Karen Seneferu transformed a small room for "Passage" at Krowswork in Oakland (Jan. 29 - March 11). Carefully-placed handmade sculptures and relics stand on the ground and are arrayed on the partially exposed wooden walls. White drawings made directly on the bare floor seem to be remnants from a ritual. Video of large round rising suns and moons projects on the largest wall. This space feels charged.
Three sculptures resembling human figures (approx. 4' - 5' in height) stand in three corners of the room. Each of the three sculptures have a viewing portal in their mid-sections. One of these portals is a hole that reveals the hollow inside of the sculpture. Little cut-out rectangular snapshot portraits people the walls of the cylindrical interior. The other two sculptures' portals are iPhones playing looped videos. One video is about the artist and her creative process. The other is a video slideshow of different peoples' snapshot portraits.
On the opening night, Seneferu stood resolutely and peacefully in this small Art Murmur-packed, crowded room. She was dressed in traditional African clothing. When I looked at her, which I did several times, she smiled back and gestured toward the viewing portal of one of the Kisi sculptures. Whenever a human being (whether the artist, or a hired performer/ assistant) is in the exhibition space, I feel both confused and energized. I wonder if they are there to interact, or just on display/ on stage. Should I respect the separation of performer from myself as audience member, or is this an invitation to interface? Like on this particular night, I always at some point realize that I should not strike up a conversation with the human sculpture. But I always end up with a rascally smile and a jaunty step. LOL.
Karen Seneferu is a performer. Although everyone affects every space in which they spend time, Karen is distinctly aware of her effect on a space. She is the space-shaper. To take on that role is a choice. Her designed space is meant to impact those who step into it.
Seneferu zeroes in on a specific, intelligent and lyrical message. She brings tradition to the now. With new, amazing technologies, traditions across cultures now seem antiquated and distant. Many ancient, passed-down rituals have recently been abandoned. Sometimes an iPhone seems like a larger phenomenon than life itself. Seneferu puts technology in the same room with spiritually-charged, centuries-old traditions. In some ways this assembly makes the iPhone seem silly and insignificant, revealing it as a smoke and mirrors "magical" device that should serve what really matters: life and love.
This assembly of art-spirit objects is part of a performance – a tent that transforms an outskirts into a place for affectations and resolves. Seneferu's artist persona braids the anonymity & humility of a folk artist with the attention-grabbing showmanship of a traveling evangelist or mystic. Exotic and kitschy all in the same memory. Tradition sunk with ships to the bottom of our hearts, anchored, and tethered there. For a moon's deep sea dive and a sun's colliding division. Sidestepping numbered worlds and strata of sheen.
She attracts us to her and asks, "Will people address me, or the "me" me? Or the window me? Or some other me?"
I respond, "Where are you taking us? I chose to walk into your room, not knowing to what degree it really was yours. Your arrangement of things is not like a replaceable computer chip or a hard drive that will eventually be shelved. But a rooted presence. A performance. People are here, were brought, conjured, invited."
"And you are here."
"And you are here."
"I am here."
The people in this room brush elbows and whole torsos
graze one another.
Stunned by the reunion, we nod and smile
hello toeach other in passing peace frenzy.
For a mourn.
Not a graveyard, but a place to reunite with whom we yearn for.
Those corners of grey cloth
that flag off our bodies' thoughts
while we briskly turn corners or humbly
walk forward during our waking
hours and at every glance.
Information on the Krowswork website and Duane Deterville's interview with Seneferu both describe the large doll-like sculptures, called Techno-Nkisi. They talk about traditional African uses of Nkisi dolls, and the significance and history of entwining new technologies with traditional spiritual objects. Both these writings are illuminating, and Karen's way of describing her art in the interview is notably open and aware. I highly recommend taking a look at this interview, essential and at the root of what this show is about.
Info about the Passage show at Krowswork:
Duane Deterville's Interview with Karen Seneferu on the SFMOMA Blog:
"Tradition is not ideal, nor an idea, but incarnate."