Black History and Experiences through Book Arts

In honor of Black History Month, Special Collections and Archives are highlighting Black artists and their creations from our book arts collection. The books and prints range from autobiographical stories to exploring Black history and identity as well as racism and anti-Black racism, police discrimination and brutality, and violence motivated by hate within our society. Artists’ books are art pieces based on and/or inspired by the form of the book, either traditional or reinterpreted. Using different media and formats, artists invite the reader to experience the art through the act of reading and exploring the piece’s relationship between image and text.

Page spread showing a group of red chairs
It Wasn’t Little Rock by Clarissa Sligh, 2005. SpC. 702.81 S633i2005

Many of the artists’ books within our collections make use of historical images and sources. One example is It Wasn’t Little Rock by the visual artist, lecturer, and essayist, Clarissa Sligh. Her work often explores how history intersects with her own experiences as a Black woman. She also explores the themes of memory, social justice, change, transformation, complication, and identity.[1] It Wasn’t Little Rock documents the experiences of Sligh, her siblings, and her mother, as plaintiffs in the 1955 school segregation cases in Arlington, Virginia (Clarissa Thompson et. al. vs. Arlington County School Board) through layers of text, image, and photographs. The narrative comes from stories told by her mother, interviews with her siblings, legal documents, and newspaper clippings.[2]

Cover and slip case for the book with a gold paper crane
Cover and case for Transforming Hate: An Artist’s Book by Clarissa Sligh, 2016. SpC. 702.81 S633t2016

Sligh once again uses her personal experiences as a framework for exploring social justice in Transforming Hate: An Artist’s Book, which was inspired by Sligh’s participation in a group art exhibition at the Holter Museum of Art in Helena, Montana in partnership with the Montana Human Rights Network in 2007. The artists were asked to create works that used, transformed, or reacted to white supremacist hate books.[3] Sligh created origami cranes from the pages of these books while reflecting on the process of turning hate into a beautiful work of art. The project stayed with Sligh and in 2016 she published Transforming Hate: An Artist’s Book revealing personal stories juxtaposed with historical events allowing the reader to “understand more fully the many levels of oppression and violence at the intersections of race, gender, class, and sexual orientation.”[4]

Image of house shaped book standing up to demonstrate structure.
What’s Happening with Momma? by Clarissa Sligh, 1988. SPC. 702.81 S633w1988

What’s Happening with Momma?, another autobiographical work by Sligh, explores memory and form. At first glance, the piece looks like a house shaped book, but as you open it, the pages unfold similar to an accordion. When the book is stood up, it feels like you are in a home. On the walls of the structure there are screen-printed photographs. Sheets of folded paper are affixed to the larger pages and when you unfold them to read, they take the form of stairs. As readers move through the rooms, unfolding and moving down the stairs, you are taken through a childhood memory of when Sligh’s sister was born at home and the confusion of not quite understanding what was happening.[5]

Cover of Lissen Here feature a portrait of a Black woman
Cover of Lissen Here! by Philip and Dorothy Mallory Jones, 2006. SpC. 811.6 J76L2006

Another work that incorporates autobiographical elements is Lissen Here!, a project created by media artist Philip Mallory Jones and his mother and writer Dorothy Mallory Jones. Philip Mallory Jones created photo-text compositions using photographs from family archives, photographer friends, and found images. The text consists of poems that were written by his mother Dorothy. The poems come from memories, anecdotes, and families’ stories. [6] Originally meant to be a celebration of Black womanhood and history, the project grew to be a broader celebration of Black life and culture.[7] This book is beautifully printed in a large format allowing the reader to be drawn into the images and the narrative poems that bring them to life.

Image of artists Tia Blassingame with word Guilty over her face.
Guilty by Tia Blassingame, 2017. SpC. 769 B644g2017

Tia Blassingame is a book artist, printmaker, proprietor of Primrose Press, Assistant Professor of Art of Scripps College, the Director of Scripps College Press, and founder of Book/Print Artist/Scholar of Color Collective. She focuses her prints and artists’ books on the intersection of race, history, and perception.[8] In our book arts collection, we have two works by Blassingame addressing racial profiling and hate based violence. Guilty is a standalone piece created while developing the concept for a later project titled I AM. On a single sheet of paper appears an image of Tia with the word “Guilty” laid over her face. Created using letterpress and pressure printing[9], this image is meant to draw attention to how race plays into who is considered guilty or innocent in our justice system and broader culture. She states in a 2017 interview in Entropy Magazine, “As a nation, we continue this long history of re-victimization of black victims and their loved ones, and of a justice system that does not provide justice if the crime is committed by a white American against a black American.” [10]

A sheet of handmade paper with the text creating the form of a human bust
Poem about Relisha Rudd from Settled: A Handbook by Tia Blassingame, 2015, SpC. 702.81 B644s2015.

