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Book Arts: Slavery

Subject-specific lists of book arts materials available in Special Collections at the Robert B. Haas Family Arts Library

Artists' Books on Slavery

Maureen Cummins.  The Business is Suffering. Rosendale, NY: Women’s Studio Workshop, 2003.  Haas Arts Special Collections NJ18.C9272 A12 2003 (LC)+ Oversize

Cummins’s book art, like that of Tyler and many other artists, incorporates and reinterprets historical source material to make aesthetic and political statements.  Both The Business Is Suffering and Divide and Conquer (on display in the adjacent case) invite the reader to direct modern political and social perspectives onto the raw material of historical record.  The Business Is Suffering reproduces 26 letters, dating from 1846-1863 and written by members of a Virginia-based slave-trading firm, R. H. Dickenson and Bros.

This volume is disguised as a 19th century business ledger.  It is bound in black paper and leather, the front cover is marked “Private,” and the spine label is stamped: “RHD & Bro., Richmond, Va; dealers & auctioneers: letters, 1846-1863.”  The title of the work reflects the sentiments of the correspondents, who, in the course of documenting the decline of their trade, expose the racist and inhumane attitudes that sustained it for so long. 

Cummins employs letterpress and silkscreen techniques to superimpose printed transcripts of the letters with images of the original feathery manuscripts.  Cummins also includes images based on a diagram of a slave-ship cargo hold.  As the reader progresses through the chronologically ordered letters, the black figures in the diagram slowly disappear until a blank square is all that remains to accompany the final letter, in which an agent laments the end of their enterprise.

Samuel Sewall. The Selling of Joseph:  A Memorial. Northhampton, MA: Gehenna Press, 1969. Haas Arts Special Collections E445 M4 S47 1969 (LC)

John Woolman. Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes; Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes.  Northampton, MA: Gehenna Press, 1970.  Haas Arts Special Collections HT871 W6 1970 (LC)

At his Gehenna Press, Leonard Baskin published these two works under the series “The Gehenna Tracts.”  By reprinting these historical anti-slavery texts as fine press books, Baskin is communicating his respect for the ideas through the time and attention devoted to the laborious process of creating a book by hand.  All the choices of making this object tell the reader that the words inside are precious: high-quality paper with deckle edges, wide margins, quarter-leather bindings with marbled-paper boards, a limited-edition print of the author laid in to each copy.  In addition to the historic texts, Baskin has included historical commentary about each author and their contribution to early anti-slavery literature (Sewall’s work was originally published in 1700 and Woolman’s two texts were in 1754 and 1762.)

Lynn Marshall-Linnemeier, Melanie Pavich-Lindsay, and Lisa Tuttle.  Look Back.  Atlanta: Nexus Press, 2002.  Haas Arts Special Collections NJ18 M384414 A12 2002 (LC)

A collaborative artist’s book, based on an installation, drawing from historical photographs and letters about the life on Retreat Plantation in Georgia.  Pavich-Lindsay, a historian, transcribed the letters of Anna King, wife of the plantation owner, from 1817 to 1859. (The letters were published in full by University of Georgia Press.) Artists Tuttle and Marshall-Linnemeier created imagery that imagines the life of the slaves on Retreat Plantation, paired with excerpts from their owner’s letters, and photographs of the modern day ruins.