Rare spotlight on black women’s art still shines after 51

It was pop at the time, but it was supernova rather than pop that influenced me.

“Sapphire Show: You’ve Got a Long Way, Baby” debuted at Gallery 32, an oasis in Los Angeles of the work of African-American artists. It opened on the public holiday of July 4, 1970, and five days later the penultimate exhibition ended at the Experimental Gallery near MacArthur Park. The gallery itself quickly collapsed.

“I remember that feeling,” said Senga Nengudi, one of the six notable artists. His contribution included a vinyl tube filled with colored water. “Exciting, fun and victorious. Named after Sapphire Stevens, the illustrious character of the radio and television series “Amos’n’Andy”, the show is due to its cheeky subtitles. I also borrowed the famous Virginia Slim cigarette slogan.

It’s short but bright and shiny, as this will likely be the first show dedicated to a black artist in Los Angeles, and possibly America, and the energy it gives off is still felt.

The featured artists included the founders of Galerie 32. Sae Yamamoto Jackson, The person who ran the art space from the Granada Building loft. Nengudi (then Sue Irons); Nengudi’s cousin, Eileen Abdulrashid (now Eileen Nelson); Betye Sarre; Yvonne Colméo (1923-2016); and Gloria Bohannon (1939-2008).

Currently, TriBeCa gallery Ortuzar Projects has created a tribute and update titled “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby: The Sapphire Show”, which will be on view until July 31st and will feature the same cast. .

The 29 works on display contain some of the works of art that appear to come from the original exhibition. The exact content is ambiguous due to the loss of Jackson’s record. It also includes works that show how the six women have evolved over the decades.

Saar, Now 94 years old and still based in Los Angeles, he aged in 1970 and became by far the most famous of the group, racially discriminatory, like his politically explicit work. He became famous for hijacking such an image. “Release of Aunt Jemima” (1972).

His 1967 cosmology-themed print “Taurus” is one of the new “sapphires” that organizers and academics can claim to have been in the first exhibition.

Nengudi, 77, who currently lives in Colorado Springs, is currently curating a solo exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “Senga Nengudi: Topology” With works from his “RSVP” series. The first is an installation made of tights filled with sand, inspired by her own pregnancy.

Nengudi’s pioneering “Water Compositions” series is featured in Ortuzar projects. Imagine juicy and sultry minimalism with a vividly colored water-filled vinyl tube. At least one of the works was in the original “Sapphire”.

Based in Savannah, Georgia, Jackson is also 77, a poet, dancer, and stage performer, and his recent work focuses on painting. She has appeared on numerous shows, including “The Soul of the Country: The Art of the Age of Black Power”. One of his large paintings in the current exhibition, “Rag-to-Wobble” (2020), is amoeba-shaped, domed, thick and incorporates a vintage hanger. ..

The original “Sapphire” was a Salon des Refusés. It was a female reaction to the 1970 exhibition of black artists organized by Carnation’s Evaporative Milk Company, which was excluded by inviting a single female artist to the Los Angeles headquarters. participate.

“All the men were included,” Jackson said. “We were so frustrated that they were ignored.” Instead, they put on their own show. His pioneering presence seems to resonate particularly now.

“It opened the door,” said Carolyn Peter, associate curator at the J. Paul Getty Museum, who co-sponsored the 2009 exhibit in her previous job. “Gallery 32 and its circle” At Loyola Marymount University, we studied the impact of visionary galleries (including David Hammons, Timothy Washington, and Emory Douglas) on the art world in Los Angeles. “Black women had two challenges: color and gender, and these women stood up through art,” said Peter.

Kelly Jones, an art history professor in Colombia who studied the time, said the original exhibit “still needs 15 minutes of fame. People are talking about it right now. It was a spectacle. very impressive.

The 1970 Sapphire was quickly assembled. The poster, designed by Nelson, misspelled Saar’s name and incorporated childhood photographs of some artists.

