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Black, Karen - 2016.79

Karen Black

Letting her hair down 2016
glazed eathenware with 23K gold leaf
46 x 31 x 20 cm
Purchased 2016

In 2015, Karen Black travelled twice to Istanbul, basing herself in a studio in Cihangir. On both occasions she travelled to the Syrian border to volunteer with the Karam Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation working to help Syrians displaced by the civil war. At Reyhanli, in the Turkish province of Hatay, she led art workshops with more than 350 Syrian refugees under the age of fifteen. Black also made visits to the Istanbul Archaeological Museum, where she encountered a display of small Syrian blown-glass vessels from the third and fourth centuries. This encounter informed her exhibition the following year, Crown Legs Arms at Sutton Gallery, Melbourne, which presented a number of ceramic vessels based on these antique forms, including Letting Her Hair Down.

Black’s experimentation with ceramics had begun a few years earlier in 2012, with an invitation from Lynda Draper to participate in the Artist Residency Partnership between the Hazelhurst Arts Centre and the Ceramics Design Studio, Gymea, Sydney TAFE, which gave artists established in other media access to the specialised equipment of the studio and the technical knowledge of its staff. Already experienced as a prop and costume maker for the stage, and reminded of her grandmother teaching her to roll out biscuit dough and form pastry, Black found modelling clay a natural extension of her practice.

For Crown Legs Arms, Black enlarged the historical forms, working from drawings scaled up from the photographs she had taken in the museum, to make vessels that she could paint like canvases, mixing clay slip colours directly on their surfaces just as she regularly does with oils. Unlike oil painting, however, there was a narrow window of time in which the vessels could be painted, when they were leather hard but not yet dry. Mindful of the rapidity with which the ancient glassblowers would have worked to fuse handles onto the original vases, Black sought to retain an impression of that spontaneous energy. In Letting Her Hair Down, a subtle adjustment to the angle of its handles traces an upward line across the vessel to give it a sense of movement.

Time crosses the work in various ways: in the temporality of making – both in the demands the clay makes of Black and the demands made of the artisan who breathed into the molten glass some seventeen or eighteen centuries earlier – as well as this timescale itself and the fact these objects, made close to the area where she volunteered, have endured despite their fragility, which can be seen as representing the endurance of the Syrian people. Finally, the work’s title, Letting Her Hair Down, describes coming to rest at the end of difficult days of volunteer work; Black explains that it honours one of the other volunteers she came to know:

I made most of the vessels about the women I had met while working on the Turkey–Syrian border. When I was working in Reyhanli, at the end of the day my roommate would get into her casual wear to relax in our room and take off her hijab, literally letting her hair down. She had really long, dark, gorgeous hair and lay on the bed reading her book, where the story was set on a tropical island in the Pacific. She wore pink and we laughed and told stories to each other about our day. I made this work for her.[1]

Francis E. Parker is Curator – Exhibitions, Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne.

[1] Karen Black, email to the author, 11 December 2018.