Psychedelic Tapestries And Organic Music – Inside The Moki Cherry Retrospective
On a handwritten note, part of a box of ephemera at the late artist, designer and educator Moki Cherry’s first UK solo exhibition at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), lies a quote which reads: “I was never trained to be a female, so I survived by taking a creative attitude to daily life and chores.” The show it is part of is a celebratory retrospective of Cherry’s overlooked but invariably optimistic art practice, comprising over 30 artworks – ranging from tapestries to collage – as well as archival material. The exhibition – Moki Cherry: Here And Now – highlights her spirituality and influences across nature, music and fashion to create what she called “the stage as a home, and the home as a stage”. It also places her in the context of the gendered challenges she faced throughout her career.
Moki Cherry trained as a fashion designer in Stockholm, where she met her husband, the free-jazz musician Don Cherry, in 1963. The two collaborated for over 20 years, terming their work ‘Organic Music’. A small monitor in the ICA shows the couple at their home surrounded by a group of young children; Don crooning while Moki plays the sitar. Neneh, Moki’s eldest child, went on to become a legendary musician herself, at first performing in punk bands such as The Slits in 1980s London, and then releasing five studio albums under her own name.
Naima Karlsson – Neneh’s daughter and the archivist of Moki’s estate, is the co-curator of the ICA’s show. Karlsson herself is an artist and musician, and her younger sister Mabel is a top 10 and platinum album singer-songwriter.
It isn’t hard to see where the family got their talent. A slide at the ICA shows an outdoor stage set from 1972, another part of Moki and Don’s ‘Organic Music’ enterprise. Both instruments and surroundings are adorned in the vast, psychedelic tapestries of pearly silks and patterned appliqué for which Moki is best known. These were more than singular art pieces; they were part of an environment. “Her approach to making art and her way of existing in the home was the same thing,” Karlsson explains. One tapestry depicts Don as a Hindu deity, his white-gloved hands stretching out of the fabric’s frame, another the mouth of a dragon, third eye looking outwards. Although Cherry did not remain a practicing Buddhist past the 1970s, Karlsson says it gave her a “self-awareness, and also a much broader awareness about how we’re part of nature, instead of being fixed solely on our own human condition”.
Cherry posited textiles as their own entities, rather than simply backdrops to her partner’s music. “[Moki and Don] collaborated together in ways which were significant in uniting visual art and music,” Karlsson explains. “But it’s important for people to understand that as well as a mother and a partner, she was a working artist herself.”
Cherry’s spirit is captured best in the aforementioned ephemera displays dotted throughout the gallery. One is a printed image of the artist working on her sewing machine at Sweden’s Moderna Museet museum, as part of a 1971 exhibition called Utopias & Visions. In it, she, Don and their children, Eagle-Eye and Neneh, lived in a geodesic dome on the museum’s grounds for an entire summer. The dome was their domestic base for a time, yes, but it was also a centre for music, costume and creation, with the public invited and encouraged to join the amalgamation of life and art.
Moki Cherry: Here And Now runs at the ICA in London until 2 September 2023
Ella Slater is an art and culture writer based in London
Dragon, photography Nicolai Wallner; Organic Music, courtesy of Nottingham Contemporary; Malkauns Raga (1973), photography by Tom Van Eynde, Corbett vs. Dempsey; All artworks © Moki Cherry, ICA