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:


Darcel said...

Wow. Those pieces are stunning!
This is a great post!

Robert said...

LOve Karen's work! Not only is she a talented artist, but she is hella kind and down to earth!

yanadonna said...


Words cannot express what a gift u r to humanity. I am glad to see the depth of your creativity. Your art is truly magnificent and speaks of our remarkable heritage for those of us who know so little.

Be blessed.