Unfinished Work: A Roundtable on L’informe
with Aria Dean, Bruce Hainley, Ruba Katrib, Emmanuel Olunkwa, and Lauren O'Neill-Butler
“It’s easy to recognize specters of Bataille’s thought today, for better and for worse.”
Hello from SculptureCenter and thank you so much for joining us tonight. This program is a roundtable on Sara Penn and Knobkerry, her long running shop in New York City. The program stems from Svetlana Kitto's longtime oral history project, for which she interviewed Penn and many others. It's published here in the context of an exhibition that will open on October 14th. You can get a book for free at SculptureCenter when you visit or you can download a PDF online on our website. It's a great reference for the rich color and texture that characterized Penn's store and the clothing and objects she made and showed.
SculptureCenter is interested in Svetlana's project because it revives the history of an influential but little-known figure who should be a reference for the ways we think about sculpture, installation, fashion, and artistic positions. We're aiming to elaborate on the dimensions of her work as much as possible and I want to thank all of the participants for joining us tonight who are contributing to this effort. I want to thank Jane and Camille of New York Consolidated for working on this book and larger project with us and I want to thank Svetlana for her careful and sensitive stewardship of this history.
Svetlana Kitto is a writer, editor, and oral historian. Her writing has been featured in New York, Ursula, Guernica, The New York Times, Interview and BOMB, among other periodicals. She's the author of the catalogue Ken Tisa: Objects/Time/Offerings, editor of the anthology Talking to the Sun at Fire Island, co-editor and contributor to Matt Keegan's artist book 1996 and a contributor to the just released Michael Mahalchick: Bodywork. As an oral historian, she's contributed primary materials to archives and exhibitions at the Brooklyn Historical Society, Museum of Arts and Design in New York, New York Public Library for Performing Arts, and the Smithsonian Archives of American Art in Washington, for which she conducted interviews with Robert Morris, Barbara Hammer and Bill T. Jones. Thank you, Svetlana.
Thank you, Kyle, and thank you all for coming. I first interviewed Sara Penn in 2017 as part of a collaboration with the gallery Gordon Robichaux. Four years and 15 interviews later, the oral history project has been animated into a few forms, including longer form interviews in the book, Sara Penn's Knobkerry: An Oral History Sourcebook, which I have just published with SculptureCenter and New York Consolidated.
For those who don't know, Sara Penn was a Black artist, designer, entrepreneur, whose groundbreaking Manhattan store, Knobkerry, was a celebrated favorite among village artists, musicians, actors, writers, and designers for decades. Penn opened the first location of Knobkerry in 1965, establishing it as one of the first stores in the United States to sell ethnographic art objects. Over the course of 30 years, it moved across various locations, in the East Village, SoHo, Pasadena, California, and finally, to West Broadway in Tribeca, with this last store closing in the late 1990s. Although, there is some debate about where the first store was and where the last store was.
My oral history project on Knobkerry is very much alive and ongoing and as such, continues to turn up new people who knew Sara and/or Knobkerry and who have stories, memories, garments, photographs, to share. I'm so excited to introduce the people we will be hearing from tonight, all of whom were good friends of Sara's, in this celebration of her life and work. On the panel tonight, we have Carmen Hammons, a curator, archivist, former gallery director, longtime friend of Sara Penn, whom she was introduced to through her father, the artist David Hammons. Carmen worked at one of the last Knobkerry locations, as well as other stores with her in the Village.
Katie McDonnell is a vintage clothing dealer, who for many years had a booth at the Chelsea Flea Market. Since 2011, she has run her store, Nomad Vintage, in the East Village on 6th Street. Katie and Sara became friends around 2005 at the flea market, over a shared love for vintage and ethnic clothes. Katie told me today that Sara is responsible for the space that Katie currently has her store in because it used to be Fumi [Schmidt]'s space and Katie took over the lease through Sara.
Ken Tisa is an artist who currently lives in New York. He is professor emeritus in the painting department at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. Tisa became acquainted with Sara Penn at the Knobkerry location on St. Marks in the 1970s, he went on to work at the Spring Street store in SoHo. Sara loved Ken's taste and would often buy materials from him that he would collect on his travels all over the world.
Joanne Robinson Hill is a dancer, the former director of education at The Joyce Theater and a founding member of the Lincoln Center Institute for Arts Education. Joanne met Sara Penn at the St. Marks Knobkerry location in the 1970s. With Sara's support, Joanne made one of a kind garments that she sold at Knobkerry. Later in Sara's life, she would accompany Joanne to weekly dance performances at The Joyce.
