With the new year inevitably comes a slew of anticipated books lists, but many of us read independently of the publishing world’s schedule. Now is the perfect time to return to notable art books published in the past couple of years, of which there is no shortage. We’ve been keeping an eye out for striking titles, and these 12 are among the standouts on our reading list so far. Some were released recently; others are a year or so old but feel especially relevant today. We invite you to critically contemplate these studies, ranging from Japanese environmental art in the age of climate crisis to the life of painter Hilma af Klint to witchcraft as feminist artistry, and to read our news reports and reviews to decide whether they live up to their promises. This genre is expansive, so let us know if we missed any titles you think should be on this list!
—Lakshmi Rivera Amin, Editorial Coordinator
I Am Sparkling: N. V. Parekh and His Portrait Studio Clients, by Isolde Brielmaier
Once the most sought-after studio portraitist in East Africa, photographer N. V. Parekh’s archive remained sealed away in boxes for years. Now, scholar Isolde Brielmaier brings decades of research to a new title exploring Parekh’s studio and affluent clientele in 1960s Mombasa, Kenya.
Mallory Cohen notes, “Parekh’s clients would arrive with images from magazines to guide the photographer’s choice of studio lighting, for instance, or adopt a particular pose or persona inspired by a Hollywood movie — decisions that reflect new forms of leisure and new consumption patterns. A number of clients also asked for Parekh to lighten their skin tones during the development process (as a reader, further commentary from Brielmaier would have been welcomed on this subject). These images pose potent questions about the problematic conflation of whiteness and modernity, and the racist colonial ideals that persisted amidst the fanfare of the independence era.”
Spell Bound: A New Witch’s Guide to Crafting the Future, by Chaweon Koo
With complementary illustrations by Kring Demetrio and a format that encourages mindful reading Chaewon Koo delves into witchcraft in the age of technology. As AX Mina notes, although practices have existed for centuries around the world, more people than ever are now self-identifying as witches in part because the stigma around these belief systems has decreased in recent years. Koo’s survey of global traditions provides a basis for understanding witchcraft’s historical and contemporary offerings. “In a reflection on what magic means today,” Mina writes, “koi fish, symbols of good fortune and perseverance, hover through Koo’s observation that magic is, fundamentally, about mastering our mental focus — perhaps the most important lesson for crafting a better future.”
Comrade Sisters: Women of the Black Panther Party, by Ericka Huggins and Stephen Shames
Asking what motivated the women redefining service provision and community in the Black Panther Party, of which she was a key member, activist Ericka Huggins provides readers with a deceptively concise answer: love. This collection, from ACC Art Books, honors their legacy by weaving Huggins’s reflections on her fellow “comrade sisters” together with photographer Stephen Shames’s black-and-white shots of the Black Panther Party’s activities. “However, the book doesn’t only represent women’s influence in domestic or caregiving roles,” Staff Writer Taylor Michael reports. “Black women can be seen alongside men in courtrooms, at podiums, and in positions of power.” From food giveaways to protests to a young girl mastering addition in a math workshop, intimate moments between community members are paired with Huggins’s words to highlight the crucial work of the women who built and sustained the movement.
Mudlark’d: Hidden Histories from the River Thames
by Malcolm Russell
If all the objects discarded in a city’s river could speak, what would they say? Lauren Moya Ford writes that “mudlarking,” or scanning the shores of the River Thames in London for lost trinkets and treasures, is brought to life by historian Malcolm Russell, himself a practicing mudlarker. “For Russell, objects from the river’s banks offer serendipitous excuses to reexamine history. In one chapter, a blackened human molar launches an account of 18th- and 19th-century itinerant tooth-drawers, who performed their harrowing, rudimentary procedures before enthusiastic crowds and even paired their dental extractions with juggling, clowning, and other entertainments.”
Visible: Text + Images, edited by Sarah Coolidge
This unique gathering of writing, including poetry and fiction, explores the historical relationship between written language and memory from a fresh perspective. Author Melissa Holbrook Pierson writes: “The anthology fittingly opens with a latter-day rewrite of René Magritte’s ‘Les Mots et les Images,’ an explainer originally published in a 1929 issue of La Révolution surréaliste. Many of Magritte’s works could be considered proto-memes; here, the writer and artist Verónica Gerber Bicecci updates his ideas on the interplay of word and image for our times — the ‘age of the calligram.’ This charming and challenging graphic essay, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney, contends that now, more than ever, “The image-text relationship is inescapable. In fact, there is no difference between them, only a problem known as logocentrism.” The project of Visible, inasmuch as it has a discernible goal (genuine art being goal-defiant), is to demolish the categories of word and image entirely. In their place is situated the notion of a single written (visible) language that observes both constituents as fundamentally identical: symbols that manifest meaning.”
