You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby: The Sapphire Show
On ViewOrtuzar Projects
June 8 – July 31, 2021
The project of Black freedom dreaming has always been an exercise in kinship. Among the devastatingly beautiful examples of this truth are the collectives of Black artists and creators who have found a home in each other’s friendship, vision, and work. The Sapphire Show, the first known exhibition dedicated to Black women artists in the United States, holds a special place in this history. A collaboration between Gloria Bohanon, Betye Saar, Senga Nengudi (then Sue Irons), Yvonne Cole Meo, Eileen Nelson (then Eileen Abdulrashid), and Suzanne Jackson, the five-day exhibition was a watershed moment for Black women artists, ushering in a dream of collective self-definition that few other avenues afforded them. The exhibition was hosted in 1970 at Gallery 32, a Los Angeles gallery and arts collective founded in 1969 by Suzanne Jackson. Born in a political moment textured by both the growing Black Arts Movement and the ripe sense of potentiality that followed the Watts Rebellion of 1965, Gallery 32 was among a collection of spaces in LA that offered Black artists of the time the opportunity to gather, collaborate, and experiment. Over the course of its three-year tenure, the gallery welcomed the effulgent imaginations of artists including David Hammons, Emory Douglas, and of course, the six women exhibited in the Sapphire Show.
Over 50 years later, the fierce energy of the Sapphire Show—as well as the electric sense of political possibility that characterized the context it emerged from—has been re-enlivened in an exhibition at Tribeca’s Ortuzar Projects. Titled You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby: The Sapphire Show (a reversal of the original exhibition’s title and subtitle), the exhibition is an intimate gathering among old friends. Old and new works by each of the artists represented in the original exhibition flock together in a gorgeous reunion of living and passed on spirits.
Much like a number of contemporaneous Black art exhibitions, the Sapphire Show maintains no archive, with the exception of a single poster used to advertise the exhibition. Immediately upon entering Ortuzar Projects, visitors are treated to two glass vitrines containing exhibition posters, notecards, photographs, and books loosely related to Gallery 32 and other happenings in Black Los Angeles during the late 1960s and early ’70s. Yet the exhibition is formidable in its contestation of the archive. Rather than letting an exclusionary archive delimit its domain, it embraces a combination of speculation and direct testimony from participants to piece together the story of the Sapphire Show. You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby dares to imagine an exhibition that itself sought to imagine otherwise, to radically rethink what was possible for Black women artists at the time.
The exhibition at Ortuzar Projects is not reducible to a regrouping of the artists who participated in the original show; it is also an act of conjuring, a harnessing of the transgressive energy that lay at its core. Even in the configuration of the space, the exhibition evades the normative. In a rebellion against the stiflingly clinical sensibilities of conventional white cube presentation, order gives way to a chorus of energy. The works are hung in playful proximity to one another, brimming with shared ebullience. A trio of brightly colored yet stoic paintings by Gloria Bohanon hang like guardian angels on the back wall while Senga Nengudi’s Water Composition V (1969–70/2018), a colossi of four electric green and yellow tube-like structures, lies dormant on the floor. The already subversive presentation of objects is made even more striking by the lack of formal and material cohesion between them. Almost all of the artists work across at least two mediums, developing an uproarious bricolage. Painting, sculpture, photography, and assemblage tangle together, performing a kind of disorderly conduct that feels powerfully expressive of the radical experimentality that the Sapphire Show was devoted to.
The artists themselves also rigorously negotiate with history. Works like the text-driven Roots (c. 1970) by Gloria Bohanon and the print Generations (1993) by Yvonne Cole Meo foreground the question of lineage, reaching toward a place and time to call home. And of course, the exhibition’s title is dense with historical meaning: it is a reference to the Amos ‘n’ Andy character Sapphire Stevens, who has become a mythology of sorts, the definitive trope of the overly assertive Black woman. The presence of Sapphire, along with other historically situated stereotypes of Black femininity like the Mammy figure, looms over the exhibition in works like Betye Saar’s Auntie & Watermelon (1973) and Suzanne Jackson’s Sapphire & Tunis (2010–11). The former, a sculptural assemblage burrowed inside a wall mounted case, reclaims the brutal iconography of racism by pairing a watermelon-bearing Mammy figurine with a gun that alludes to a struggle for liberation. The latter is a breathtakingly complex collage of paper, cardboard, and paint that renders this history into abstraction. Saar and Jackson not only claim ownership over these motifs of violent othering, but also explode these images into a vocabulary that holds revolutionary potential. In reimagining what these figures represent, Saar, Jackson, and the other Sapphire artists seem to also set them free. Their forms glint with renewed life, intoxicating the gallery with riotous possibility.