Seret Scott is a theater director, playwright and actor, who appeared in the film, Losing Ground, as well as the first staging of Ntozake Shange's For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf. Seret first met Sara Penn in 1966, when she was a student at NYU. Seret went on to work at Knobkerry for years. She worked at all the locations of Knobkerry, I was told today, and she and Sara remained close friends for the rest of Sara's life.
And last but not least, we have Charles Daniel Dawson, also known as Danny, also my co-moderator on this panel tonight. Danny is a photographer, curator, scholar and an early member of the Kamoinge Workshop. Danny was introduced to Sara Penn by Jimmie Mannas, another Kamoinge member, when Knobkerry was on St. Marks. Over the years, he could often be found hanging out at the store, where he met many longtime friends and heroes, such as Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman. I will now turn it over to Danny to say some opening remarks.
Thanks very much for that. I think we underestimate the influence of Sara and what it means to be an artist. Sara was an artist, she was an artist in terms of the shop, in terms of her selecting of materials but also, she was an artist about life. And one of the things we keep forgetting is how courageous Sara was, she opened the store in an area like that and a store that nobody had even heard of, that I guess they probably had never even seen. Her store and clothing collected from Indonesia, from Africa, from Japan, and put them all together based on her own taste, not on some standard that somebody else had applied to how you should stock a shop. Just the courage to do that and the courage to think that her sensibility was strong enough and beautiful enough to share with the rest of the planet is something. I always think about Sara as an artist in life, and we were all richer just because we were taught that.
I know personally, seeing an artist like, say Ornette Coleman, in the shop, who was one of the most brilliant musicians you'll ever hear and was a brilliant thinker also. But watching how he changed after his contact with Sara, understanding that all of these fabrics, all of these incredibly beautiful objects, could be made into his clothes. I think that's a direct influence of Sara. Everybody knows Ornette in his beautiful silk peacock suits, and that idea is only grounded in Sara, only grounded in the sensibility that Sara gave to him. And I'm really happy and honored just to be here to celebrate her in ways that she normally would never be celebrated.
I used to be a sound man, I used to do sound for film. That's actually one of the reasons I met Seret, because we were in school together. I was in the Graduate Institute of Film and Television and she was in the theater program. We shared a few classes, and we shared a few professors who were famous, like Peter Kass. Seret, could you tell us how you encountered Sara? Because I've told you, Jimmie Mannas introduced me to her. He was actually trying to introduce me to the neighborhood.
In 1966, I was at NYU in the School of Arts and at that time, the School of Arts was right across the street, a very small street, from Sara's shop. And I would walk by, and I would look in the window and I never went in because I didn't quite understand what those objects were, what the clothing was, what the fabric was... I didn't understand, so I didn't go in. I hadn't seen anything like this before and what would I say? I saw Sara, I saw this Black woman hanging something up one time in the window and I thought, oh, I'm going to get the courage to go in. It took me a bit but maybe a couple of weeks later, I opened the door. She turned and looked at me and I was there, trying to figure out where I am and what these things were, these objects, these beautiful fabrics and there was sculpture and everything. And she turned and looked at me and I said “Hi,” I told her my name was Seret and that I was a model and I wanted to model her clothes. And she looked at me as if to say, "This kid barely can walk through the door into the shop, much less model."
She said, "Okay, well, come back on Thursday," or something. And I came back on Thursday, and she put a whole bunch of clothes on me and then I started working for her. And I went back and from that point on, I worked in the shop at all times, whenever I was not working... I'd go down and Sara would put me in some clothes from Knobkerry and I'd work there that day. And trust me, everything one of us wore... Joanne [Robinson Hill] as well, everything one of us wore that was from the shop that day, when people came in, they would say, "Oh, oh, oh, that's how you wear that," and that would be what would sell the whole day.
I worked at every shop that Sara had over the years. If I had three weeks between a theater job or a month and a half or something, I went down to Knobkerry and worked for Sara. And that was not really for work, it was because I wanted to be in the shop.
I remember those days, I remember the fact that everybody would come in and whatever people noticed that Joanne had on, they wanted to wear. Remember the time you had with the kurtas?
Normally it'd be, "Do you have that in my size?"
Maybe, Ken, you could also tell us the story of when you first went to Knobkerry.
Well, I was a kid, I was in college and like Seret, I had walked by this store, the one on St. Marks Place and I saw all this incredible stuff. It was just stuff that I'd only seen in books and it was a store. So I went in, I thought the prices were really expensive, $15 for a kurta but I had to have this one kurta. It was a red gauze... If I wore it now, they'd arrest me, but it was a red gauzy thing with little tie-dye puckers on it. It was the most beautiful piece of clothing I ever seen. It was $15, I didn't have $15. So I put I think a $5 deposit and Sara wasn't there at the time, it was some gorgeous woman, probably one of you guys, decked out in full regalia.