“We were in the room at the same time, so we decided to do it really quickly,” Jackson said of his origin. She founded Gallery 32 in 1969 at the age of 25, which lasted less than two years. “I have no more money,” she said. There was only one show after “Sapphire” by Meo Her work, and her preference for the combination of collages and paintings, can be seen in Forbidden Fruit in the Garden of Eden by Ortuzar Projects (1965).

In addition to Gallery 32, in 1970 Los Angeles had several venues advocating for artists of color, such as the Brockman Gallery and the nonprofit Watts Tower Arts Center, but without focusing on women. did. In 1973, Saar hosted “Black Mirror”, a successor show dedicated to black women, using the same Virginia Slim subtitles as “Sapphire” in Women’s Space.

Calling the character sapphire in the show’s original title was a deliberate and bold choice. Saar, who was part of the group’s efforts to organize the show, wrote in a recent email that he considered Sapphire “a tough woman, a busy person who knows everything.”

“If you were a woman in the art world back then you had to be awesome and creative,” she added.

Jane Rose, professor of black research at the University of Illinois at Chicago and author of “Black Panther Framing: The Spectacular Rise of the Black Power Icon,” said Sapphire was “not bossy, devious and frowned upon “. Mentionned. , Owner harassment – All negative representations of the subject of black women. “

Hence, the audacity of the artist’s diversion from Gallery 32. “This showed not only a playfulness, but also a fundamental determinism,” Rhodes said. “We can name ourselves. “

“We used it as a positive way to say we’re really strong women,” Jackson said, rather than criticizing the character.

Whatever obstacles to success, the six artists could not be stopped easily.

“I was a young snapper whipper, and I was very clingy about my career,” said Nengudi. “I can’t even imagine how difficult it was to run a gallery in Los Angeles back then,” she praised Jackson.

Saar recalled details of how Jackson traveled the city as the first gallery owner and artist, saying, “She drove an ambulance to her car.”

Nelson, now 82, living in Novato, Calif., Was at odds with his cousin Nengdi during this time.

“I had a hard time sharing my art with people,” said Nelson, adding that the five-day race had rewarded her. “Someone bought the painting,” she said, painting “a beautiful, strong and vibrant woman.”

Nelson has three works at the Ortuzar exhibition, two paintings and a 1970s sculpture titled “Wood City” which incorporates rectangular shapes and tree branches.

Some of the older works in the current exhibit have a rustic, bohemian feel, reflecting the old Californian era. (About two-thirds of the show is for sale.)

In Jackson’s painting “The American Sampler” (1972), a face seems to emerge from a tree stump. Known for his abstract works, Bohannon exhibits eight works, including two stretched tonds.

The Saarland is represented by “Rainbow Mojo” (1972). This is a leather painting of colorful natural shapes such as the moon, stars and glowing rainbows.

Saar’s “Aunt and Watermelon” (1973) is a sculpture of a black woman and a collage image of Aunt Jemima a year later, showing the direction of her practice after “Sapphire”. ..

“She’s a theorist who takes caricatures, removes them from punches, and reuses them for her own purposes,” said Thomas Lux, curator of media and performance arts at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Lux is hosting an exhibition at MoMA, “Just Bab Midtown: From 1974 to the Present”, focusing on black artists, especially Nengdi, at the New York art gallery founded by Linda Goode Bryant.

“They continue to have a new spirit in the way they make things,” Lux said of how the “sapphire” artists have evolved. “There is an ongoing effort to reinvent our own form. “

Jackson said their bond will continue for the four living artists. “We’re still kind of a family,” she said. “The ‘Sapphire Show’ was our starting point and our driving force. “

Nengdi said the “friendship and support system” has stuck with her.

“The show didn’t last that long, but the important thing is that it happened,” she said. “It’s part of the story.

You’ve come a long way, Baby: Sapphire Show

Until July 31 Ortuzar project, 9 White Street, Tribeca; (212) 257-0033; ortuzarprojects.com.

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