ArtWeekend

Redefining Identity Through Artists’ Books

The works at Center for Book Arts embrace a wide spectrum of emotions and subjectivities outside of White-centric definitions of what an “American” is.

Installation view of Poetry Is Not a Luxury at the Center for Book Arts, New York (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

A reporter friend and I have an ongoing conversation about the value of arts journalism at a time when there are so many other, seemingly more pressing issues to address, from immigration and women’s reproductive rights to housing discrimination and the affordability crisis. But standing in the intimate gallery of the Center for Book Arts, I am affirmed at the importance of art, especially in today’s sociopolitical climate, and the need for criticism to bring artistic expressions to light.

Inspired by Audre Lorde’s essay of the same name, Poetry Is Not a Luxury at the Center for Book Arts, curated by Maymanah Farhat, explores how book arts, through their immediacy and urgency, can be used as tools to resist oppression. Artists’ books can easily disseminate ideas to the masses and give voices to the voiceless. As Lorde wrote in 1977, “[F]or it is through poetry that we give name to those ideas which are, until the poem, nameless and formless — about to be birthed, but already felt.” She continues, “For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence.” The exhibition brings together nearly two dozen works, mostly by women, including books, zines, broadsides, videos, and installations. As Farhat writes in her introductory essay to the 48-page fully illustrated catalogue, which includes Lorde’s essay, the grouping is “an attempt to approximate how book arts have developed as forms of differential consciousness when art is not a luxury but a necessity.”

Installation view of Poetry Is Not a Luxury at the Center for Book Arts, New York

Many of the works included, by women and people of color, voice a sense of marginalization that resonates with Lorde’s assertion that “We see ourselves diminished or softened by the falsely benign accusations of childishness, of non-universality, of self-centeredness, of sensuality.” The works on view embrace a wide spectrum of emotions and subjectivities outside of White-centric definitions of what an “American” is. Katherine Ng’s letterpress book BANANA YELLOW (The Secondary Press, 1991/Pressious Jade, 1992) describes her childhood torn between two identities, not quite American enough, and not Chinese enough for her friends born in China. (“They look down at me for not speaking their language, not knowing their culture, for being born an American.”)

Joyce Dallal, Family Album (1992)

As she writes toward the end, “Native Chinese people stereotype me as speaking their language because I look like them. Non-Chinese people assume that I’m a native Chinese speaker since I don’t look American. / What does an American look like?” Shaped like a Chinese take-out container, the book’s form approximates the Americanized conception of Chinese culture. It is a quick read, but its sentiments should remain with the reader long after. 

In a corner of the gallery near Ng’s book, Joyce Dallal’s installation Family Album (1992) consists of two self-published photo-books arranged with a chair and a prayer rug. The presentation invites viewers to remove their shoes and to sit and read at leisure. The books recount the experiences of Dallal’s family in Iraq and in America. One opens with, “For most of my life I never heard my father speak Arabic.” The text is printed on transparent vellum sheets, with black-and-white family photos visible behind it: “We are AMERICAN now, my mother would say.” The narrative speaks to the often painful process of cultural assimilation, the middle ground between embracing a new country and identity and retaining a sense of one’s heritage. Dallal also demonstrates the difficulty of seeing conflicts in one’s home country through the lens of American television. The one-on-one format of the book, heightened by Dallal’s intimate reading space, allows visitors into her private story.

Joyce Dallal, Family Album (1992), detail
Sable Elyse Smith Landscapes & Playgrounds (2017), detail

Like Dallal’s books, Sable Elyse Smith’s zine Landscapes & Playgrounds (Sming Sming Books, 2017) deals with family histories, documenting her relationship with her incarcerated father. Smith weaves together handwritten notes and photographs in her unassuming zine — a small, bright blue, spiral-bound book. Letters between Smith and her father, many filled with exclamation marks and signed “Love Dad” or “Love you Miss you Pops,” are interspersed with aerial photographs of the two subjects, made poignant by the context. The images eerily evoke surveillance, in contrast to the intimacy of the letters and children’s coloring book pages. They remind the zine’s readers that these letters were read, monitored, and policed. The fragile zine carries an urgent message about our prison nation, and a more specific emphasis on the toll these surveilled states take on bodies.

The show also include Martha Rosler’s Service: A Trilogy On Colonization (Second Edition) (Printed Matter, 2008), originally a mail-art project in the 1970s exploring the food industry; Zeina Barakeh’s video Homeland Insecurity, which examines war, empire, and the “fragmentation of the body and self,” according to the artist’s website; Miné Okubo’s 1946 account of her time in a Japanese internment camp, often credited as the first graphic novel; and other works. Poetry Is Not a Luxury is dense. It takes multiple visits and time spent readings of the works to fully absorb the content. This slow digestion seems at odds with the urgency of our sociopolitical moment. Yet it acquaints viewers with the artists and their stories, and asks us to consider emotions and personal experiences as a valid means of interpreting and experiencing the world and the conflicts that involve many of us, by choice or not. “Our feelings, and the honest exploration of them,” Lorde writes, “become sanctuaries and fortresses and spawning grounds for the most radical and daring of ideas, the house of difference so necessary to change and the conceptualization of any meaningful action.”

Installation view of Poetry Is Not a Luxury at the Center for Book Arts, New York

Poetry Is Not a Luxury continues at the Center for Book Arts (28 West 27th Street, 3rd Floor, Manhattan) through September 21. The exhibition is curated by Maymanah Farhat.

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