Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Art of Sesame Street

Many of us grew up on Sesame Street. It was how we learned about colors, numbers, and letters. For me, Sesame Street became a major creative influence, and I often revisit its imagery for inspiration. The Brooklyn Public Library is celebrating Sesame Street's 40th Anniversary with an exhibition of artwork from yesteryear and now. I love this illustration (above) from the 1970s, with Bob sitting on the stoop (how Brooklyn is that?) and Big Bird looked so different!
Sesame Street introduced young audience to everyone from Richard Pryor to Buffy Sainte-Marie. Its multiracial cast (and multicolored puppets) taught kids about getting along with people from all backgrounds, and respect for different cultures. Here are some wonderful examples:

Sesame Street was a mirror of the times, delving into folk music with the likes of Steve Zuckerman, and some segments were downright psychedelic, like pinball with the Pointer Sisters.

Sesame Street: A Celebration of 40 Years of Life on the Street is on display until Feb. 21st, 2010. Check it out and take a colorful stroll down memory lane. Log onto: for more info

Updates: Work in progress!

As the year draws quickly to a close, I have a lot to reflect on, and a lot to be thankful for. January will mark Black Butterfly's one year anniversary, and so much has changed since then! I started this blog not long after the inauguration of Barack Obama, after having moved back home from New York at the height of the economic recession. I was unemployed, broke, and feeling kind of useless, but at the same time feeling so much optimism and hope for the future. After all I had just witnessed history unfold with the election of this nation's first Black president. How could one not be inspired to follow their dreams, to do more and be more? It was in that spirit that Black Butterfly was created. When not in search of employment, I spent my time researching artists at the local library in San Jose (The Martin Luther King Jr. library has a stunning collection of artists' books), painting, and taking photographs and writing about artists I love and shows that inspired me. Black Butterfly has truly been a labor of love, and I'm thankful for every reader, every comment (they literally make my day), and that yall take the time to read this blog ;)
That said, the past few weeks I've been going a little nuts because computer failure kept me from making my updates. I'm happy to say the problem has been fixed, so expect a flurry of posts this week (I usually try to space them out a bit), there's so much I want to share!
The photo above is a watercolor painting I'm working on as part of an installation piece, and she's resting on my favorite heirloom quilt. More pictures of the finished project coming soon!
I think 2009 was a year that tested us all. And if that's the case, I hope that you learned something about yourself and were able to tap into your own resilient spirit in the process. I hope it's caused you to think outside the box, chase your dreams, and delve deeper into your passions, goals, and reconsider what's important to you. I hope that 2010 brings the realization of your wildest dreams, and alignment with your vision and purpose. Thank you for reading.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Now Showing: An Idea Called Tomorrow

You may remember artist Karen Seneferu from her inspiring interview featured on Black Butterfly a few months ago. Well since then she has been hard at work literally taking her Techno-Kisi concept to new heights. The life-size figure, this one done in warm shades of red and yellow (and with new interviews broadcasting from its belly), is on display at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles as part of their latest exhibition An Idea Called Tomorrow. This is one piece that is definitely worth seeing and experiencing in person.
An Idea Called Tomorrow runs from November 19th to March 10th. Log onto their website for more info. :