Blassingame’s collection of prints titled Settled: A Handbook was created as part of a larger artists’ book project titled Settled: African American Sediment or Constant Middle Passage. Within the collection are three pieces of poetry about Trayvon Martin, Relisha Rudd, and Eric Garner. Through her poems, Blassingame describes each of their stories and how it affected her. “Diverse themes are explored from the criminalizing of the victim in the case of Trayvon Martin to the absence of concern and media coverage for kidnapped African Americans such as Relisha Rudd.”[11] The type flows on paper handmade from the artist’s clothing[12] to create unique layouts, culminating in a powerful visual as well as an emotional experience as you read.

Book with pages partially pulled out to show folded structure and painted interior of text sections.
A Dozen Deaths by Nia Easley, 2015. SpC. 702.81 E131d2015

The artists’ book A Dozen Deaths by the Chicago artist Nia Easley[13] also centers on Trayvon Martin’s murder. In the artist’s statement, Easley states, “I believe we can never truly know what happened that night, but in in an attempt to get to the humanity of Trayvon’s last moments, I have created a broader counter-narrative in the form of twelve stories. Twelve is the number of people on a typical jury. A dozen different re-tellings of those fatal events all told from a first-person perspective as if each of the storytellers were experiencing that evening as their self.”[14] While you can read through A Dozen Deaths as typical codex, the book was designed in such a way that the pages are connected, inviting the viewer to gently pull them all out. While the book is standing, this creates a line revealing all the stories at once. Pulling the pages out is also what allows the reader to view the paintings on the interior of each set of pages based on a stencil of person wearing a hoodie.[15]

We are highlighting these artists and their work to celebrate Black art, culture, history, and stories, but we also hope that these titles foster conversations and reflections about racism and anti-Black racism, violence motivated by hate, and injustice within our society. While we are not currently able to offer in person research at this time, but you can learn more about our artists’ book collections on our website or if you would like to incorporate any of these works in an instruction session, please reach out to Nora Gabor, ngabor@depaul.edu.

[1] Clarissa Sligh, “Biography,” Clarissa Sligh Biography, October 1, 2019, https://clarissasligh.com/about/biography/.

[2] C. Slight, “It Wasn’t Little Rock Project Statement,” 2006, http://www.artistsbooksonline.org/works/iwlr.xml

[3] Vamp and Tramp Booksellers, “Clarissa Sligh,” November 18, 2020, http://vampandtramp.com/finepress/s/clarissa-sligh.html.

[4] Clarissa Sligh, Foreword to Transforming Hate: An Artists’ Book, (Asheville, North Carolina: Clarissa T. Sligh), [1].

[5] Vamp and Tramp Booksellers, “Clarissa Sligh,” November 18, 2020, http://vampandtramp.com/finepress/s/clarissa-sligh.html.

[6] Dorothy Mallory Jones and Philip Mallory Jones, About the creators for Lissen Here!, (United States: s.n., 2006), [48].

[7]ACMSiggraph Art Show Archives, “Philip Mallory Jones: LISSEN HERE!,” 2007,  https://digitalartarchive.siggraph.org/artwork/philip-mallory-jones-lissen-here/.

[8] Tia Blassingame, “About”, 2020,https://www.primrosepress.com/about/.

[9] Vamp and Tramp Booksellers, Vamp and Tramp Booksellers, “Primrose Press, California (Tia Blassingame)”. Retrieved February 11, 2021, from http://vampandtramp.com/finepress/p/primrose-press.html

[10] Jordan Okumara, “An Interview: Tia Blassingame, Book Artist and Woman Behind Primrose Press,” December 18,2017, https://entropymag.org/an-interview-tia-blassingame-book-artist-and-woman-behind-primrose-press/

[11] Tia Blassingame, “Settled: African American Sediment or Constant Mid dle Passage,” Retrieved from February 11, 2021, https://www.primrosepress.com/#/settled/.

[12] Vamp and Tramp Booksellers, “Primrose Press, California (Tia Blassingame)”. Retrieved February 11, 2021, from http://vampandtramp.com/finepress/p/primrose-press.html

[13] Threewalls, “Nia Easley,” September 2019, https://three-walls.org/artists/nia-easley/

[14] SAIC Digital Collections, “A Dozen Deaths,-Description,” Retrieved February 17, 2021, https://digitalcollections.saic.edu/islandora/object/islandora%3Ajfabc_8696?solr_nav%5Bid%5D=abadb496ffbc84f35729&solr_nav%5Bpage%5D=0&solr_nav%5Boffset%5D=1

[15] IBID

 

 

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