SA: Do the scales also relate to police brutality? In a way, the justice system “weighs” the lives of these men.
BS: They are political pieces about the notion of the weight of racism. One is “The Weight of Whiteness,” because racism doesn’t just affect the victim but also the person who holds the prejudice. They have the weight of hatred and dislike. Of course they do not suffer as much as the person whom the racism targets. When there were so many murders of young Black men in the last few years, it seemed like an epidemic. It prompted the Black Lives Matter movement.
SA: What do you think of watching the graphic videos of those murders? Do they perpetuate trauma?
BS: What can you do when you see that violence and racism on television? What do you do with that rage and negativity? Sometimes people don’t know what to do it. Like for example, the man who killed the policemen in Dallas. He woke up one morning and was filled with rage, and what he did with his rage was murder people.
For me, my rage started with the assassination of Martin Luther King. When the Civil Rights Movement was just beginning, there were violent and peaceful expressions. When he was murdered, I didn’t know what to do with that rage. I made “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima.” This scales series comes from my rage about the murder of Black males. Not only the rage of their murder, but that these killings go unpunished. The murderer of Trayvon Martin went free.
SA: You use a lot of the derogatory images in the cage series as well.
BS: The structure of the cage itself is a structure of contained freedom. A bird can move and see out but the bars prevent it from experiencing real freedom. Those derogatory images are still part of our country’s past which fabricated these images. They depicted Black people as less than human.
“In Western culture, death is
depicted as black. But in African culture,
death is represented with
the color white. Bones are white.”
— Betye Saar
SA: Your new Black White show at Roberts and Tilton is about the dichotomy of lightness and darkness and the racial undertones language that pertains to color. Does the concept of lightness and darkness in death relate to that?
BS: In Western culture, death is depicted as black. But in African culture, death is represented with the color white. Bones are white. The show Black White is a selection of works from the 1960s to the present. It’s more of a retrospective of the different phases of media. A lot of the works are collages and would be considered more abstract. But most of the works are pertinent to racism. In the new series, I use a lot of dominos and dice, which represent the game of life, the playing-pieces of living. The assemblage is about a game, such as the game of fate. In this particular exhibition, the main colors of the pieces are black, white or both. It’s about color, mood and race.
SA: How did you choose the works for your new series for the exhibition? Was it mostly aesthetically informed?
BS: I picked the works from a variety of series that deal with black and white imagery and incorporate different symbols I’m drawn to. But it isn’t just about the binary of black and white, it’s also about the reference of darkness and lightness, and the different implications of that.
SA: This piece “Madame Noire” reminds me of your other series dedicated to your aunt Hattie, as it incorporates lots of feminine possessions, except this one is of a fictional character.
BS: This piece is from a series I did about the shades of skin color in Black people. A lot of the inspiration came from my aunt Hattie’s collection of photographs. The shades range from a light cream-colored woman in “Passé Blanc” (pass for white), to the much darker colors of black skin. “Madame Noire” is from that. This assemblage is of things that would be in her (Madame Noire’s) life. I imagined the feather, pin and glove would be part of her costume. Each one is a portrait of a person. But it could pertain to many women’s lives.