“I think useful is a really important word in talking about her work”, says Naima Karlsson of her grandmother, the Swedish artist-designer Moki Cherry, following the opening of a retrospective she has co-curated at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London.
Her colourful textile works were variously used for stage sets, album covers and more. Both pieces of art and items with a use, Karlsson says, “these textiles were sometimes hanging at home, sometimes in workshops sometimes in performance and other times in galleries”. Gesturing to a carved wood piece in Cherry’s signature psychedelic style, she adds: “this wood sculpture is also a mirror and a lamp; it’s an artwork but it’s functional in the home”.
Cherry initially trained at Beckman’s School of Design in Stockholm, with the intention of working as a fashion designer. But while she was offered and worked jobs in the field, this was not the path she would stay on – and while she lived a life in design, the reality of what that would look like turned out to be quite different. She met her husband, the jazz musician Don Cherry aged 20 and the pair worked together for two decades, while raising their young children Neneh and Eagle-Eye, both who would become musicians themselves.
Karlsson explains that Cherry took on a job designing for fashion photographer Bert Stern in the 60s in New York, before realising that life didn’t work for the family. “Because of different circumstances – not being able to earn enough money in New York, visas and everything, they had to go back to Sweden. And then I think she realised she was going to have to use her skills and take them in another direction”, Karlsson says.
Back in Sweden, Cherry was prodigious in her output a creative force, joining with Don to design his album covers, costumes and sets – as well as participating in the performances, playing instruments and live painting.
“They were working in different mediums but were coming from the same intentions: making work that was also educational and tapping into musical and artistic expressions that have been going on for thousands of years”, Karlsson says.
“Moki was always very much focused on really understanding all the traditions and ways things had been made – say with textiles – over thousands of years and finding ways of honing her own skills in what she wanted to do”. This, she says was paralleled with Don’s explorations in his own medium; educating himself in the rhythms and songs of African and Indian music.
The name of the exhibition is inspired by one of Cherry’s drawings that depicts an abstracted figure with arms wide and the words “Here & Now”. This reflects her practice of Buddhism and its focus on being in the present; while it also recalls Don Cherry’s 1976 album Hear & Now, for which Moki Cherry designed a collaged and applique cover.
It could also be applied to the way her life and work blended – creativity as the joining force. “It was very much a thing of using your time productively”, Karlsson says, “even if that was for enjoying yourself it was still something creative and kind of useful”.
The commitments of wife and mother inescapable, Cherry herself said: “I was my husband’s muse, companion and collaborator. At the same time, I did all the practical maintenance. I was never trained to be a female, so I survived by taking a creative attitude to daily life and chores”.
While raising two young children, educational approaches were also important to her work. Karlsson recalls creative summers spent in the Swedish countryside with Cherry. “Even if she was resting, she was reading all the time and otherwise making things… so we’d always be active. If she was working the studio, she would find ways to keep me busy by making things in there at the same time”.
While Don was a music professor and artist-in-residence at Dartmouth College, USA, Moki Cherry designed the costumes and sets for large-scale student performances. On returning to Sweden, the Cherry’s opened up their family home in an old schoolhouse for workshops for both artists and local children.
Tapestries, featuring Indian classical music scales and symbolic hand gestures were used as teaching aids. At the Moderna Museet Stockholm, an exhibition Utopias and Visions 1871-1981 saw the family live in a geodesic dome in the gallery, inviting visitors to participate by day. Once the exhibition closed each day, Cherry would cook for her family in the gallery.
Whereas other shows have focused on the early works, Karlsson’s curatorial involvement for this exhibition gave an opportunity to look at the wider range of mediums that Moki worked on in different time periods, Karlsson explains. There is painting, tapestry, sculpture, collage, while notebooks and newspaper clippings document further activities. Videos document the first solo exhibition of Cherry’s from 1973, and a children’s TV show the family worked on.
The wooden sculpture is an example of a medium Cherry explored in her later solo career, using the same tools as she would have used in her time as a set designer for the renowned Apollo Theatre in Harlem, and its Live at the Apollo performances.
Reflecting on the work, with which Karlsson says she has had a “lifelong relationship”, Karlsson comments: “A lot of it was to do with survival…loads of it was resourcefulness; doing the things they believed in, [while] finding work opportunities”.
Banner image: Don Cherry + Moki Cherry tapestries – Organic Music outdoor in Italy Courtesy of Moki Cherry Estate. Cover image: Photo of Moki Cherry (1989) – 1 – ©Robert Quailer