributed?” She said. “And I think that art is my vehicle to express the emotions that I feel about racism.”

“I never looked that much into the future about what’s going to
happen, except that I know that this is my last decade. I don’t really envision moving into the 100s. I don’t particularly want that. Because I want to be able-minded. I want to, you know, have a good mind and still make things and enjoy my family and everything. So I just live for the moment, and I plan next week, but not too much further.

Saar continues to make new work.

“I’ve just got so much stuff and so many ideas, I don’t know how I can get it all done,” she said. “That’s what makes me happy. Finding an object and putting it together with two or three other objects and saying, ‘This is going to tell a story.’”

Press Play met up with Saar at the exhibition and asked her more about her work and her life as an artist. Excerpts from the conversation with Saar are below.