And I was telling my friends about it, "Oh, I saw this store on St. Marks," and people knew about it, "Oh yeah, that's where all the rock people go." And I said, "They do?" So, I went back with the rest of my money and Sara was there and I met her because she had the thing packed up for me and she said, "You bought one of my favorite kurtas," and I said, "Oh, well, it's my favorite now." And I wore that shirt until it literally fell off my body, it collapsed. One day, it just dissolved, it was no more, but I had many years of joy wearing it. Sara really introduced me to beauty, dressing beautifully. Guys just didn't dress that way until Sara got us and decked us all out in kurtas and sashes and scarves. She introduced me to scarves, how to wear a scarf and that was it, no going back.
Danny, you can speak to scarves, right?
Ken, you introduced the idea of wearing something Sara gave you till it fell apart. Well, she made a patchwork scarf for me and in fact, I'm wearing this shirt in honor of Sara. It wasn't made by Sara but it's the same idea, it's patchwork, it's different African materials sewn together in patches. And this shirt actually comes from a religious tradition in Senegal called the Baye Fall, they were followers of a Sufi saint, Ibrahima Fall. And their thing is about not throwing out anything, so saving the fabric and making it into patchwork clothes, as well as smoking reefer and working all the time. For most of the people who came to Sara's shop, that might be part of the mantra too. But I wore the scarf until it fell apart and I had a beautiful photograph of me wearing the scarf by Dawoud Bey. But also, you made me think about some other aspect of the shop too: She changed our style, I think about Sara as someone who changed our sensibility. When I saw those fabrics together, it was so beautiful, but it didn't have to be explained. I understood it, there's a logic to it and the logic works… Sara transformed the aesthetics of everybody who came in the shop.
Carmen, your father went there but he didn't just go there, he went there with a crew. There was him and Butch Morris and Henry Threadgill and Tyrone Mitchell and Charles Abramson, they all hung out at Sara's shop. They all went there to buy their things for the very same ideas. These are the most brilliant visual artists and musical artists on the planet and they go to Sara's shop for inspiration too. There's no loss there, that's a common ground once you get in there too. Could you talk about that too, going? How did you get introduced?
Oh, so I've heard about Sara most of my life and my dad would always ask me—him living in New York and me growing up in California, in Pasadena specifically, and he would always say—"There's a woman I know, she has a store in Pasadena, you'd love it. It has all these really interesting things, you should go by. Her name's Sara Penn.” I never got around to it. I think her store was there in the mid '80s, I think I was probably 17, 18 years old but I never made it around to the store. When I finally did meet Sara, I was in New York for a cousin's wedding and my dad took my mom and I around to her store in Tribeca and I was just like, "Oh my God, this is amazing."
Sara had an incredible personal barometer. She either liked you or she didn't like you but also, she was really clear about who was really gifted and who she loved. Which was an incredible thing, that someone you realize is a great visionary sees you as something.
She was very generous. With information, her time, skill, knowledge.
Well, so many things that you're saying, Danny. You were talking about the patchwork fabric, I think about her store in that way too, this amazing compilation of objects and fabric and instruments and paintings. She could just pull things together. Small things that were seemingly of no significance, she just pulled out something of great significance, a box that had a painting that Ken Tisa made, it could be a bottle cap with a little painting on it. It might have been one of your father's works of art, Carmen, or something that was a huge sculpture.
I'm wearing a necklace that she gave me that is a compilation of African beads and found beads and buttons she gave me. A box full of objects like that and it's not as if Sara ever said, "I'm making this necklace and I'm going to put blue and green beads together." She found objects and just seemed to know intuitively that this is the way they should be put together. And there was always irony because here we are with this necklace of beads that are African and baubles that may be of European origin, with a cameo at the bottom. She had a great sense of humor, a great sense of humor and a love of life.
Bob [Robert G.] O'Meally called that a collage aesthetic but she had a collage aesthetic with personalities, with her friends. As you were talking, I thought about the people who worked in the shop and how if you look at them as a collection, that's an incredible collage too. So it's a confirmation of your worth, both artistically and visually. She liked the way people looked also. So many incredible ideas too, always brilliant, always creating that aesthetic, in terms of putting people together for the beauty of their combination of people.
Kenny, where did Sara get the courage to do that, to know that that was valid? How did Sara get to understand that her aesthetic was valid and could be shared?
Fearless is the word for Sara, she was not afraid to try something, she wasn't afraid. Even her window displays, she was one of the most avant-garde window people in New York City. She would put things in the window, there'd be 10 people in front of her window looking in, she'd hang an African mask against an Asian robe, against beads from Indonesia. And somehow, the way she put them together, it wasn't commercial, it wasn't about trying to sell the object.
