CAN ARTIST BOOKS BE CATEGORIZED AS ACTIVIST ART? // Maymanah Farhat

15 Nov 2020 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

Can artist books be categorized as activist art? This question nagged at me during the early part of 2019 as I began planning the Center for Book Arts’ summer exhibition, Poetry is Not a Luxury. Poring over a range of work by U.S. based women artists, I frequently came across examples that explore socio-political subject matter through a personal lens. The artist books, zines, and correspondence art that resonated most with me are unmistakably political given that they draw attention to critical issues, and yet most of these works have not been included in previous exhibitions or publications devoted to activist art. Searching through art historical monographs did not provide answers. What I found was that scholarly writing on book arts tends to privilege formalism, leaving little room for political content. Yet one can argue that the formalism of book arts in itself is political in the sense that artist books, zines, and correspondence art are accessible media, open to all levels of artistic ability and easily distributed to a wide audience. Reviewing the exhibition’s preliminary artworks—from Citizen 13660, a 1946 graphic memoir detailing a Japanese American artist’s incarceration in a concentration camp in Utah during World War II, to Survey (2010), a honeycomb-shaped accordion book that alludes to an artist’s experience as a recently arrived immigrant in New York—I was reminded of the feminist mantra “the personal is political.”

Abandoning my initial art historical research, I turned to the writings of Audre Lorde, Barbara Smith, Gloria Anzaldúa, and June Jordan, radical thinkers who were central to shaping Third World Feminism, the twentieth-century movement that mainstreamed terms like “intersectionality,” “identity politics,” and “people of color.” Third World Feminism embraced creativity as a way of documenting, addressing, and amplifying the experiences of women, including how racism and socioeconomic marginalization often intersect with gender-based discrimination. Adopting Lorde’s idea that creativity is thus a necessity for women allowed me to approach the exhibition’s featured works in a way that honors the emotive (and political) power of subjectivity. Creativity, as Lorde reminds us in her 1977 essay “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” reveals “what we feel within and dare make real.” This understanding of the profound nature of creativity combined with the analytical lens of Third World Feminism seemed most apt for an exhibition that brings together a diverse group of artists who articulate the intersectionality that shapes everyday life in the U.S. for so many. By doing so, these artists encourage viewers to consider issues like war, migration, gentrification, mass incarceration, and xenophobia outside of statistical information and news headlines, to which Americans have become desensitized, bringing them instead into the realm of lived experiences. This leap from representation to engagement, from information to knowledge, is one of the essential aims of activist art.

In “Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to Third World Women Writers” (1980), Gloria Anzaldúa reflects on the difficulty of addressing her peers, the Black and Brown women who were her friends and allies: “How to begin again. How to approximate the intimacy and immediacy I want. What form?” Anzaldúa chose a poetic letter as the most effective medium for her task in the same way that the artists of Poetry is Not a Luxury turned to book arts. Later in the text Anzaldúa warns that “[t]he danger in writing is not fusing our personal experience and world view with the social reality we live in, with our inner life, our history, our economics, and our vision.” My hope is that by bringing together these artists and presenting their works through this analytical lens that I’ve communicated how intimacy and immediacy are crucial to navigating our current political moment.


Maymanah Farhat is the curator of Poetry is Not a Luxury. Organized by the Center for Book Arts in Manhattan in 2019, the exhibition is currently on view at the San Francisco Center for the Book and will travel to the Minnesota Center for the Book Arts in 2022. 


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