Karen Seneferu: An Ancient Aesthetic in Contemporary Art

Karen Seneferu is an emerging talent in the San Francisco Bay Area art scene. Her work is generating a lot of excitement, and deservedly so. Although she has humbly referred to herself as a "young artist," there are some artists whose work is prolific and beyond their years. Karen Seneferu's mixed media work brings to mind creative heavyweights like Betye Saar and Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson. Like Robinson and Saar, Seneferu utilizes found materials and creates objects that are steeped in history, all with with incredible craftsmanship and intricate detail. Her most recent exhibit was Crossroad, an installation at Krowswork Gallery in Oakland, California.

Crossroad installation by Karen Seneferu
Seneferu's installations are always a feast for the spirit and the senses. Upon stepping into the small dark room that housed Crossroad, the viewer was greeted with a series of intricate altars and objects. Much of what was placed in the room was in deep hues of red and ebony, the colors associated with Eleggua, the trickster deity of Nigeria's Yoruba religion. Eleggua is said to preside over the crossroads of life, and acts as a gatekeeper.

Crossroad installation by Karen Seneferu
What was the inspiration for the Crossroad exhibit?
I was in an exhibit at the Sargent Johnson Gallery in San Francisco co-curated by my husband, Malik Seneferu and Melorra Green called Fela Kuti:The Resurrection. I created a yam-like sculptural piece dedicated to boy soldiers captured and forced to fight for warlords and against their own people. The piece was to remind us that the true mineral wealth of Africa is the children. I extended that concept at the Krowswork Gallery, where I was able to not only show this same womb-like sculpture where there is an exterior and interior space, but I had a gallery space to extend a womb-like feeling through a number of pieces of my work.
Technokisi II by Karen Seneferu

The Technokisi pieces based off of African Kongo Nkisi spirit objects, which held mirrors in their bellies to reflect the faces of people who came to them for healing. What inspired you to create the Technokisi, which reflects video images of people from its belly?

Technokisi I by Karen Seneferu
Technokisi was inspired by wanting to find a new way to construct or re-examine the Nkisi Ndonki. I had also been strongly influenced by Renee Stout's work, Fetish 2. I wanted to figure out how to respond to Stout's Fetish 2 and speak about the need of having an art form that reflected a contemporary way to practice incantation and healing through an ancient aesthetic.

How did you choose the subjects for the Technokisi video?
Technokisi I, my first experiment with this form, held an Ipod inside of it. This video was based on an exhibit I was in at the Skirball Museum for Technokisi II. Setting up my work is sacred for me. I try to install my work without anyone around. I taped myself at the museum and combined [the footage] with Andre 3000's "She Lives in My Lap." In the Krowswork Gallery, I also showed a longer version of this artbio video in a room with pews. The video, edited by Idris Hassan, shows the link between the past and present Nkisi form, integrating elements from The Matrix, childhood photos, and the famed John Outterbridge introducing TechnoKisi II to the world. I also wanted to work with film, so the Skirball Museum exhibit gave me an opportunity to experiment with that medium.
Karen Seneferu's Crossroad installation
Do you feel that technology and spirituality are linked in any way?
Technology can become a vehicle, a cord to transfer messages through one space to another, a link to another form. However, it is a tool to convey the meaning of the spirit, but certainly not to lose one's spirit in, or to be seen as spirit itself.
Karen Seneferu's Crossroad installation

Karen Seneferu's Crossroad installation
Part of what makes Karen Seneferu's work so thrilling is her ability to take ancient spiritual symbols and concepts and bring them into a contemporary context. Her work serves as a reminder that even as we move forward, we are firmly rooted in where we came from. Her art embodies the West African concept of "Sankofa", a word that means, "go back and fetch it," meaning one should reach into the past and gather the best of what it has to teach us in order to move forward in a positive way. Karen Seneferu's art reminds us that this sacred knowledge of the past will help us get where we need to go in the future.