Monday, October 12, 2009

Kelly Shaw Willman: grunge*quest, Movement 7

Performance artist Kelly Shaw Willman's grunge*quest continues, with the most recent glittery installment, Movement 7, taking place within her apartment in Bushwick, Brooklyn. The performance space (Kelly's shared living room) was dimly lit, her audience encircled on plush couches and chairs, surrounding a sculptural installation. The installation evoked feelings of intimacy and girlhood with toys, candy sprinkles, and brightly colored panties carefully arranged. There were three sets of small shelves in the space, containing an array of small spheres covered in glitter, and panties bundled into more sculptural pieces hanging from the ceiling. The piece that most struck my fancy was a brightly colored toy bunny head sitting in a bowl of sprinkles. As the performance began, Kelly started two tape players, one playing recordings of a conversation between several people, and the other playing what seemed to be the sounds of some kind of airplane or engine.
Willman moved through the space doused in flour (or baby powder?), performing a series of almost ritualistic actions. She was a woman stirring her own pot, making her own magic right before our eyes. At one point, she sliced open some apples and filled them with crimson glitter. They looked as though they were oozing a beautiful blood.
At another point, Kelly poured a bowl of honey over her head, most likely as an ode to Oshun, an African deity of love, sensuality and fertility. Oshun's energy was a perfect addition to this very womanly performance piece. And one can't help but make connections between the use of apples in the space and the temptation of Eve in the garden of Eden.
Further into the performance, Kelly picked up the various pairs of panties that were on the floor, and placed them at the feet or on the laps of her audience members, along with a small bottle of blue water. Then she walked into the bathroom. Everyone followed her in, and there we witnessed the grand finale, which was Willman sitting in a bathtub full of blue water, covered in red glitter.

Audience members took the bottles full of blue water they'd been given earlier and added it to the bath water. It was almost like a communal baptism of some sort. There she sat peacefully in the tub, as sounds from one of the tape recorders squawked and sputtered in the background. I was reminded of a scene in Ousmane Sembene's 1966 noir film Black Girl, where a French Family's Senegalese maid commits suicide and is found in the bathtub, killing herself in anguish over being mistreated and feeling out of place in a strange new land. Kelly is indeed far from home, but her bathtub scene marked a rebirth of sorts. I cannot wait to see what this remarkable young artist offers up next.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Performance: Aisha Tandiwe Bell

Bear with me folks. I'm going to try really hard to describe what defies description. Artist Aisha Tandiwe Bell's performance at Brooklyn's Corridor Gallery was mesmerizing and soul-stirring. I've never seen anything like it.
Aisha is a multimedia artist. She works in performance, sculpture, and painting, so I arrived at Corridor not knowing what to expect. I found a space that was alive with her installations of Black girls gracing the walls.
When viewing Bell's visual works, I was struck by the skilled rendering of her figures. The Black girls were drawn with sullen expressions on their faces, and had hollow white ceramic faces attached to their heads. I loved the fact that the ceramic faces cast shadows onto the girls' heads.
Other figures incorporated fabric and more of her beautiful sculptural pieces. The repetition of faces and forms, with some emerging out of bodies suggest connections to ancestry. And for people of African descent, ancestry can be fraught with pain and mysteries to unravel. Bell's characters appear to carry around ghostly weights. Aisha says her work "is about our individual burdens, insecurities, and self-prescribed traps, walls, armor, masks, stereotypes, that we wear/carry out of habit, comfort, fear, sloth, and shame. However, my work also explores our ability to transform, resist and escape these traps." In the center of the room was a tin tub filled with blue water and surrounded by rows of ceramic faces. When the performance began, she handed each member of the audience 2 faces and instructed us to bang them together in a particular rhythm. As we beat the faces together, Aisha donned a white skirt and top, and a belt with the ceramic faces hanging from it. She began to wind her waist in time to the beat, and the faces began to clatter and crash together. The sound it created was otherworldly. Bell danced until the faces broke in pieces and fell to the floor. When all the faces had broken and fallen off, Aisha got into the tin tub and began bathing herself in the blue water. By this time the energy in the room was so heightened that the rhythm the audience had started beating with the faces sped up to a feverish pace.
The performance and installation were so powerful. It was the finale of Bell's month-long residency at Corridor Gallery, and what a finish it was! Aisha Tandiwe Bell is definitely an artist to watch. Expect to see much more of her here on Black Butterfly. For more on Bell and her work, check out her website:

And for more info. on the Corridor Gallery:

And check out this amazing video of one of Aisha's past performances:

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Brooklyn Loves Michael Jackson

As the whole world probably knows by now, yesterday would have been Michael Jackson's 51st Birthday. Folks in New York were doing it big, there were parties galore, MJ flash mobs, and all kinds of events. And Spike Lee put together a very special gathering at Prospect Park in Brooklyn. The buzz on Spike Lee's big free MJ dance party in the park had been growing for weeks. The event was even moved from Fort Greene Park to the much larger Prospect Park because about 10,000 people were expected to show up. The music was provided by DJ Spinna, and he dug deep in the crates, pulling out gems like "Enjoy Yourself", "Got To Be There", as well as anthems like "Thriller" and "Beat It".

