I recently got back from a short, museum-packed trip to Washington, D.C. for spring break. Do you remember the museum scene from Passport to Paris? It was a little like that, except unlike Mary-Kate and Ashley, I had a blast. Among the multiple Smithsonian institutions I visited, one of my favorites was the National Museum of African Art (not to be confused with the National Museum of African American History and Culture opening this September). The seemingly small but uniquely designed museum first opened its doors in 1964. At the time it was known as the Museum of African Art, located on Capitol Hill in a townhouse that had been the home of Frederick Douglass. In August 1979, the museum became part of the Smithsonian Institution. It is now located on the National Mall (which, by the way, is full of cherry blossoms this time of year, in case you’re planning your own “wanna get away” trip).
Among other exhibits, now on view is Artists’ Books and Africa. The twenty-five books included in the exhibition are either by African artists or feature traditional African themes, and all come from the permanent collections of the museum and the Smithsonian libraries. Through the books, the exhibition explores African history and cultures by embodying collective memory and reclaiming cultural heritage and storytelling. The show features fine art books as well as those employing multiple formats, materials and techniques by predominantly contemporary artists.
The books range in theme from personal narratives to reflections on the human condition. The sprawled out pages of Atta Kwami’s (b. 1956 in Ghana) Grace Kwami Sculpture (1993) resemble the form of a spider, drawing upon the African folklore of Anansi, the mischievous but knowledgeable spider known for his cleverness and skill, to tell the story of the artist’s mother, Grace Kwami (1923–2006), who was also an artist. Each of the book’s “legs” show pictures illustrating Grace’s life, creating a metaphor between the skillfulness of the spider and the creativity of the artist’s mother (my mind immediately went to Maman by Louise Bourgeois).
Another artist, Judith Mason (b. 1938 in South Africa) and poet Wilma Stockenström (b. 1933 in South Africa) use the book to visualize pain, or more specifically, a woman’s pain. In their book, Skoelapperheuwel, Skoelappervrou (Butterfly Hill, Butterfly Woman), Mason uses lithographs of pencil illustrations and collages of torn paper as the background for Stockenström’s enigmatic yet thought provoking words. Written in free verse Afrikaans, Stockenström contemplates the role of women in society, as well as other existentialist themes such as death and the afterlife. The ripped pages signify a kind of trauma presumably felt by all women, whether from childbirth, intercourse, or menstruation. The poetry is not fully translated into English, but even without textual reference, the message of the powerful and often visceral images is clear.
The versatility of artist books shows how their form and structure often supercede their content. Inspired by the “power to the people” mindset of the 1960s, inexpensive artists’ books referred to as “democratic multiples” are made to be distributed to as many people as possible, and typically convey social or political messages. South African artist Luan Nel’s (b. 1971) piece Paper: An Installation by Luan Nel at the Mark Coetzee Fine Art Cabinet takes the form of a tiny deck of cards. Looking at the cards feels like taking a Rorschach test as the small, ambiguous figures gradually create stories and sequences the longer you engage with them. The images are playful, but also veil the experiences of the artist’s life, addressing his homosexuality, Afrikaans heritage, his upbringing in the strict Dutch Reformed Church, and being drafted by the South African army during the era of apartheid.
The books are beautiful, surprising, darkly humorous, and at times bizarre. At first glance they seem to be purely aesthetically driven, but each page reveals something about the artist who created it. Artists’ Books and Africa will be on view until September 11, 2016 at the National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C.