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Issue 240

Moki Cherry’s Feminist Reimagining of Family Life

At Moderna Museet, Malmo, a homecoming retrospective dedicated to the artist struggles to convey her relational approach to creating

BY Zoe Cooper in Exhibition Reviews | 09 NOV 23

‘The stage as a home, and the home as a stage,’ was the motto by which the late Swedish artist and textile designer Moki Cherry lived. A creator of art and artistic communities, Cherry produced a celebratory and colourful oeuvre that is impressive in its interdisciplinary range and quietly radical in its commitment to a feminist reimagining of family life and artmaking. Now, more than a decade after her death, Cherry is the subject of the Moderna Museet retrospective ‘A Journey Eternal’, which begins with her close collaboration with her husband, legendary American jazz musician Don Cherry, and briefly touches on the work she created later in life as an artist in her own right.

Moki Cherry, ‘A Journey Eternal’, 2023–24, Moderna Museet, Malmo. Courtesy: the artist and the Estate of Moki Cherry

The exhibition opens with a black and white film of Don playing music for their children while Moki paints alongside to him. Neither parent is centred in the frame: instead, they appear as equals; she works while he tends to a toddler who waddles in and out of view; he sings as the child dances. On the other side of the room are six of Don’s album covers featuring Moki’s psychedelic artwork, including the iconic Brown Rice (1975) – a sprawling masterwork that came to define what we know as ‘world’ music. The vinyl sleeves lead viewers to another high-ceilinged space housing several of Moki’s large, handmade tapestries, which were later repurposed as cover art.

Moki Cherry, Brown Rice, 1975 Courtesy: Prallan Allsten/Moderna Museet Bildupphovsrätt 2023
Moki Cherry, Brown Rice, 1975. Courtesy: Moderna Museet, Malmö Bildupphovsrätt 2023; photograph: Prallan Allsten

Much like Don’s music, Moki’s tapestries draw heavily on South Asian, Arabic and African aesthetics, often mixing seemingly disparate influences in a single composition. Brown Rice (1975), the tapestry that was the genesis for the eponymous album cover, features a glittering blue sea creature labelled ‘BALI’ and ‘MALI’ next to a floating beach landscape, a hand holding a crystal ball and a buddha on top of another religious icon. Rendered in inverse perspective, the monumentally sized work has a mind-bending, kaleidoscopic effect. Unadulterated joy comes through these playful tapestries as well as the painted furniture, clothing and canvases that follow. Yet, as I moved through them, I felt disappointed by the silence. It was as though I was looking at a graphic novel without the dialogue that explains the characters’ expressions, or a music video on mute.

Moki Cherry, ‘A Journey Eternal’, 2023–24, Moderna Museet, Malmo. Courtesy: the artist and the Estate of Moki Cherry

The countercultural home that the Cherrys established in the Swedish countryside in 1970 – an abandoned schoolhouse turned fluxus-era artistic haven – is essential to understanding Moki’s relational artistic philosophy. In a moment when many African American artists left behind racism and limited arts funding in the US for better opportunities in Europe, the couple intentionally made their home – a stage, gallery and school – into a welcoming, noisy haven for creatives from around the world, full of visiting artists and objects collected on their travels to Morocco, Turkey, India and beyond.

Moki Cherry, Don, Moki and Eagle-Eye Cherry, Atelier des Enfants, Children’s workshop with tapestries by Moki, Centre Beaubourg, Paris, 1974. Courtesy: © Cherry Archive, Estate of Moki Cherry

The decision to present Moki’s work in isolation, while it comes from a well-intentioned effort to centre women artists whose contributions have been overlooked, ultimately risks oversimplifying her ideas and the relational, adamantly interdisciplinary principles by which she lived and worked. I was reminded of how many second-wave feminist art historians wanted to question the nature of the canon itself – defined by solo exhibitions – and open more nuanced ways of exploring the lives, practices and cultural influence of women artists. Moki organized her life around artistic networks and the breaking down of traditional formats; she wrote about her frustrations with patriarchal notions of singular authorship and the lone artistic genius who emerges from her studio for a ‘look, we found her!’ moment. Moki was never alone: she saw herself as an artist and a producer – not just of artistic environments but of artists, too: her children, Neneh and Eagle-Eye, found success in music as adults. Their home was, in fact, her stage.

Moki Cherry’s A Journey Eternal is on view at Moderna Museet, Malmo, until 3 March 2024

Main image: Moki Cherry, The Organic Music Theatre or The Living Temple, 1971. Courtesy: Corbett vs Dempsey and Bildupphovsrätt 2023

Zoe Cooper is an art critic, writer and designer from New York, currently based in Berlin. Her writing has appeared in Vox, Flash Art, Disegno: The Quarterly Journal of Design, Artsy, The Slowdown, and more. She is an editor at Impossible Object Books and has edited texts for TASCHEN, Callie’s and Berlin Art Link.