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Zainab Sumu’s fibers of being

The Cambridge artist, originally from Sierra Leone, makes paintings and sculptures that weave together a range of materials and cultural influences.

"Zainab Sumu: Interpretations" gallery.Gurari Collections

Zainab Sumu’s woven fiber sculptures at Gurari Collections look chaotic — worlds barely held together as their components loop and veer.

The Cambridge artist, born in Sierra Leone and educated at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, is also creative director and founder of a couture design company, Zainab Sumu Primitive Modern. A handful of garments, at once elegant and cozy, are on view.

Sumu’s watercolor paintings resemble her scarf designs: sun-kissed tones, abstract patterns with botanical and architectural references. The paintings, like “GNAWA FLEUR,” are deft and warm. But the sculptures — freed of the limitations of clothing but full of references to the body — are packed with fascinating tensions. Sumu takes inspiration from materials and designs she finds on travels in Africa, Europe, and the United States.


Zainab Sumu, "GNAWA FLEUR," watercolor on paper. Kathy Tarantola/©2021 Kathy Tarantola Photography

“LILA,”a great sack made of jute, opens to an interior lined with copper mesh — a glimmering chainmail inside a soft, womblike pouch. The interiors of Sumu’s pieces often surprise; they’re hard when you expect soft, or snug and welcoming when you expect tangled and knotty, as in her basket, “BANYA 2.” These handmade vessels and sacks, with their varying interiors and exteriors, read like metaphors for the self. Sometimes brittle, sometimes pliable, sometimes haywire and barely cohering.

The process of knotting and weaving also becomes a metaphor as the artist ties together cultural influences. “Lila” is a ceremony of the Gnawa people, descendants of sub-Saharan Africans, now in Morocco. It revisits the Gnawa history of enslavement and liberation. “Jadba” is a trancelike state achieved by Lila dancers.

Sumu’s sculpture, “JADBA,” is a sphere made of reeds, leather, and fur. Pale reeds swoop around the perimeter like electrons orbiting an atom’s nucleus. They look as if their centrifugal force might tear the whole thing apart, but it holds. Gurari Collections has mounted many sculptures on mirrors, and this one perches on two reedy loops that frame an opening at the bottom. If you know to look, you can peek inside.


Zainab Sumu, "JADBA," large natural round reed, large smoked reed, small natural round reed, reclaimed leather strips, fur and leather cord.Myk Ostrowski

The sculptures look less designed than Sumu’s clothing and paintings, as if the artist sets out with an intention and then surrenders to the process, and knot by knot the artwork comes to be. That creative abandon is evident in the delicious way the pieces flirt with havoc, but the love and patience in Sumu’s handwork keep them whole.


At Gurari Collections, 460 Harrison Ave., through Sept. 18. 617-367-9800, www.gurari.com

Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.