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Book Arts: Identity

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

Artists' books about identity

Danny Tisdale. The Black Museum. New York : INTAR Gallery, 1990.  Haas Arts Special Collections ART 2

Danny Tisdale. Danny, The Last African American in the 22nd Century.  Atlanta: Nexus Press, 2194 [i.e. 1994]. Haas Arts Special Collections NJ18.T5132 A12 1994 (LC)

These two pamphlets document components of Danny Tisdale’s multi-faceted project creating a fictitious “Black Museum.”  A 1997 review in Frieze of an exhibition at Lombard-Fried Fine Arts said, “In The Black Museum, begun in 1990, Danny Tisdale exhibited, museum-style, products and packaging ­ from dashikis to hair straighteners ­ aimed at African-American consumers of the Black Power era. He covered fake copies of magazines like GQ, Interview and Archaeology with his own picture and eventually presented himself, on a pedestal, as an ‘anthropological free agent’. Tisdale wittily located black identity at the intersection of various, often conflicting social discourses and practices, without fixing it to a particular position. The work combined critique with a Warholian fascination for consumer culture.”[1]  The smaller square pamphlet is from the initial 1990 exhibition at INTAR Gallery, open to the page that shows two installation shots of the exhibition and a portion of the essay by Arthur Paris about Tisdale’s work.  The other pamphlet is an artists’ book that Tisdale created at Nexus Press in 1994.  The science-fiction premise is that Tisdale was unconscious for 200 years, awaking to find a very different America in which he was the only remaining African American.  The artist’s book uses much of the same language and objects from the gallery exhibitions as Danny attempts to convince these futuristic Americans that he is indeed African American.  Tisdale’s fictional future self in the course of explaining his new life looks back on life in 1994 with witty synopses of trends: “Well, in my day, some African Americans moved towards a visual integration; from dark to light or the ‘Jacksonian Theory of Race’ (fig. 6 and 7).  While some Americans were tanning, enlarging and curling, African Americans were whitening, reducing and straightening.”

1.  Frazer Ward. “Danny Tisdale.” Frieze 32 (January-February 1997)

Adrian Piper and Houston Conwill, et al. Colored People:  A Collaborative Book Project. London: Book Works, 1991. Haas Arts Special Collections NJ18 P6393 A12 FKJ 7801 1991 (LC)

This project was originally a mock-up that was included in the 1987 travelling exhibition Coast to Coast: Women of Color National Artists’ Book Project.  Clarissa Sligh, another Coast to Coast participant and also included in this exhibition, write about the project on her web site:

“The goal was to establish a venue for the exhibition of the exceptional talent of women artists of color. In addition, the project provided an opportunity for the women to collaborate and develop dialogues.

Two hundred artists from over thirty states were represented in the first exhibition. Hispanic, Native American, Middle Eastern, Far Eastern and African American women celebrated the complex experience of being women of color in America. Using materials such as audiotape, leather, quilts, gourd skin, pulp paper, photographs, boxes and bags, they created individually and collaboratively artists’ books.” [2]

Later, Bookworks in London supported the publication of this edition.  From the publisher’s web site:

"Tickled pink. Scarlet with embarrassment. Purple with anger. Blue. Green with envy. Jaundiced yellow. White with fear. Black depression." Adrian Piper's book is a collaboration with sixteen people who were asked to [act] out these 'metaphorical moods' and record them as photographs which Piper then took responsibility for sorting, depending on her response to the expressions. According to Piper, the book ‘was intended as a light-hearted conceptual gesture with serious implications’.

Colored People is a project that attempts to deal with two aspects of prejudgement; those made about others and those made about art that is delimited as political as a method of containment of what else it may be about, how richly politics may be defined.” [3]



Dorothy Mallory Jones. Lissen Here! Image compositions by Philip Mallory Jones. Atlanta, GA:  P. Jones, 2004.  Haas Arts Special Collections Folio NJ18 J71343 A12 2004 (LC)

This is a collaborative work between mother and son to create a kind of scrapbook or family history.  The two artists write of the creation of this work:

Dorothy Mallory Jones: "This book began life as a meld of black history and a celebration of black womanhood. It is factual, anecdotal, autobiographical. It is born of remembered snatches of my own, and anybody else's family lore; of provocative family nicknames; of knotted, worked-out hands of my grandmother; folded so patiently in her lap. It is the fruit of a lifetime of standing back and watching the relentless energies of a race of stricken people, steadily galvanizing toward liberation. It is listening, always listening, to the cadence, the flow, the pungent getting-to-the heart of it, that is our speech." [4]

