The Liberation of Aunt Jemima by Betye Saar, 1972

Participating arts

In this week’s discussion, we had a unique opportunity to deepen our learning about several artworks by roleplaying the various departments responsible for the presentation and perception of art. We pretended in turn that we were the artists, curators, museum docents and visitors for about an hour, and it was an exotic experience to go through the mechanism of how art was perceived by the general public.

The artworks we looked at included several assemblages, graphics and sculptures. To begin with there was Afro-American solidarity with the oppressed People of the world, a 1969 graphic artwork by Emory Douglas, who was the Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party. 
There was also the Liberation of Aunt Jemima by Betye Saar in 1972, a mockery of social stereotypes from an accomplished assemblage and print-maker.

And thus we began. Our class was separated into four groups and my group was assigned to the role of docents. To start off, we’d decided to take a look at the “Liberation of Aunt Jemima,” whose creator, Saar, included a knick-knack that we found particularly interesting. It was Aunt Jemima standing on the floor of cotton, holding a broom in her right hand and a rifle on her left hand, which transformed her from a happy servant to a proud militant who wouldn’t back down for her civil-rights in the society.

The foreground of the art work is dominated by a large notepad holder with a picture of the stereotypical “mammy” figure taking care of a white baby. The notepad is held in place by Aunt Jemima and a clenched black fist, symbolizing how Aunt Jemima has liberated herself from the traditional gender roles as well as a history of the “old southern hospitality”. This is a huge contrast to the “original” Aunt Jemima, who was created by the Quakers Oat Company in 1889 as a trademark for their products, as an idealization of the plantation life and its emblem. Now she’s done making pancakes.

Emerging from a time troubled with sexism and racism, the “Liberation of Aunt Jemima”, 1972, works in tandem with the civil rights movements and feminist movements in the 1960s-1970s. So we thought it would best fit in the “Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50” exhibition at the Oakland Museum, October 8, 2016–February 26, 2017.

To think about the artworks from the docents’ perspective was a unique experience. We tried to explain in the ideas behind the artworks in layman terms using plain language. Yet, was it possible that some vital intricacies were lost in this process of compression? It makes me wonder how much of art is artist’s intent, and how much of it is viewer interpretation.

In his 1967 essay “the Death of the Author”, French literary theorist Roland Barthes argued for a separation between the literature and its author. He wrote:

A poem, for example, does not belong to its author, who is merely a scribe of his immaterial thoughts. Once he writes, only what people interpret and read becomes the reality.

Is this also true of visual arts? An artist may have an intention — it will probably change many times over the course of creating a work, even after the work is completed — but in the end, it has little or nothing to do with how his/her work is perceived. Most people (including myself, for that matter) seeing the artwork will probably never know that intention.

They will never meet the artist. Most art never makes it to the museum/gallery. And then, unless there is a very special source of information, like studio assistants or journals from the artist, people wouldn’t know the intention either. Even if they do know, it doesn’t matter — it’s just a another piece of interesting information, like the color of paint, or how this work is devoted to his/her muse, etc. etc.

Each of the viewers has his/her own history, knowledge set, taste, concepts, whatever. That is the basis from which personal experience is related to and each “analysis of art” is individually made. If 100 million people look at “the Liberation of Aunt Jemima”, there will be 100 million totally separate but nonetheless valid interpretations. This fascinating realization is why I hope to do more of this in the future, maybe volunteering for a real docent experience in a museum.