It was about what looked beautiful, what spoke. The whole store, for me, was about conversations between worlds and how those conversations meshed together and only Sara could do that. When Sara had a shop with another person, it didn't work. It was a beautiful shop, but Sara wasn't happy there because it was a store.
She didn't want a store.
Yeah, half the time, she didn't even want to sell the objects.
They were things she collected that she'd liked and, in my case, she would take something back.
What did she take back?
Seret, I think I got it when you were there. It was a beautiful black velvet Chinese jacket.
I remember that.
With beautiful seal in the back of it and then I bought black velvet pants, so I had a suit. But she sold it to me for $35 but it must have been worth $1,000 or something like that and one day, she asked for it back and I said, "Sure, Sara." Because I knew it had to be a loan at that price and also, she's just doing a friend a favor.
Not only did she have these objects, but I remember that sellers or people who had all kinds of things would actually, when they arrived in New York with all these extraordinary items, especially I remember from Guatemala and Venezuela, they would come from the airport straight to Sara's shop and sell to her first, any of the most beautiful objects. Because they felt like she understood what this was about and then they would take some other pieces that were left over to other shops around the city.
Not only that but on the other hand, I remember that sometimes musicians and actors and all would fly in from Europe. And they'd get off at what was then Idlewild, now JFK, and they'd get off that plane because they had already scheduled a layover of a few hours and come straight to a Knobkerry and just buy stuff because they were flying to California or somewhere like that. So they would come, buy a whole bunch of stuff and then go back out to the airport and fly to California. The shop was so small for all of what we're talking about, it was like a living room of somebody's apartment or something. But it was just stuffed with things that were just extraordinary. As well as the incense, remember the incense…
Oh, the incense.
Oh, yes. That sacred formula.
It was the best incense in the world. I was addicted to it. I couldn't live without that incense. I kept a stick for years as a memory and then one day, I couldn't help myself and I lit it. And I should have waited and lit it when Sara passed, as a memorial but I couldn't wait. So her incense, does everybody remember her incense?
Oh yes, you couldn't forget it. She made it and she never gave the secret away . . .
It was a sandalwood, earthy smell. But she would never give me the recipe.
And when you rode the subway home, after working in the shop all day, everybody wanted to know: "What are you wearing?"
"I'm wearing Knobkerry."
Seret, you told me that story about bands stopping over at Knobkerry on their way to Los Angeles and that you would then see their album covers and they'd be decked out in Knobkerry garments.
So you'd see it a few months later, that was the point of the layover, too.
So many musicians, especially jazz musicians. There were hard rockers that came in because the St. Marks' shop was almost literally across the street from the Electric Circus. They'd look in the shop and they'd come in and the next thing you know, you see one of them on an album cover in something that came from Knobkerry.
Also, Seret, I think there was an intellectual entree, once you were let in—it became another place, it was like a clubhouse. I remember the conversations, particularly with people like Leon Thomas, who was the one who talks about the Indian mounds all throughout Middle America. But it would be Leon and Ornette and Don Cherry and I remember one time I was sitting there, she had just gotten that Indonesian xylophone, made with bamboo and Don came in and he sat down and looked at it and picked up the two mallets and looked at the mallets and then played a little, then he started playing it.
I said, "Oh God, no." There's evidence that there are people that are born to be musicians, there are other people who were born to be listeners. No but just that genius but also that comfort in the place, that you walk in and you know that xylophone is yours to play. It's not yours to buy, she might not sell it to you but you could come in and play it and be at home too. Just the minds that came in and sat around getting comfortable was incredible, too.
One other thing was that because we didn't have cell phones or anything like that, sometimes a musician, major musician, would come into the shop and just scribble on a piece of paper, his phone number and his first name. He'd say, "When so-and-so comes back, give him my number." And for me, it was Sonny Rollins who came in and wrote his number on a thing and told me that when Don Cherry came through from Sweden, that I should pass the number on.
And he hired Don Cherry after that too. All the worlds that came in there too . . . You'd come in and it'd be Louise Nevelson sitting there talking to her about artwork and discussing as though Sara's some equal in a museum with her—understanding that Sara's aesthetic is equal to hers. And it would be Faye Dunaway or some major actress there. So all coming and feeling comfortable in the discussion, there's something about the quality. Like Kenny talked about, the quality of the objects in the place lifted up everybody who came in there.
Every day, another different artist would come in. I remember Louise Nevelson, I'd never seen anything like her. Talk about done up, she had more schmattas on than any person I have ever seen. Jewelry, everything, eyelashes, the whole works. And I didn't know who she was until . . . I knew her name but I didn't know that was her and Sara was very close with her, so she came out. Sara usually only came out of the back room when there was somebody that she valued to talk to, otherwise, she hid. And I remember Louise Bourgeois coming in. You could name... Every artist that lived in SoHo shopped at that store and so for me, I was a kid, so it was just great, I was meeting all these famous people. David Hammons, I remember meeting him.