Philip Mallory Jones: "This collaboration has been germinating for three decades, and longer. It comes out of, and marks, the paths we have traveled, my mother and I, from those early days of her teaching and me learning, to mature artists who respect each other's work. We have come full circle, in a way, albeit to converse through our art, with a shared language, about the lore and legends of our family, and our extended Family." [4]


Lisa Beth Robinson. Drowning. Greenville, NC: Somnambulist Tango Press, 2009. Haas Arts Special Collections NJ18 R5538 A12 2009 (LC)

The artist writes about this work: “My hope is that this book will make people realize that ignorance and racism is not only the province of the uneducated, that racism is a very real and daily part of our experience. The text for this book is a comment made in 2008 by an academic advisor at my university, a person who has a master’s degree. It was said to me and two of my coworkers, one of whom is black. I couldn’t believe my ears and still can’t believe she said this. The experience was so powerful that I can’t let it go. It’s up to us to work for a positive change. We have a lot of work to do.” [5]

The book is constructed in such a way that it is held in the codex format only by folded paper (no glue or sewing).  This allows the reader to dissemble the work to view the pages as one unbroken image, as displayed here.


Clarissa T. Sligh. A Tourist Map to Japan:  Major Air Routes in Japan : Voyage(r). Atlanta: Nexus Press, 2000. Haas Arts Special Collections NJ18 SL445 A12 2000 (LC)

In Tourist Map, Sligh documents her feelings as an African American women traveling to Japan through her photography, appropriated imagery and text, and her own writing.  Sligh’s experience of feeling like a foreigner was heightened by traveling with her partner, a Jewish man, and his lack of self-consciousness participating in the rituals of a foreign country.  Sligh writes “Here we are / On a flight to / Japan / Aaron dying to see it / Me still wavering” and “As African American / I know nothing about it / Care even less.”  Toward the end of the book Sligh recalls the story of having dinner in the home of a Japanese family.  The father tells Sligh that he really enjoyed the movie Roots and found it “educational.”  She responded that she had a similar experience with Shogun.  Sligh concludes, “We all laughed together as it sank in that Hollywood had provided us with our understanding of each other’s history.  But even still, we couldn’t prevent Roots and Shogun from sitting down to dinner with us.”

Clarissa T. Sligh. Wrongly Bodied Two. Rosendale, NY: Women’s Studio Workshop, 2004. Haas Arts Special Collections NJ18.SL445 A12 2004 (LC)

Wrongly Bodied Two, also available as a trade edition published by the Leeway Foundation in 2009, presents two tales in parallel: that of the transformation of Deborah to Jake and two slaves who escaped in 1848 by transforming themselves into master and servant so they could travel to the North.  Sligh writes in the introduction: “Having lived in the Southeast, where vestiges of slavery still existed, I knew for certain that white could be black and black could be white; but that a male could be a female and a female could be male was not something I had encountered in all my fifty some years … The concept of changing one’s identity was not new to me.  Slaves had escaped to become ‘free’ women and men.  Light skin blacks ‘passed’ for white.”  It is this exact parallel that unfolds through the photographically illustrated tome.  As Deborah becomes Jake, Ellen Craft transforms herself from a black woman to a white man in order to escort her husband become servant on their travels.  Both transformations are successful; Craft and her husband escape slavery and Jake starts a new life as a man.  Sligh writes, “The violence against transgender people brings to mind the lynching of black men.  It speaks to a fear that ‘white man equals masculinity equals power’ is a crumbling artificial construction.”

Taryn Wells. Swatch of Approval. 2008. Graphite and colored pencil drawing. Haas Arts Special Collections, Faber Birren Collection

In this work, Wells calls on the well-known swatch card as a method to showcase the range of skin color hues, and to give them evocative names, as is traditional for paint colors.  Instead of “Persimmon Red” and “Ballet Slipper Pink,” Wells uses labels that carry the weight of a time when not only the color of one’s skin, but the relative lightness or darkness of it, was crucial to social standing: Porcelain, Flesh, Passing, Suitable, Questionable.  While Wells informs us which color her skin is by circling the shade on the swatch card (Passing), the colorless self-portrait emphasizes that the viewer could not guess her skin color without this information.  Wells asks us to consider if we view her differently now that we know the color.