Organic Music

Don Cherry's world fusion albums of the 1970s all have a particular look and feel on the cover that matches the music perfectly.  The key to this incredible matching of sound and visual art was designer and artist (and Don's wife) Moki Cherry. 

 Moki Cherry's artwork for  Organic Music Society  (1972)

Moki Cherry's artwork for Organic Music Society (1972)

The work of Moki Cherry (1943-2009) has been receiving renewed interest due, in part, to the current exhibition Moment: Moki Cherry at the Moderna Museet in Sweden, where Moki (born Monika Marianne Karlsson) met her second husband Don Cherry.  The two would embark upon a life of  creative collaboration from the mid-1960s onward, with Moki not only contributing visuals to Don's music, but outright affecting the compositions themselves.  Moki pushed her husband to incorporate the music of other cultures into his works, and she also played instruments on several of his recordings.

The couple and their children lived an experimental life together, treating the "stage as a home and the home as a stage" as the exhibition points out.  Looking at the cover of Organic Music Society, we see a figure that could be Don in the foreground with a bowed instrument and another figure in the background—probably Moki herself—emerging from a geodesic dome.  This was surely a reference to their recent stay in such a structure as part of the Moderna Museet's 1971 exhibition Utopias and Visions 1871-1981.  

 Don Cherry in the geodesic dome at  Utopias and Visions, 1871-1981 (photo by Bengt Berger)

Don Cherry in the geodesic dome at Utopias and Visions, 1871-1981 (photo by Bengt Berger)

The aesthetic that Moki employed on Don's albums were a direct outgrowth of the works she had been creating earlier in the 1960s, especially after studying at Beckman's College in Stockholm.  The couple cemented their creative and professional partnership in 1967, calling their collaborative activities Movement Incorporated (later changing it to Organic Music).

 Moki Cherry,  Untitled , 1967

Moki Cherry, Untitled, 1967

While Moki's creations were used as the cover art for Don's albums, they should more appropriately be understood as textile backdrops for the couple's live performances. Looking at the work Eternal Now, for instance, we can understand this piece as at once being an autonomous work of art (the tapestry itself), a commercial product (Don's album), and a practical prop (the backdrop of a stage performance).     

 Moki Cherry's artwork for  Eternal Now , 1973

Moki Cherry's artwork for Eternal Now, 1973

 Bengt Berger, Don Cherry, Eagle Eye Cherry, and Christer Bothen in front of Moki Cherry's  Eternal Now  (photo Bengt Berger)

Bengt Berger, Don Cherry, Eagle Eye Cherry, and Christer Bothen in front of Moki Cherry's Eternal Now (photo Bengt Berger)

 Organic Music performance, with  Eternal Now  hung in the background on the right.

Organic Music performance, with Eternal Now hung in the background on the right.

During the 1970s, Moki's particular artistic output had several advantages; the works set the tone perfectly for the styles of music that she and Don presented, and the tapestries were also very easily transportable during their marathon touring.  Kristin Valla of Two Hands Clapping writes, for instance, that in 1973 alone Don Cherry held 86 school concerts in Sweden.  The disadvantage of her work in a male-dominated art world however, was the lack of high regard for textiles and other materials referencing women and domesticity.  Many contemporary artists have been helping to confront this paradigm through the use of textiles in their work (see Ghada Amer's sewed sculptures or Kirsty Whitlock's embroidery about social responsibility for examples), but it is only recently that many of Moki Cherry's works have been contextualized as important works of art in their own right.  

 Moki Cherry,  Brown Rice

Moki Cherry, Brown Rice

 Front cover of Don Cherry's  Brown Rice  album, 1975

Front cover of Don Cherry's Brown Rice album, 1975

From all accounts, Moki Cherry was a feminist and her association with artists such as Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002) and Marie Louise Ekman (b. 1944) provides us with a look at an aesthetic that all three artists shared.  Incorporating surrealism, psychedelia, motifs and symbols from a variety of cultures, and a flat, pop sense of composition, all three artists borrowed freely from various art movements and philosophies to create multicultural amalgamations that continue to intrigue today. Moki famously described her own work by saying, "I don't think of my art as similar to, or belonging to, any particular culture." 

 Niki de Saint Phalle's  Serpent Tree  (1999)

Niki de Saint Phalle's Serpent Tree (1999)

 Marie Louise Ekman,  Waiting Room , 1971 (Eckman will also be on view at the Moderna Museet in the summer of 2017)

Marie Louise Ekman, Waiting Room, 1971 (Eckman will also be on view at the Moderna Museet in the summer of 2017)

Both Ekman and de Saint Phalle are more readily associated with feminist art (see de Saint Phalle's Hon: A Cathedral, 1966 or Ekman's I Staden, 1977) but regardless it is important to view Moki Cherry as a strong woman artist.  She continued to deal with gender as well as many other philosophical and historical concepts in her work until her death in 2012, as evidenced by the powerful collage below from 2007. Her geographic position in Europe and her societal position as a woman has kept her as a footnote in jazz history, but it is well worth recognizing the ways in which she directly affected and inspired the sounds emanating from 1970s Swedish alternative culture.

 Moki Cherry,  Untitled , 2007

Moki Cherry, Untitled, 2007

There are some great articles and photographs of Moki Cherry out there in the world.  I want to recognize some great sources I used for my own research and encourage you to explore Cherry's work more!

Two Hands Clapping is a great Scandinavian art and design blog run by Kristin Valla.

The Moderna Museet has a great show of Moki's work up through the end of summer 2017.

Bengt Berger played with Don and Moki Cherry and has a great blog about his current pursuits in world music. 

Anna Battista blogs about fashion, art, technology, and architecture at Irenebrination.