When David came in, it's this cool looking guy in this Afghani coat, Afghani hat and we started talking because I immediately liked his coat, so I figured this is a cool guy, I want to talk to this guy. And he pulled out one of his hair pieces, with hair from African American barber shops in Harlem. I almost fainted in joy, I thought it was the most amazing thing. And that's when I ran back and said, "Sara, you've got to come out here and meet this guy." And Sara, of course and David, immediately, boom, they got each other right away. She figured people out within a minute, she knew whether she wanted to be your friend or not and she was always right.
What was this thing about her being in the back room and sometimes coming out and hiding? What was going on there?
I think she was sewing mostly. That's what I remember.
Yeah but also, I think Sara was in demand. When people would come in of some kind of rapport, they would have to talk to her and have to take her time. And so, I think that was her way of just . . . She was not visible, but she was in the room, she could hear what was going on and she could understand what was going on too. But she was in demand and I think it was a drain from her creative process, to just come out and have to talk to an actress she didn't want to talk to for an hour.
Because she was always making something, she was always creating something. Yeah, I can't ever think of a moment in which she didn't have something going on, in the Spring Street store, in the back space. Also, she sometimes stayed in the back because she wanted you or Elena [Solow], when she was there, to be the person who would be the front, be the voice. Because Sara had this sense that sometimes, that as a Black woman on Spring Street in the '70s, that perhaps people were taken aback.
Well, it's about racism.
There you go.
Sara was very conscious of race, and she was very conscious, she noticed things that, as a white person, I would never even notice. At one point, I was in the shop, Sara was cleaning and arranging, and I was standing behind the counter and this woman comes in and said to Sara, "I'd like to speak to the owner." And Sara points to me and I said, "Yeah?" And before I knew it, Sara had thrown this woman out of the store because I said, "I'm not the owner, that woman is the owner." And this woman acted like that's impossible, how could a Black woman be the owner of this fabulous store? And Sara said, "Get out," she was not interested, she didn't want to deal with it, she said, "Out." And I will forever love Sara for that, that was such a fabulous thing for her to have done because this woman was awful.
But she also took it to extremes, deciding who she wanted to sell something to. Sara would not sell you something if she didn't like you.
I think that it's important to remember your question much earlier, Danny: where did Sara get the strengths or even the insight to do this at that time when nobody else had done it or anything? And we should mention that Sara had spent many years in Europe with some major people, when all those major people were . . . They were major later but at that time, they were expats, and she did a lot of traveling with all of that. And a lot of that, I found out much, much later when we would be talking and she would say something about Jimmy Baldwin, James Baldwin. And I'm like, "What?" And she said, "Oh yeah, when I was in Paris, we used to all meet two or three times a week and drink wine." Who knew, who knew? Now, he at that time wasn't James Baldwin yet, he was a writer and all, but he hadn't blown up the way he is today as iconic at that time.
And connected to that is thinking that Sara went to Europe after having gone to Spelman College and doing graduate work. She found Spelman to be confining, so to be able to go, as a young Black woman, to Europe and to travel, was probably an amazing thing for her to be able to do at that time. To be the kind of free that we know that people of color can have a kind of freedom in Europe at a certain point in time, that they don't have any place else. I remember, Kenny, you're saying that Sara was fearless, but the flip side of that for me (and I agree that she was absolutely fearless), but she was perhaps sometimes afraid of herself. She did not know her own incredible power, she didn't really accept how brilliant she was. So again, it's wonderful to have this opportunity to remember that, to remember her power.
And she grew up in a time when she . . . She always told me that she was ugly.
And I said, "What are you crazy? You're gorgeous." And she never thought of herself as beautiful. She said, "Oh," because she was dark skinned, because I guess where she grew up, in a middle-class family, she wasn't considered beautiful. And at Spelman, she told me that they used to have to wear stockings and she said she hated wearing stockings, so she would draw a line on the back of her legs to look like she was wearing stockings. So she started rebelling early and she never fit in to that middle class life that she was supposed to fit into. So it just never was for her.
Right, yeah, yeah. And she probably never thought of herself as being an artist. Danny, you raise her up as the artist that she was but she probably... She made things but she didn't really, I think, think of herself as an artist.
I'm sure she didn't but she just demonstrated it with her life, and I think it was upon us to reinforce that with her. A little too late now but the whole understanding of that. But she also knew her worth though, she knew the people coming in, too, and so that's where she would get the power to say, "I don't want to sell it to that person. What I create is just too valuable for them and I don't like even the way they talk when they come in." And, "This actress, I don't even want to see today."
