The art of every day

The Swedish Cherry family devoted their life to art and music. This summer Moki Cherrys colorful tapestries fill an entire room at Moderna Museet in Stockholm.

Her real name was Monika Karlsson. It’s hard to think of a more common Swedish name. For a long time, her life was quite common as well, growing up in a small village in Norrbotten, in the far north of Sweden. But in 1962, when she was 19 years old, Monika “Moki” Karlsson moved to Stockholm to study fashion. The following year she met musician Ahmadu Jah, originally from Sierra Leone, who had received a scholarship to study engineering in Sweden. In 1964 they welcomed a daughter, Neneh, who accompanied her mother to school in a basket.

Moki Cherry weaved both her life and her family into her tapestries she made and wanted art to be part of everyday life. Organic Music, 1967. Photo: Prallan Allsten/Moderna Museet

Her relationship with Jah was short-lived. Instead Moki met another musician in the jazz club Gyllene Cirkeln in Stockholm. His name was Don Cherry, a famous American jazz trumpeter. The two married and had a son, Eagle Eye, and shortly after the family of four moved to an old, abandoned school in the countryside in Skåne in southern Sweden. Here they started an arts centre for children, played music and ran a local theatre, activities that both Neneh and Eagle Eye took part in. In fact, the whole family was like an art community, where dad recorded music and mom made album covers, sewed costumes and created large, colorful scenography. Both the Cherry children later became professional musicians.

Moki Cherry at her sewing machine in 1971, creating artworks for to the exhibition Utopias and Visions at Moderna Museet. Photo: Private

In 1971 Pontus Hultén, then chief of the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, asked the couple to make a contribution to the exhibition Utopias & Visions 1871-1981, which was inspired by uprisings in Paris in 1871. Moki and Don packed their things and moved into the old prison located next to the museum at Skepsholmen in Stockholm with the children. Here they created a total work of art consisting a large tent filled with Mokis textiles where Don Cherry’s album Organic Music was recorded.

Travels to other contries and especially Afrika were major sources of inspiration for Moki Cherry. Brown Rice, 1975. Photo: Prallan Allsten/Moderna Museet

The family toured tirelessly in Sweden – in 1973 Don Cherry held 86 school concerts in the country – which was part of the reason why textiles were Mokis preferred material. Tapestries could easily be rolled up in the tour bus so that they took up little space. In addition, she found an abundance of materials on the road, especially when they toured abroad. In winter the family lived in a loft in Long Island in New York. Moki wanted art to be a part of everyday life and made sure their rooms were filled with colors and textures. Her children brought the colors with them later in life – take a look at the music video for Neneh Cherry’s major hit Buffalo Stance, for example, and the colorful patterns that dance around in the background.

Everyday objects and fantastical creatures coexisted in Moki Cherrys work. Untitled, 1980. Photo: Prallan Allsten/Moderna Museet

Despite the fact that she held several exhibitions both in Sweden and in New York, Moki Cherry was never fully recognized as an artist. The exhibition which opened at the Moderna Museet in April this year, four years after her death, is fairly modest and limited to one room. Seeing her art up close, I was struck by all the everyday items she used as materials – buttons, cutlery and safety pins along with fantastic creatures like dragons, sea serpents and mermaids. The fact that so much of everyday life and womanhood have found their way into these works probably explains why they have not been held in high regard. Which is so often the case when the story of the textile and women’s art is accounted for.

Towards the end of her career Moki Cherry worked extensively with photo collages. She died in 2012, 17 years after her husband. Friends and relatives sang, played music and read poems at her funeral, which a friend referred to as “the party of the year” in Skåne.

First and foremost the story of the Cherry family is a piece of Swedish cultural history in itself, loud, colorful and unique. It’s interesting that so few of their activities were politically motivated – they did not define themselves as radicals or leftists, although they lived in a way that would indicate that they were. A strong sense of community, the simple country life and the inclusion of children in all aspects of social life were key values. Moki Cherry also wanted everything around her to be beautiful, but that could easily be achieved with what was at hand. The walls of her room at Moderna Museet is a joyous contrast to the subdued color palette in most Scandinavian home today. It’s part of what makes it such a delight to visit.

Moment – Moki Cherry at Moderna Museet until January 8th 2917. Main photo: Moki Cherry and her daughter Neneh in their apartment in Gamla Stan in Stockholm in the 60s. Private photo. 

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