Moki Cherry's Art and Life Remembered
Moki Cherry, Title unknown (1977). Oil on canvas. 7.62 x 13.97 cm. Exhibition view: Communicate, How? Moki Cherry Paintings and Tapestries, 1967–1980, Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago (3 September–9 October 2021). Courtesy Corbett vs. Dempsey.
As someone who lived out their artistic vision in all corners of their life, Moki Cherry created vibrant and illuminating paintings and tapestries that collapsed the boundaries between the disciplines of art, textiles, and music.
Born in 1943, the Swedish visual artist and designer was studying fashion design, illustration, and pattern-cutting at Beckman's School of Design in Stockholm when she met Don Cherry while he was touring with Sonny Rollins.
At this stage, the artist had already had a diverse career, having left school in 1959 to apprentice at the Haute Couture Atelier Anna Greta Bloom before going on to work in ready-to-wear as a design assistant at Vera Öhne, a women's coat and suit manufacturer in Kristianstad. Before attending Beckman's School of Design, she took classes in pattern-cutting and drapery in 1962 at Stockholm's Tillskärarakademi.
Don returned to Stockholm while on tours, but it wasn't until 1966 that the two decided to continue their lives together in New York, where Moki worked independently, creating one-of-a-kind pieces that she sold at Design Research and Henri Bendel.
She was invited to work for fashion photographer and filmmaker Bert Stern, but at this point, Moki decided to move away from the commercial fashion industry and into the vanguard intercultural world that she and Don co-created.
In 1967, they established the concept of Movement Incorporated, later known as Organic Music Society, which described their collaborative and independent creations that traversed music, art posters, album covers, and mixed-media environments.
Movement Incorporated's first event within this project was a concert at ABF Huset in Stockholm, which involved a group of musicians and dancers, with costumes, posters, stage sets, and live painting initiated by Moki.
Communicate, How? Moki Cherry Paintings and Tapestries, 1967–1980, at Corbett vs. Dempsey in Chicago (3 September–9 October 2021) features a tapestry made for the gig, portraying a purple figure surrounded by fluttering birds, their face concealed by a bright yellow sun.
The appliqué textile piece sits alongside equally vibrant tapestries in the gallery's main space, including Spirit (1976) and Malkauns Raga (1973), which display a symphony of hands, eyes, and surrealistic creatures, sewn with a range of fabrics both patterned and monochrome.
What follows in the next room is a selection of Moki's paintings, similar in both colours and motifs to the larger textile works. Among them is an untitled depiction from 1970 featuring a winged, cross-legged figure sitting atop a pair of eyes, their fingers reaching up towards the sky, expanding outwards in a variety of brilliant shades.
The exhibition's title, Communicate, How? comes from an eponymous small canvas in this room; in it, a figure in a ruffled-collar shirt stares out at the viewer.
Ultimately, Moki's and Don's creative endeavours fused into one living and breathing artwork...
'When we saw that amazing little painting, we immediately knew it had provided the title of the show.' Corbett vs. Dempsey co-owner John Corbett told Ocula Magazine over email. 'It speaks to the work in a profoundly simple and resonant way—how do we transmit from one being to another? It's a beautiful, poetic little homage to the complexities of signification.'
The gallery has been planning this show—the largest historical exhibition of Moki's works in the U.S.—since 2017. In 2019, Corbett and co-owner Jim Dempsey travelled to the schoolhouse in Tågarp, Sweden, that acted as an event space and studio for the Cherrys during their lives, and now houses the family archive.
Having moved out of Stockholm in 1968, the Cherrys lived an itinerant existence with their two children, Neneh and Eagle-Eye, both of whom became musicians, travelling between Europe and the United States. Moki became the 'unofficial art director' of Don's musical performances, with her signature colour planes containing themes related to spirituality and nature encapsulating the two artists' creative pursuits.
In 1969, Don's album Where is Brooklyn was released on the label Blue Note, featuring Henry Grimes, Ed Blackwell, and Pharoah Sanders, with a painting by Moki as its cover. Filled with her signature vibrant colours and overlapping forms, the image fuses urban elements such as a train and a suited figure with symbols such as lightning bolts and musical notes, and abstract shapes.
By this stage, the artists' Organic Music Society performances were gaining recognition from the art world, leading Stockholm's Moderna Museet to invite the two to live in a geodesic dome designed by artist Bengt Carling for three months with their children.
While there, Moki created tapestries, paintings, and costumes, including the soft sculpture Title unknown (Fabric Sculpture from Utopias & Visions) (1971) showing with Corbett vs. Dempsey, made up of a long column surrounded by soft bulbous forms reminiscent of flower petals, in shades of pink and green.
The bulbous stuffed form hanging from the ceiling recalls monochromatic Yayoi Kusama sculptures of the same era, but sets itself apart in its lively colour scheme, which also recalls the work of Niki de Saint Phalle.
The family eventually settled in Tågarp in 1970, where the Cherrys established a hub inspired by a period when Don worked as professor and artist-in-residence at Dartmouth College in Vermont. There, the two organised an 'opera' with over 100 students using their home as a rehearsal space over weekends.
Ultimately, Moki's and Don's creative endeavours fused into one living and breathing artwork: a 'synergetic model for communal creativity' that the exhibition Organic Music Societies (8 April–16 July 2021) at Blank Forms in New York recently emphasised with an archivally oriented presentation of smaller tapestries and paintings.
But while Moki's collaboration with Don significantly impacted both their practices' development, Corbett vs. Dempsey looks at Moki's practice on its own terms.
As Corbett explained to Ocula Magazine, 'Moki was a tremendous artist and deserves to be understood as part of that groundbreaking partnership but also as a powerhouse producer of images and objects. She was interdependent and independent, both, in a period in which gaining recognition for your accomplishments as a fierce woman artist was particularly challenging.'
Artists' House (1972), for instance, is an artwork in its own right. An especially beautiful example of Moki's appliqué fabric work, the tapestry—formed of masterfully stitched letters within organic colourful shapes—served as a banner for a three-day event at saxophonist Ornette Coleman's loft space in New York City, featuring Don Cherry's trio and a group led by pianist Dollar Brand.
But while Communicate, How? focuses on Moki's works, it does not erase Don from the narrative. In a small vault room with a screen, two speakers, and two folding chairs, the black-and-white video Don Cherry (1970), by Steina and Woody Vasulka, presents Don wearing a Moki-made shirt while playing his pocket trumpet and other instruments on the streets of New York City.
Next door, that shirt is on display in full colour. On the front, a desert scene composed of a bright yellow sun, camel, palm tree, and clouds over a rich blue background on silk is contrasted by lush olive velvet sleeves. Signs of wear in a frayed neck seam note the shirt's past as a work of art in motion, as it moved and breathed with Don's body as he played.
This sense of living art that infuses Moki's legacy is even present in the organisation of her Chicago showcase, which was created with assistance from Neneh Cherry and Naima Karlsson—Moki's daughter and granddaughter respectively.
As part of the exhibition, a concert by Ken Vandermark and Hamid Drake on 9 October 2021 will fill the gallery space with the sounds and energies that drove Moki's life's work, performing compositions by and inspired by Don Cherry. —[O]