A Uncommon Highlight on Black Girls’s Artwork Nonetheless Shines After 51 Years
It was the pop-up of its time – although in its influence it was more of a supernova than a pop.
“Sapphire Show: You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby” debuted at Gallery 32, an oasis in Los Angeles for the work of African American artists. It opened on a public holiday – July 4th, 1970 – and closed five days later, the penultimate exhibition in the experimental gallery near MacArthur Park. The gallery itself folded up soon after.
“I remember the feeling,” said Senga Nengudi, one of the six featured artists whose contribution included vinyl tubes filled with colored water. “It was exciting, fun and triumphant.” The series, which is named after the bossy character Sapphire Stevens from the radio and television series “Amos ‘n’ Andy”, also borrowed the famous cigarette slogan from Virginia Slims for its cheeky subtitle.
Probably the first show dedicated to black women artists in Los Angeles and possibly the United States, it shone briefly but brightly, and the energy it released can still be felt.
Artists featured included Gallery 32 founder Suzanne Jackson, who ran the art space from her loft in the Granada Buildings; Nengudi (then Sue Irons); Nengudi’s cousin Eileen Abdulrashid (now Eileen Nelson); Betye Saar; Yvonne Cole Meo (1923-2016); and Gloria Bohanon (1939-2008).
Now Ortuzar Projects, a TriBeCa gallery, has created a tribute and an update: “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby: The Sapphire Show”, to be seen until July 31st and with the same cast.
The 29 works on display include some of the works of art believed to be included in the original exhibition – Jackson’s records have been lost, so the exact contents are unclear – as well as later works by all six women to show how they got on over the course which have developed over the decades.
Saar, now 94 years old and still based in Los Angeles, was older in 1970 and by far the best known of the group and became famous for her appropriation of racist images, as in her politically explicit work “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima” (1972).
Her 1967 cosmological print “Bull” is the only work in the new “Saphir” that organizers and scientists can definitely say was in the original exhibition.
Nengudi, 77, now lives in Colorado Springs and currently has a solo exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, “Senga Nengudi: Topologies,” which includes pieces from her “RSVP” series: installations of sand-filled tights, initially inspired by her own Pregnancy.
A previous series, Nengudi’s “Water Compositions”, is represented at Ortuzar Projects – imagine a juicy, sensual version of minimalism, with vinyl tubes full of colored water. At least one of the works was originally “Sapphire”.
Jackson, also 77, from Savannah, Georgia, is a poet, dancer, and set designer whose recent work has focused on painting. She has appeared in many shows, including “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power”. One of her large paintings in the current exhibition, “Rag-to-Wobble” (2020), is amoeba-shaped, bulbous and thickly cast and contains vintage clothes hangers.
The original “Sapphire” was a Salon des Refusés: it was a response by women to being banned from a 1970 black artist exhibition sponsored by the Carnation condensed milk company at their Los Angeles headquarters and to which only one artist was invited . take part.
“All the men were there,” said Jackson. “We were so upset that we were ignored.” Instead, they put on their own show. His pioneering existence appears particularly sonorous today.
“It opened a door,” says Carolyn Peter, curatorial assistant at the J. Paul Getty Museum, who previously co-organized the 2009 Loyola Marymount University Gallery 32 & Its Circle exhibition, which studied the effects the far-sighted gallery (which also featured David Hammons, Timothy Washington, and Emory Douglas) on the Los Angeles art world. “Black women had a double challenge – their skin color and their gender – and these women took a stand through their art,” said Peter.
Kellie Jones, a Columbia professor of art history who studied that era, noted that the original exhibit “is still in need of its 15 minutes of fame. People are only talking about it now. It was such an impressive show. “
The 1970s “Sapphire” was quickly thrown together – the poster designed by Nelson contained Saar’s false name and included childhood photos of some of the artists.