Is there a particular actress you're thinking of when you say that? [Laughs.]
No, they were just drains on her life at times. They came to buy things and they had money but in terms of life energy, they weren't giving that to her. She understood who would give her life energy back and that's why the people worked in the store and that's why the store was so attractive, it's a nest for that kind of energy, both visually and socially. And when you reflect on that kind of construct, we can all make our lives that, if we have the courage, like Sara did. You can change people's lives just by saying that they're valid.
Yeah, it's interesting. Seret, that you brought up that she traveled, that she lived in Paris, she lived in Amsterdam. And also, she had a whole life in New York before she opened Knobkerry, where her boyfriend was Wolf Kahn and they would go to the Cedar Bar and she would hang out with Willem de Kooning. I wondered, for anyone on the panel, people who knew her later in her life too, what did she tell you about that period in her life?
I was fascinated to hear every story she could possibly tell me about the Cedar Bar and her buddies. She knew them all, she knew all of those guys and Wolf, I think was one of the loves of her life. She had nothing but praise and love for him. She had a John Chamberlain couch in her loft that he gave her. She had Louise Nevelson's . . . She had an art collection, I don't know what happened to it, it was this amazing art collection, from artists that she knew, were buddies of hers and friends that used to come into the store. In Europe, Adolf Kaminsky was one of her lovers, a writer. She attracted really, really smart people. They were really attracted to Sara because Sara was really, really smart.
And she could not forgive a fool. It's funny, Sara never talked about her European experience with me, her life before that. The only thing I knew about her in terms of work before that was, she worked as a social worker.
That's what her mother wanted her to be, a social worker. That was considered a very high-end job.
Her mother was a social worker too.
Yeah and it was proper. Her mother was very proper, a good Christian lady.
Maybe we could also talk a little bit about the global perspective that she brought to everyone, to all of you. And so even if you hadn't heard about her travels, that all this experience that she'd had, this interest in a world and worlds beyond the US was really a part of Knobkerry.
It was really the objects that were in the store. Everything that I know about textiles, I learned through Sara and one of the last things that she gave me was some of her textiles. But by looking at things in the shop, we were being introduced to places that we maybe never thought about before and wondering what it would be like to be there. Perhaps she went to Tunisia after having been in the shop for some time, later I was able to go to Iran and Afghanistan. These were places that I never imagined myself going but by being in that shop, by being around objects, I wanted to know more about different places in the world.
Something Elena Solow told me, who worked at Knobkerry, was that everyone who worked at the store had to know where everything came from, had to know the origin story of the objects. And she told a funny story about trying to explain to someone in Jimi Hendrix's band where something that she was trying to sell him came from and him not really caring. But she said that she had so many books too, about these things. She was very learned about the materials that she was selling.
Yeah, she had an amazing library. I remember that because we talked about downsizing our own lives. I remember Sara moving someplace and working through lots of books and not being able to put a book in the box because you wanted to read it.
Yeah, she loved her books. She loved her books and what Danny was asking, I think, is a really interesting thing that was part of the experience, is the exposure to all of these different objects. Sara was not only interested in the objects for the commercial event of selling, but she was also interested in the objects because of the politics, because of the history, because of the whole event around the object. It's hard to explain. If she had a bowl and let's say it was $20, that's not what she was interested in. She was interested in somebody understanding what that bowl was, where it came from and why it existed. And working in an environment like that, you had to become part of that. So for me, personally, it directly influenced my work, it changed the way I saw work.
I was always doing work with textiles, but I never worked with ethnographic textiles. I still don't, but that's what influenced my work after I worked for her. My work changed, not consciously, but just because I was more knowledgeable. I was more knowledgeable about the world and what storytelling was and narrative was. She was very interested in narrative textiles, textiles that told a story. So for her, it was not so much about selling the object as it was about introducing that object to people. Saying, "Look at this, this is magical." And so, because she saw the objects as magical, other people did, and people who had the money bought those magical objects because Sara introduced them to them and said, "This isn't just a blouse, this is a blouse that tells the story of a village or tells the story of a marriage." And it changed people's perspectives and how they looked at an object. She was a teacher, she was certainly one of my teachers, one of my most important teachers, so I'll forever be grateful to her for that.
Just along the lines of what you were just saying, Ken. I told you how I first met Sara, saying I'm this model or something, but she taught me a measure of sophistication about things that were not introduced every day to us. Along with the textiles, along with the fabrics that I couldn't identify, she would explain why this was important for whomever, and you don't just lay it on the counter and let it get shoved aside or something. So that kind of thing that I learned from her, that I learned to respect certain kinds of objects that I didn't know or didn't understand.
