A rare spotlight on black women’s art is still shining 51 years later

It was the pop-up of its day – although in effect it was more of a supernova than a pop.

The “Sapphire Show: You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby” debuted at Gallery 32, a Los Angeles oasis for the work of African American artists. It opened on a holiday – July 4, 1970 – and closed five days later, with the final show at the Experimental Gallery near MacArthur Park. The gallery itself turned shortly thereafter.

“I remember that feeling,” said Senga Nengudi, one of the six featured artists, whose contributions included vinyl tubes filled with colored water. “It was exciting, fun and triumphant.” The show, named after the bossy character Sapphire Stevens from the radio and TV series “Amos ‘n’ Andy”, also borrowed the famous Virginia Slims cigarette tagline for its sassy subtitles.

Possibly the first show dedicated to black female actors in Los Angeles and possibly in the United States, it shone briefly but brightly, and the energy it released can still be felt.

Artists featured included the founders of Gallery 32, Susan Jackson, who ran the arts field from his loft in the Granada Building; Nengudi (who was then Sue Irons); Nengudi’s cousin, Eileen Abdulrashid (now Eileen Nelson); daughter essence; Yvonne Cole Mayo (1923-2016); and Gloria Bohannon (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,” can be seen through July 31 and features the same cast.

The 29 works on view include some artifacts believed to be in the original show – Jackson’s records were lost, so the exact material is hazy – as well as later works by all six women, to show that they were decades old. How did it develop in

abstract, Now 94 and still based in Los Angeles, the group was the largest and most famous of all time in 1970, and became famous for its appropriation of racist imagery, as in its politically explicit work. “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima” (1972).

His 1967 cosmological-themed print “Taurus” in the new “Sapphire” is a work that organizers and scholars can definitively call the original exhibit.

Nengudi, 77, now living in Colorado Springs, currently has a solo show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, “Senga Nengudi: Topologies,” Among other works, pieces from her “RSVP” series: installations made from sand-filled pantyhose, were initially inspired by her pregnancy.

An earlier series, Nengudi’s “Water Creations,” is featured in Ortuzar Projects—imagine a juicy, sensual version of minimalism, complete with vinyl tubes filled with brightly colored water. At least one of the works was in the original “Sapphire”.

Savannah, Ga.-based Jackson, also 77, is a poet, dancer, and set designer whose recent work has focused on painting. He has been featured in several shows, including “Soul of a Nation: Black Power in the Age of Art”. One of her large paintings in the current show, “Rag-to-Wobble” (2020), is amoeba-shaped, protruding and thickly surrounded, including vintage dress hangers.

The original “Sapphire” was a Salon des Refuges: it was a reaction to the exclusion of women from a 1970 exhibition of black artists sponsored by the Carnation Evaporated Milk Company at its Los Angeles headquarters, which invited only one female artist, to participate. for.

“All the men were involved,” Jackson said. “We were so annoyed that we were ignored.” Instead, he staged his own show. Its pioneering existence resonates especially now.

“It opened a door,” said Carolyn Peter, curatorial assistant at the J. Paul Getty Museum, in a previous job, co-organizing the 2009 exhibition. “Gallery 32 and its circle” Loyola at Marymount University, which examined the impact of the Visionary Gallery (where David Hammons, Timothy Washington and Emory Douglas also showed) on the Los Angeles art world. “There was a dual challenge for black women – their color and their gender – and these women took a stand through their art,” Peter said.

Columbia art history professor Kelly Jones, who has studied the era, said the original exhibit “still needs 15 minutes of fame for it. People are talking about it right now. It was such an impressive show.”

The 1970s “Sapphire” was quickly thrown together—the Nelson-designed poster had a misspelling of Essence’s name, and included childhood photos of some of the artists.

“We just stayed in a room at the same time and decided to do it very quickly,” Jackson said of its origins. He founded Gallery 32 in 1969 at the age of 25, and it lasted less than two years. “I ran out of money,” she said. There was only one show after “Neelam” of meow His penchant for combining work, and collage and painting, can be seen in Ortuzer’s projects in “Forbidden Fruit in the Garden of Eden” (1965).

In addition to Gallery 32, there were several venues championing artists of color in 1970, including the Brockman Gallery and the non-profit Watts Tower Arts Center in Los Angeles, but they were not focused on women. In 1973, Saar hosted “Black Mirror”, a successor show dedicated to black women in Womanspace using the same Virginia Slims subtitles as “Sapphire”.

It was a deliberate and bold choice to include the character of Neelam in the title of the original show. Saar, who was part of a group effort to curate the show, recently wrote in an email that she saw Neelam as “a tough woman, a busy person and knows everything”.

He continued, “If you were a woman in the art world at the time, you had to be the boss, and also be 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 that Sapphire was “more than outspoken, she was a shrewd, barking, matriarch. disturbing – every negative portrayal of a black female subject.”

Hence the courage to repurchase by the gallery’s 32 artists. “It showed a playfulness, but also a radical determinism,” Rhodes said. “We name ourselves.”

Rather than criticize the character, Jackson said that the group “used it as an advance way of saying that we are really strong women.”

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

“I was a young whipsnapper, and I was very firm about my career,” Nengudi said. She praised Jackson, saying, “You can’t even imagine how difficult it was to run a gallery in Los Angeles at the time.”

Essence recalled how Jackson walked around town as a nascent gallerist and artist: “He drove an ambulance to his car.”

Nelson, now 82 years old and living in Novato, Calif., had an accident with her cousin Ngudi during that period.

“I was struggling to share my art with people,” Nelson said, adding that the five-day run paid off for him. “Someone bought a painting,” she said, one depicting “a beautiful, strong, dynamic woman.”

There are three works in Nelson’s Ortuzar show, two paintings and a sculpture from the 1970s called “Wood City”, which features a rectangular form and a tree limb.

Some of the older works in the current exhibit have an earthy, bohemian air, reflecting California’s much earlier era. (About two-thirds of the show is for sale.)

In Jackson’s canvas “The American Sampler” (1972), a face appears to emerge from a tree trunk. Bohannon, who was known for his abstract work, has eight works on show, including two tondos that stretch the hands.

Essence is represented by “Rainbow Mojo” (1972), a painting on leather that depicts colorful natural forms: a moon, stars and a torn rainbow.

Saar’s “Aunt and Watermelon” (1973), a sculpture featuring a black female figure and a collage of images of Aunt Jemima, done a year later, indicates that her practice is rapidly taking over from “Sapphire”. was.

“She is a theoretician of taking caricatures and sniping the punch, reusing it to their own ends,” said Thomas Lacks, curator of media and performing arts at the Museum of Modern Art.

About the New York art gallery founded by LAX, Linda Goode Bryant MoMA is hosting an upcoming show in “Just Above Midtown: 1974 to the Present,” which focuses on Nengudi, the black artists among them.

About the way the cast has evolved in “Sapphire”, Lax said, “The freshness of the spirit in how they make things.” “There is a constant commitment to reinventing our own forms.”

For his part, Jackson said that for the four artists who are still alive, their bond remains. “We’re still kind of a family,” she said. “‘Neelam Show’ was our beginning and our inspiration.”

Nengudi said the “empathy and support system” has been with her.

“Although the show didn’t last that long, the important thing is that it did,” she said. “It’s a part of history.”

You’ve come a long way, baby: The Sapphire Show

till 31st July, Ortuzar Projects, 9 White Street, Tribeca; (212) 257-0033; ortuzarprojects.com.

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