I’ll Bend But I Will Not Break is one of Betye Saar’s iconic statements. In this sculptural tableau she combines powerful overlapping references to slavery and slave ships, traditional female labor, the history of late 19th- and early 20th-century art, and modern-day racism. While the iron and ironing board generically refer to working-class women who labor as laundresses and maids—as seen in the work of Edgar Degas and Pablo Picasso, among many others—Saar’s ironing board also conjures up memories of so-called house slaves. This specific ironing board is imprinted on top with the diagram of the plan of the British slave ship "Brookes," showing how scores of Black bodies were sandwiched into the ship’s lower deck. Saar’s diagram is borrowed directly from a well-known 18th-century engraving, which became the signature image of those who fought vociferously against the transatlantic slave trade. To reinforce the connection between the "Brookes" illustration and the impact that slavery had on American society, Saar superimposed a traditional image of a Black mammy over the diagram. The iron—chained to the ironing board just as slaves were chained to slave ships—refers not only to female labor but also to the branding of slaves with branding irons. Saar brings racism into the present via the sheet embroidered with the letters “KKK,” a reference to the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist hate group—founded in the 1860s and still in existence—whose members were known for wearing white sheets and hoods as they terrorized Blacks, Jews, and others whom they reviled. Saar has said about the sheet, “In order [for a Klan member] to wear a clean sheet to a Ku Klux Klan [rally], a Black woman had to wash it.” In fact, Saar’s sheet is pinned to an ordinary laundry line, ready to be ironed by an absent figure, presumably a Black woman.More...
- Betye Saar: Keepin' it Clean. Los Angeles, CA: Craft and Folk Art Museum, 2017.
- Eliel, Carol. Betye Saar: Call and Response. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Munich; New York: Delmonico Books-Prestel, 2019.
- Baca, April. "On Dis/Appearance and Familiar Objects: Betye Saar at LACMA." Art Journal 79, no.2 (2020): 114-116.