The huge gathering was not only peaceful but entirely positive. People of all ages sang and danced together, with the lyrics to some of Jackson's songs projected on big jumbo-trons so everybody could sing along. There were also cameramen who moved throughout the crowd and projected wonderful shots of people dancing, and folks in costume. One highlight was a little body who couldn't have been more than four (he was tiny!) jumped out in a fedora and white glove, and started moonwalking, hit all of Michael's signature moves, and then he went up on his toes! The crowd went nuts.
Legendary director Spike Lee also doubled as hype man, commanding the crowd to sing and put their hands in the air. He, Tracy Morgan, and Taraji P. Henson lead the crowd through rounds of "Mama se mama sa mama koo sa" on "Wanna Be Starting Something." The Reverend Al Sharpton also spoke about how Michael broke down barriers and changed the face of music, and tied Michael Jackson's legacy to that of Ted Kennedy's and other pioneers. He also reminded us that this weekend marked 4 years since the Hurricane Katrina disaster, and it meant we still had a long way to go. DJ Spinna played a perfect mix of dance tunes and ballads, and gets props for busting out sister Rebbie Jackson's classic hit "Centipede". He knows his stuff.

A huge part of what made this event so positive and special was the wonderful people of Brooklyn. There is truly no place like BK, and folks bring a communal vibe and high spirits whenever they come together. The energy of the crowd was electric, and also felt like one big neighborhood block party. We woke up to steady rainfall in New York that morning, and at first I worried the event would get rained out. Everyone showed up in their boots and armed with umbrellas just in case. But the rain held throughout the event, and towards the end as we all sang "Man In The Mirror", the sun came out. It was beautiful. Here are some of my favorite shots of people in the crowd. Props to the guy who got real creative and showed up as Mars, Spike Lee's character in She's Gotta Have It. And the brotha knew how to pose. Fierce!! Thank you Michael Jackson for all the wonderful music, and thank you Spike Lee for throwing one helluva party in his honor.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Artist In Depth: Karen Seneferu

Karen Seneferu is a mixed media artist based in Richmond, California. Her ancestral-inspired creations have made her one of the Bay Area's artistic treasures. Read on for insight into her creative mind.

How long have you been creating art? What first sparked your interest in it?

I have been making art and recognized as an artist for about 5 years. I am a late bloomer, but I had been told by a number of people, at least 15 years ago, that I was an artist. It took me 10 years to acknowledge myself as one, but since then I have received immediate recognition in the galleries and just recently museums.

How does your community influence your creativity?

I make art with them in mind, that is my immediate community, the people I work on behalf of, family, and those I live with are on my mind when I create, yeah even other artists, I am creating with them in mind. I want them to be cleansed, then struck, then compelled. I want them to see how beautiful they are. That is at the core of my work to reveal the beauty within. But since the African Diaspora represents, also, such dehumanizing experiences that history as a way of dusting off and returning to the core of the self. I try to mediate the relationship between the public and private for the community, establishing memorial, and I hope it extends beyond my own.

Who are some of your favorite artists?

Betye Saar, the Saar Women, Dominique Moody, Willie Little, Toni Scott, Joe Sam, Malik Seneferu, my husband, fill me up with energy to move as an artist, and Renee Stout, her influences are so compelling, she is such an exciting artist, that I would have to say she is my spiritual guider since the first time I showed my art, publicly. I know there are others; some I have not seen or connected yet.

You've created some amazing dolls of intricate detail. What inspired you to make these dolls, and what is your process for creating them?