On Our Reading List
A World History of Women Photographers, Edited by Luce Lebart and Marie Robert
One page per notable woman photographer throughout history is hardly sufficient, but this colossal compendium, covering 300 photographers, captures a sliver of how women have continuously transformed, challenged, and reimagined the medium. Allotting just a few paragraphs per photographer, several dozen scholars and historians provide succinct and digestible jumping-off points to learn more about the lives and creations of these artists. Spanning 300 years, it includes glimpses into 19th-century artist Anna Atkins‘s fascination with algae, Madagascan photographer Edwige Razafy’s eye-catching compositions, and the work of Iranian photojournalist Newsha Tavakolian, whose 2011 Listen series recirculated during ongoing protests led by Iranian women following the murder of Mahsa (Zhina) Amini last September. No single book can contain all that women have contributed to the field, of course, but this is a good place to start.
Tsuchi: Earthy Materials in Contemporary Japanese Art, by Bert Winther-Tamaki
Scholar Bert Winther-Tamaki’s latest book digs into contemporary Japanese artistic practices using “tsuchi” — soil, clay, sand, and other materials drawn from the land — while contextualizing these practices within the history of Japan and influences from other art movements around the world. Artworks span ceramics, mudlarking, and “earth diving,” which draws on Indigenous traditions from North America as well as Japanese origin stories. Against the backdrop of the region’s urbanization and intensifying environmental issues, this rigorous text seeks to understand the earth itself as an artistic medium for critiquing the roots of these interconnected crises, and the fusion of ecology and art as a potential path forward.
Hilma af Klint: A Biography by Julia Voss
Swedish mystic artist Hilma af Klint may now be considered one of the 20th century’s most significant abstract painters, but up until the past decade or so, her work was not widely known. She’s now been the subject of several major museum shows and recognized as an early abstractionist whose keen interest in spiritualism, science, and nature shaped a distinct visual language that set her apart from her contemporaries.
Following a seven-volume catalogue raisonné published in 2021, Julia Voss’s biography offers a deeper look into af Klint’s evolution and the artist’s hope that her work would one day “inspire a social revolution.”
Cyberfeminism Index, edited by Mindy Seu
An index in the true sense of the word, more than 1,000 excerpts from existing writing on feminist approaches to technology and media provide countless entry points into this complex body of thought, spanning 1991 to 2020. Provocations include “Suck My Code!” by Australian arts collective VNS Matrix, “Cyborgfeministas” by scholar Paola Ricaurte, and “Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements” by adrienne maree brown and Walidah Imarisha. The book interrogates the corporeal, racialized, queered possibilities of the digital and technological. This is an invitation to contemplate, agree or disagree with, and further investigate its multitude of arguments.
Feelings of And, by Barry Schwabsky
“The crickets said it was over,” begins one of the poems in Barry Schwabsky’s Feelings of And, his fifth poetry book. Sink into the art critic’s new collection for introspective poems woven from snippets of conversations, both overheard and imagined. The book’s 78 works include “A Partial List of Omissions” dedicated to conceptual artist Mel Chin and “A Feeling of Blue,” written in honor of the late autodidact painter Matthew Wong.
Betye Saar: Black Doll Blues
In the midst of the 2020 pandemic lockdown, assemblage artist Betye Saar took to the medium of watercolor. Works that would later comprise an exhibition at Roberts Projects resulted, and this accompanying catalogue juxtaposes the paintings with her earlier works, interviews, and reflections on the personal and political significance of its eponymous focus: her collection of Black dolls, which inspired her watercolors in the first place.
Published by The Lenape Center and the Brooklyn Public Library, Lenapehoking collages thought-provoking essays, poems, interviews, and reflections by Indigenous scholars and writers to follow the first curated show of Lenape art in New York City, which took place last year at the Brooklyn Public Library’s Greenpoint outpost and was also translated into an online exhibition.
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