Swedish artist Moki (Karlsson) Cherry and African American jazz trumpeter Don Cherry saw themselves as “modern nomads” as their toured the world with their art and music.
“For traveling, fabric was a great, practical solution,” Moki wrote somewhere around 2004 to ’06. “Roll it up, put it in a couple of duffel bags. Go on tour with the family and musicians in a minivan. Improvising on stage and in living. So I started making big tapestries for the stage and to transform the space. The visual work consisted of images for the imagination, but also for music—scales, songs, rhythms—for people’s participation in concerts and workshops.”
They were endeavoring to reshape their world. Hanging her banners immediately changed spaces where Don performed his trance music, helping turn them into portals to utopian worlds. Moki also painted murals in the homes in which they lived—from New York to Stockholm—making the places immersive art environments. Walking into her Queens, New York loft, “was like entering planet Moki,” her friends Karen Edwards and Elspeth Leacock remembered in their 2018 book “Moki Cherry: New York Notes.”
Moki Cherry’s banners, paintings and drawings are the subject of “Communicate, How?: Paintings and Tapestries, 1967 – 1980” at Chicago’s Corbett vs. Dempsey gallery from Sept. 3 to Oct. 9, 2021. The exhibition is part of recent efforts (really just over the past five years or so) to recover her art from obscurity. For the last day of the exhibition, this Saturday, Oct. 9, at 7 p.m. (Central time), musicians Ken Vandermark (reeds) and Hamid Drake (drums) will perform a concert live at Corbett vs. Dempsey (and livestreamed as part of the Experimental Sound Studio’s Quarantine Concert Series), inspired by Moki’s artwork and featuring the compositions of Don Cherry.
Monika Karlsson and Don Cherry met in Stockholm one January night in 1963. Moki, as she became known, was then a fashion student who frequented jazz clubs. After seeing Cherry play with the Sonny Rollins Quartet at one venue, she and friends headed to a second club that same night, where some of Rollins’s band were sitting in with another band. Cherry approached her group of friends to speak with her, she later recalled, and they spent the rest of the evening talking.
“We stood in the floor-to-ceiling window on the second story lookin out at the snowy street, talking about love on some other elevated plane—music,” she’s quoted in Blank Forms gallery’s 2021 book “Organic Music Societies,” “We immediately connected on a creative level.”
Karlsson was familiar with Cherry’s 1958 and ’59 free jazz recordings with Ornette Coleman—the importance of which “cannot be overestimated,” The New York Times wrote in 1995. “The rhythmic relationship between the two musicians, loose and flexible yet completely empathetic, took jazz modernists away from an emphasis on overt discipline and precise detailing.” Cherry was now a regular sideman for jazz groups led by Rollins, John Coltrane, Steve Lacy.
Karlsson (1943–2009) and Cherry (1936–1995) began touring together for the first time in the summer of 1965—and she began dressing Don’s band Togetherness. It was the start of their joint projects, which “took Don’s music out of exploitative and commercially driven jazz circuits and integrated it into a total art and life project that broke away from convention,” Lawrence Kumpf, New York gallery Blank Forms’ artistic director, writes in the introduction to the gallery’s 2021 book “Organic Music Societies.” The publication is full of vintage photos and archival documents, an astonishingly deep dive into the previously little explored history of the couple’s collaborations. They would marry in New York in 1978.
“The idea was that when you are on stage it’s home and when you are home you are on the stage,” Moki Cherry wrote somewhere around 2004 to ’06, as quoted in “Organic Music Societies.” “I think it was the atmosphere at the time to bring the music out of the jazz clubs setting to combine with other artforms. So started our collaboration.”
They launched their art and music project Movement Incorporated in 1967, later renaming it Organic Music or at times Organic Music Theatre. They roamed across Europe for Don’s concerts, “Don driving and Moki cooking in the back of the van,” Edwards and Leacock write.
The couple looked for inspiration outside the West, paralleling the recentering that came with the anti-colonial movements of the post World War II period. As Don Cherry helped pioneer world music through a fusion of jazz, Brazilian ceremonial hymns, Indian raga, Chinese zither, Malian donso ngoni, and Turkish and South Asian music; Karlsson painted album covers, designed posters, and stitched together outfits and banners that they used in performances and workshops. Her textiles are a revelation—psychedelic, visionary applique tapestries animated by brightly-hued spirits, suns, eyes, wings, birds.
“Everything is connected and interdependent, including what we cannot see by the bare eye,” she said in 2007.
“By the mid 1980s, Moki and Don had drifted apart,” John Corbett of Corbett vs. Dempsey gallery writes in the exhibition catalogue, “separated by his substance abuse and the estrangement of life on the road and her mounting personal resentments and dissatisfaction with the omnipresent sexism of the music and art worlds.”
“Looking for my muse,” Moki Cherry jotted on one of the papers collected in “New York Notes.” “All the classical muses are female young women. Are there any muses for women or do we have the same ones? I made you my muse at the sound of a trumpet. Somewhere it all turned around and I was captive—captivated. I see a powergame somewhere classical possessiveness. I urge to reclaim my inner freedom.”
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