Thank you, Marissa. I made them originally on behalf of Sara Baartman, labeled “Venus Hottentot.” In 1810, 20 year old Baartman, was taken to England by a British sergeant, where she was caged and displayed naked for European society to gawk at her buttocks and genitals, for they thought her body an oddity different from their own. She was traded to a French animal trainer, and when the novelty of her difference wore off, the French trainer threw her out, and she was forced into prostitution, dying at the age of 25 from alcoholism and venereal disease.

Sara’s experience typifies, for me, the conception of black sexuality and the impact this exploitation has on the African community. It creates an environment where the mother is incapable of providing, or she does not produce a legacy to continue the culture of that group.

Therefore, the soft figurative sculptures symbolize Sara Baartman’s legacy; the figurines are not dolls, not play things.They are sacred images that evoke the ancestors of the past as they preside over present living ancestors. These sculptures are relics.

In terms of making them, I think about a design, a pattern I like in an art book, the museum, or sometimes, it is a style of art from an artist. Once I tried to create a pattern that Joe Sam designs of his face when he signs his signature. I implied it to one of the dolls, and I really liked how that one came out. Or, it might be a pattern I see on a street or sidewalk. Now, I am working on a piece that has been taking some years to finish that reflects the quilt patterns of the Gee's Bend.

How does the African diaspora influence your work?

The reservoir is so deep and wide: it is the pulse of my existence and creativity. However, my new work is an integration of the ancient past and present technology, so I am aware of today's forces to the extent that it has become mediums of communication, and I use it as a frequency of that-but as a form to hearken back to something deeper.

You also create extensive installations. Can you talk about what inspires these and your process for creating them?

Well, my second exhibition was at Pro Arts Gallery in Oakland. I came in second place out of 60 artists for one of my sculptures. However, a chair that I created that was covered in beans, rice, seed, beads, stuff I like to put on found objects, was also in the exhibition. When I went to the gallery, days before the exhibition, I saw my chair and sculpture standing in white space, and my pieces felt dead to me. In my work, I like to create narratives around the pieces, an environment where the pieces watch or preside over the objects that surround the sculptures.
I looked at the chair, and finally I decide that I would put the African continent around it. So, I rallied my husband for pieces of granite we had around our cottage, my mother for flowers, and my father for pennies, and arranged candles, flowers, and various objects inside and on top of the granite. Initially, I did not know what I was doing. I did it because it felt good to me, and it conveyed a story I wanted to tell. I did not know that process was called installation or altar. Since I am a self-taught artist, I find out what the thing is sometimes after the experience. Now, at some point when I create an installation, the family, the community assist in the development of it. It is a tricky commitment. Everyone wants to create, and I believe everyone has the ability to do it, but when the community is involved, I have to be careful with them. Because of their own desires to create, they tend to want to put their paint on my canvas, so to speak.
One of your most recent sculptures, Two Degrees, merges technology with Yoruba spiritual tradition. What was your vision in bringing these elements together? Will you continue to use technology in your work?
I am influenced by Renee Stout, particularly her piece "Fetish II" where she created an nkisi of herself. An nkisi translates to types of spiritual medicine, but also refers to "elevated spirits". The power image has been the piece that I have been dialoging with speaking to and back to the origin of this work, the Republic of Congo. The technology rose out of wanting to find a different path of communication, on the one hand, appearing to expose the mystery within the nkisi while hiding it in plain sight normally located in the belly of the sculpture.

Technology is something I am interested in continuing to work with. I would like to get involved with robotics.

How do African spiritual traditions play out in your work?

It is at the core of my growth as an artist; without it I nor does my work exist.

Many of your pieces are mixed media and incorporate many different materials.
Where do you find the objects you use? Do you have any favorite materials?

I like to go to rummage sales, secondhand stores, crafts stores, and just walking down the street.

What do you hope your legacy as an artist will be?

I hope my legacy will inspire my family, my community, others to heal themselves and find beauty within.

For more about Karen and her work, log onto:

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Artist to Watch: Ramon Martins

Brazilian artist Ramon Martins works in an infinite number of styles, and appears to be influenced by many different cultures. The majority of information I could find on him was in Portugese, so enjoy the visual goodness. He works in a language that's universal.
To see more of Ramon's work, visit: