Friday, July 15, 2011

Betye Saar: The Liberation of Aunt Jemima

Betye Saar, "The Liberation of Aunt Jemima," 1972

"Unflattering images of African Americans have been common in popular culture over the past 150 years - for example, the pickaninny, Little Black Sambo, and Uncle Tom. Another is Aunt Jemima, a domestic servant whose title of 'aunt' was a commonly used term of subordination and familiarity for African American domestic servants, nannies, and maids. Aunt Jemima is a caricatured jolly, fat character who has been used recently to sell commercially prepared pancake mix. In the 1972 mixed-media piece 'The Liberation of Aunt Jemima,' Betye Saar used three versions of Aunt Jemima to question and turn around such images. The oldest version is the small image at the center, in which a cartooned Jemima hitches up a squalling child on her hip. In the background, the modern version shows a thinner Jemima with lighter skin, deemphasizing her Negroid features. The older one makes Jemima a caricature, while the new one implies she is more attractive if she appears less black.

"The middle Jemima is the largest figure and the most emphasized. Her checked and polka-dotted clothing is very bright and colorful. Her black skin makes her white eyes and teeth look like dots and checks, too. This Jemima holds a rifle and pistol as well as a broom. A black-power fist makes a strong silhouette shape in front of all the figures, introduing militant power to the image. The idea of Aunt Jemima, in any of its forms, can no longer seem innocuous. Saar enshrined these images in a shallow glass display box to make them venerable. Symmetry and pattern are strong visual elements." [source: Margaret Lazzari and  Dona Schlesier, "Exploring Art," p. 402. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.]

Betye Saar: The Liberation of Aunt Jemima


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