“We happened to be in the same room at the same time and decided to do this very quickly,” Jackson said of its creation. At the age of 25, she founded Gallery 32 in 1969, which lasted less than two years. “I ran out of money,” she said. After “Sapphire” there was only one exhibition of Meo’s works, and her fondness for the combination of collage and painting can be seen in “Forbidden Fruit in Garden of Eden” (1965) at Ortuzar Projects.
In addition to Gallery 32, there were several color artist venues in Los Angeles in 1970, including the Brockman Gallery and the nonprofit Watts Tower Arts Center, but these did not focus on women. In 1973 Saar organized in Womanspace “Black Mirror”, a follow-up show dedicated to black women and using the same Virginia Slims subtitle as “Sapphire”.
Appealing to the Sapphire character in the title of the original show was a conscious and bold choice. Saar, who was part of a group effort to curate the show, wrote in an email recently that she viewed Sapphire as “a tough woman, a busy, know-it-all” woman.
She added, “If you were a woman in the art world back then, you had to be bossy and also creative.”
Jane Rhodes, professor of black studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago and author of “Framing the Black Panthers: The Spectacular Rise of a Black Power Icon,” said Sapphire was “more than confident, she was a mischievous, intimidating” person , harassing matriarch – any negative portrayal of a black female subject. “
Hence the boldness of the conversion by the artists of Galerie 32. “It showed a playfulness, but also a radical determinism,” said Rhodes. “We can give ourselves a name.”
Rather than criticize the character, Jackson said the group “used it to say that we are really strong women”.
Whatever the obstacles to success, the six artists were not so easily stopped.
“I was a young hit and I was very persistent about my career,” said Nengudi. In admiration for Jackson, she added, “You can’t imagine how difficult it was back then to get a gallery going in Los Angeles.”
Saar remembered a telling detail of how Jackson came through town as an aspiring gallery owner and artist: “She drove an ambulance for her car.”
Nelson, now 82 and living in Novato, California, had crashed with her cousin Nengudi during this time.
“I’ve struggled to share my art with people,” said Nelson, adding that the five-day run paid off for them. “Somebody bought a painting,” she said, one that depicts “a beautiful, strong, dynamic lady.”
Nelson has three works in the Ortuzar exhibition, two paintings and a sculpture from the 1970s called “Wood City,” which contains rectangular shapes and a branch.
Some of the older works in the current exhibition have an earthy bohemian vibe that echoes a bygone Californian era. (About two-thirds of the show is for sale.)
On Jackson’s canvas “The American Sampler” (1972) a face appears to be growing out of a tree stump. Bohanon, who was known for abstract work, has eight works on display, including two tondos with outstretched hands.
Saar is represented by “Rainbow Mojo” (1972), a painting on leather that shows colorful natural forms: a moon, stars and a bursting rainbow.
Saars “Auntie & Watermelon” (1973), a sculpture with a black female figure and collaged Aunt Jemima pictures, which was created a year later, shows the direction in which her practice increasingly went after “Sapphire”.
“She is the theoretician of the caricature, who removes the stamp and reuses it for her own purposes,” says Thomas Lax, curator for media and performance art at the Museum of Modern Art.
Lax is organizing an upcoming exhibition at MoMA, Just Above Midtown: 1974 to the Present, on the New York art gallery founded by Linda Goode Bryant that focused on black artists, including Nengudi.
“They still have a fresh spirit in the way they do things,” Lax said of the development of the artists in “Sapphire”. “There is an ongoing commitment to reinventing their own shapes.”
For her part, Jackson said their bond with the four artists who were still alive would remain. “We’re still some kind of family,” she said. “The ‘Sapphire Show’ was our beginning and our impetus.”
Nengudi said the “camaraderie and support system” remained with her.
“Even if the show didn’t last that long, it’s important that it happened,” she said. “It’s part of the story.”
You’ve come a long way, baby: The Sapphire Show
Until July 31, Ortuzar Projects, 9 White Street, TriBeCa; (212) 257-0033; ortuzarprojects.com.