Why was the shop named Knobkerry? Who knew any of that? That was one thing I learned and also, very much, I felt like I was a daughter figure to her and she shaped me like that. I probably got a bit more of the, "Oh, did you do this?" Or, "Oh, did you do that?" than maybe somebody else who worked at the shop because I was this daughter type... “Oh, let me teach her because she is pitiful,” and I was wide open to it, to the point where my own mother would say, "Well, did you talk to Sara about it?" So, it was well understood, and everybody loved her, my mother as well.
Joanne, she was a teacher for you too, right? Could you talk about that?
I think that what she taught me was a way of being in the world. She encouraged me. I talked about the fact that I made things—some of the women from For Colored Girls bought some of the dresses that I made. Sara encouraged me in the making of the objects but more importantly, she encouraged me to be a full person, engaged in the world. That was the important thing, to be full of adventure and to imagine, to think about things being different than they are now, to transform things. She was a magician and she encouraged, I think all of us, to do that as well. She wouldn't give us the recipe for the incense, but our love of the incense encouraged us to make something else.
In the same area, you had two other women who were strong and creative too. You had Jackie [Lewis] from [Le Grand Hotel / Tales of Hoffman] and you had Khadija, who had a dress shop next door or down the street from there too. So, it was an interesting neighborhood for just feminine creativity on a commercial level.
And you had Fumi [Schmidt], and you had Olive [Wong].
Sara was extremely generous with other people; she wasn't fearful of anybody stealing from her and she was so generous to other dealers and collectors, and she found everybody's store. I couldn't believe it, if you needed a store, all you had to do was go ask Sara and she'd find a store for you. Not anymore, SoHo got too crazy after a certain point, and it was too expensive.
And Katie, she did that for you, right? Do you want to tell us a little bit about your relationship with Sara?
Sure, I would love to. Ken, you and I were speaking about that. I mentioned to Ken that Sara was responsible for getting me my store [Nomad Vintage] and I found out that I was in a long legacy of others that she did that for too. But my store is actually Fumi's old store, which some of you have mentioned, on 6th Street. And I met Sara in the flea market, she would come, she would bring some things to sell.
I was setting up there, I guess, I don't know, it must have been 15 years ago. And Sara would come, and she would sit, and she would look at my displays and she would talk to me about things that I had because I was also interested in different ethnic clothing. I didn't necessarily understand what it was but I was buying it and I was selling it and she would talk to me about what I had and we became friends that way. And then, really, she was a savior because it was when all the flea markets were just winding down and being destroyed. This was at the Antiques Garage, which is now completely torn down in and is some big building.
And she said, "I know about this store and Fumi's hardly ever there and just come meet her." And I was thinking, really? This is crazy. But it all worked out, I set up in the front of the store for a little while and then I took over the lease and I'm still there today. So I feel I was definitely a recipient of Sara's generosity, of spirit and otherwise. Yeah, it's been really interesting to hear everybody talk about these stories of when she was younger and had a store, especially as a current store owner. I'm like, why don't I have beautiful models walk around with the clothing? What a great idea. And I love her hiding in the back because I also have the impulse to do that a lot and it would've been great to have a front person instead of just literally hiding in the back.
I brought along a couple of objects to show if you want to see them because she was also very generous. I knew Sara in her later years and would try to help her with doctor's appointments and different things. And sometimes, she gave me things to sell, and I'd sell them for her in the store but other times, she just gave me presents.
Yes. I was going to say, on the table right there is the Knobkerry that Sara gave you, right, Ken?
Yeah. I was very honored, Sara presented this to me one day. She said, "Here, you need this," and she said, "It's the symbol of my store and it's what I named the store for." This is a ceremonial knobkerrie, it's not an actual knobkerrie. An actual knobkerrie is a war stick that you beat lions off with or other humans, depending on who's attacking you. This is, I think Ndebele, either Ndebele or Zulu, and it's a ceremonial knobkerrie that would be carried by the chief and she presented it to me.
I just wanted to quickly read this quote from her about naming the store that way. This is from the story I did on Knobkerry for Ursula: “Penn first encountered the word knobkerrie in a 1932 short story by George Bernard Shaw, The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God, which she read when she was still a social worker. The parable follows a South African child who escape submission with nothing but her knobkerrie, a fighting stick used primarily in Southern and Eastern Africa, encountering a succession of characters who try to explain who God is and how the universe works. Each exchange ends with the girl, eventually brandishing her knobkerrie to free herself before she moves on in her search for truth. Penn conceived of the store with such a fight in mind, quote, ‘I thought if anyone tells us what fashion is, we're just going to hit them with our stick, our store,’ she said, ‘We'll discover our own fashion.’
Carmen, you also worked with Sara.
