An East Village Boutique Where the Avant-Garde Gathered

by nyljaouadi1
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It was back in 2017 that Svetlana Kitto, a Columbia University-trained oral historian who writes frequently about art, was researching a catalog for “Objects/Time/Offerings,” an installation at the Gordon Robichaux gallery by the artist Ken Tisa and found herself repeatedly encountering the name Sara Penn? Who was she?

Those with a long memory for fashion may recall Sara Penn as proprietor of a boutique called Knobkerry. A pioneering shop on Seventh Street in the East Village, it opened in the mid-1960s to sell clothes, jewels and artworks sourced globally and refashioned or interpreted by Ms. Penn in ways that contextualized them as beautiful objects and not ethnographic oddities.

Yet it was much more than a shop. It was a salon, a gallery, a gathering place for members of an avant-garde that thrived in 1970s New York, when the middle classes fleeing a dangerous city left behind a largely vacated Downtown that artists and bohemians eagerly rushed in fill.

And, far from being some struggling business in an obscure hole-in-the wall, Knobkerry was a success right from the start, rapidly taken up by the glossies, its offerings showcased in features promoting what, in less enlightened times, was ballyhooed as “Gypsy chic.’’ Never mind that the inventory at Knobkerry routinely included Indian cholis, silk kurtas, mirror embroideries from Pakistan, along with Moroccan jewelry, Indonesian batiks and Otomi embroideries from Mexico.

A regular customer of Knobkerry and a devoted friend of Ms. Penn’s, Mr. Hammons once transformed the gallery with a show that was as much intervention as exhibit, mounted on the walls, floors, window and vitrines there in 1995. “My purpose was to get the attention to the store,” he told Ms. Kitto in a rare interview, referring to an installation that featured, among other curiosities, a deflated basketball turned into a rice bowl.

Yet Knobkerry had long since garnered abundant press attention, starting in the ’60s when Esquire, Vogue, The New York Times and The Chicago Tribune all featured the store in their pages. For its July 1968 issue, The Saturday Evening Post posed a young Lauren Hutton on its cover, braless and clad in a skimpy mirror-embroidered vest, silver Indian armbands from Knobkerry and strands of hippie beads. The story’s title was “The Big Costume Put On,” and it purported to demonstrate for the magazine’s seven million readers what “far-out” types on the coasts were wearing “instead of clothes.”

In Ms. Penn’s view the offerings at Knobkerry were never to be seen as “costumes” nor put-ons, but forays into understanding “world culture” decades before the term became a facile marketing tool. “People were so into the clothes,” Ms. Kitto said.

And if some treated Knobkerry like a museum, that was an impression Ms. Penn was in no haste to dispel. “What she did, the way she conducted her business, has a lot of relevance for young artists,” Kyle Dancewicz, the interim director of the Sculpture Center, said, referring to a multidisciplinary approach to their practice embraced by many young artists. “She chose a way to live in the world that relies on your own instincts and chooses over and over again to privilege integrity.”

She sold goods, of course, but was less moved by commerce than creativity, Ms. Kitto said, and was little daunted by the obstacles put in her way as a Black woman in business. A letter of protest in the book, fired off by Ms. Penn to a shelter magazine editor that failed to credit Knobkerry’s contributions in a photo, illustrates the personal cost of that position.

“If I sound paranoid it is only because I have been a pioneer in my field and watched others walk away with my ideas and gain acceptance and recognition,” Ms. Penn wrote. Racism, she claimed, was the root cause.

“It mattered that everyone that worked for her had to know the history of what they were selling,” Ms. Kitto said. Her wares were not merely “ethnic” trinkets. They were tribal Turkman necklaces from the 19th century or antique Japanese bamboo vases or silver filigree betelnut cases from India (transformed by Penn into minaudières).

From East Seventh Street, Knobkerry moved to St. Marks Place and later to SoHo and finally, at the turn of the millennium, to a shopfront on West Broadway in TriBeCa. Soon afterward, she shuttered the place, and the waters of memory seemingly closed over both it and her.

Before Ms. Kitto came along, her contributions seemed destined to be lost, if in plain sight. The dozen or so interviews Ms. Kitto conducted attempt to fill out a life that was eventful by any measure, one whose cast encompassed a Who’s Who of the Black creative classes and whose dramatic turnings included a string of failed relationships and a disastrous marriage.

For a time, Ms. Penn even fled New York and lived with her mother in Pasadena, Calif. Inevitably, she returned to Manhattan where, old by then, she stored or dispersed her varied collections among friends and moved into a single room at the Markle, a women’s residence run by the Salvation Army on West 13th Street.

Her lodgings, she told Ms. Kitto in the last interview before her death in at 93, were no larger than three tables shoved together. Yet the rent included three meals a day, and so it was at the Markle residence that she spent the obscure last decade of her life.

“I was determined to find the woman,” Ms. Kitto said, and through her a key to a Downtown scene unlikely to be reprised. “Who was Sara Penn?”

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