I did, I worked in her last store on 6th Street, that's near where Katie is now, and we also worked in a gift shop. I don't think I got paid but I was there, but it was just nice to be hanging out. But I didn't know all of the items and so I really thought she should come forward to... Like, "I don't know what this is, you have to just come tell them." And she's like, "No, I'm busy." It's true about value and what she could see in other people and whether she thought she needed to even come out or not, just looky-loos. But there were a lot of people that stood outside and everything was arranged so beautifully in the windows and it really made you feel something.
We can't forget about her influence in the fashion world and the fashion industry. In Spring Street, I met a lot of those people like Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Cardin. Almost every single important fashion designer at one point or another was in that shop and Saint Laurent bought, I'll never forget this, the most beautiful Chinese silk robe lined with fox. Now it would be very politically incorrect to wear such a thing but he bought it and two years later, it was on his runway. Not the literal coat but the look. So Sara really influenced not just the art world, the jazz world, the rock and roll world but the fashion world, the high fashion world, not just the hippie fashion world.
I think that's one of her important roles. But that's how important she was, that all these Uptown fancy people were banging to get into her shops to see the show. She really did cross all cultural boundaries in terms of who was interested in what she was doing. So I don't want to let go of the fact that it wasn't just artists Downtown, it was also, she attracted Uptown. So it was across the board.
But she was decidedly Downtown, one of you has told me that she wouldn't go Uptown, right? Was it you, Seret?
It was probably me. I remember Sara said she wasn't going to go above 14th Street, she didn't care what happened up here.
You were just talking about the fashion world, when I looked at the photographs, I realized all the top Black models were wearing her clothes too. The thing with Beverly Johnson and the red top, too [Johnson appeared in a print advertisements for Virginia Slims wearing Knobkerry fashions]. But it was almost like a sign that they were in the fashion world but they hadn't left the real world. They understood Sara's fabrics and her designs actually represented the rest of the world, they represented the so-called “Third World” at the time, too. And everybody knew that, so it was claiming, “I might be on Fifth Avenue, but I understand my heritage is somewhere else too.”
She was a big supporter of Willi Smith. Early on.
Can I just read another quote that's from Sara? "I think Black designers, like Black musicians, should dig into their origins for their inspirations," she told The Washington Post in the '90s, "It would help to signpost our current quest for identity and bring something healthily different to Western fashion."
I think it's important for us to remember that one thing that Sara was doing was raising up this world that was not recognized, by bringing these cultures together. She was really interested in a whole world that many people didn't know anything about. African American artists, people from other Third World cultures… she was raising up things that people ignored, to say, "This is really powerful. This is magical. This has the possibility of changing the way we think about ourselves."
Yeah, she was raising up our consciousness. She was also around the corner from a hotbed of theater too. Negro Ensemble was around the corner, so everybody was there. So, it becomes a local guidepost to the rest of the world too but it's also an empowering location, where you come out prideful after being there. Because first of all, she's reinforced you and then she's reinforced the cultures you come from. And I don't know, I think philosophically, she did set out to do that but she wasn't a polemicist, she didn't beat you in the head with it. You just had to learn that's what she's doing and it's valid.
Well, I have a David Hammons story when Sara had her shop in Tribeca. When Sara had her shop in Tribeca, David did an installation in the shop, where if you didn't know, you wouldn't possibly know. And I remember in a showcase, Sara had this little doll furniture, a little chair, with a piece of gum stuck on the bottom. And I said, "Sara, I love this. What is this?" She said, "That's David, that's his sculpture, that's $25,000." And if I had the $25,000, I would've bought that.
Sara had placed it in a showcase with some ethnographic beads and a little African sculpture and another gorgeous little object and this little, tiny funky doll chair with gum on the bottom. I thought that really summed up Sara's essence, how she understood beauty in a nontraditional way and how dialogue happened between the weirdest objects, like a piece of gum on a chair against an African sculpture, against a bead from the Cameroons. And it worked, it was just perfect.
David told me that Sara gave him free rein in the shop and that the whole idea was that he was going to hide things in plain sight and that somewhere, there would be a little list, where it was David Hammond's Art Show or something. He didn't promote it. It was just word-of-mouth, but it did get a lot of attention at the time.
It did, yes, of course. Yeah, I was showing my rugs at the time. Sara gave me a show of these rugs I had made in Nepal and they were just hanging on the wall and she didn't tell me that David was doing an installation in the shop.
Oh, so at the same time you had the rugs?
At the same time and I walked into the shop one day and there were all these weird juxtapositions, and it was so far out. Sara understood David's brilliance and she understood that this would be amazing. And so, it wasn't about selling, and it wasn't about having a commercial object. It was about art and for me, that's what Sara was about: art.
“It’s easy to recognize specters of Bataille’s thought today, for better and for worse.”