For my final blog post, I’d like to bring in conversation Joanna Drucker’s Testament of Women, and Kara Walker’s Freedom: A Fable. These two artists’ books highlight the historically grounded exclusion of women. First, I’d like to give some context about the authors of these artist’s books.
Both female artists have varied experiences that drive their work. Kara Walker (b. 1969), a California native, moved to the South during adolescence. Her works often examine issues of gender, race, power, and history. Walker was also the youngest recipient of the MacArthur “genius” Award, has exhibited her work all over the world. The other artist, Johanna Drucker (b. 1952), is the inagural Breslauer Professor of Bibliographical Studies at UCLA. She is known for her work as a critic, poet, and book artist. Both artists examine gender and history in different ways.
Freedom: A Fable is an illustrated artist’s book that uses pop-ups and silhouettes to convey the African American female experience. Its layout is reminiscent of a children’s book, first, with its cover and codex structure, and simple text. Yet, we learn how complex and intricate each pop-up is, and the emotionally powerful story of a female slave’s challenges after emancipation.
Walker engages with the intersectionalities of feminism, including not only gender, but race. She uses the 18th-century black silhuoette forms that remind us of historical stereotyped representations of African Americans in minstrel shows and literature. Most of Walker’s silhouette art are typically installations that cover entire walls. Freedom lets the viewer interact with these images on a very personal, intimate level.
In contrast, Drucker’s Testament was written in response to Vanessa Och’s Sarah Laughed (a book of essays that retell and break traditional biblical tales to highlight women’s experiences) (Drucker, 2008). The stories of biblical women – Eve, Sarah, Miriam, are retold. By breaking their biblical and patriarchal origins, their lives are brought to the forefront. Drucker challenges the original content and emphasizes their personal experience, recasting this as a feminist book.
Both Walker and Drucker provide important testimony to the feminist realm of artist’s books in different ways. Freedom digs deep into the itnersectionality of race, whereas Drucker paints a picture to Western world’s historical view of gender. Their differing aesthetics are also important to consider. Walker’s two-tone color scheme, traditional page layout (image-text), interrupted by complex and carefully cut pop-ups keep the reader engaged. On the other hand, Drucker’s crude representations of biblical women, leading, diverse typography and layout, are also visually interesting and enliven the page. These female artists challenge the traditional codex in different structural, typographical, and material-based ways that I think, can both be appreciated.
Freedom, a Fable: A Curious Interpretation of the Wit of a Negress in Troubled Times, 1997
Bound volume of offset lithographs and five laser-cut, pop-up silhouettes on woven paper, 9 3/8 x 8 3/8 in.
Testament of Women: A New Translation To & From the Texts, 2006
Printed Letterpress, Linoleum cuts, 40 pgs, 13 1/4 x 10 in.
Drucker, Johanna. 2008. “Resident Artist (Guest): Testament Of Women.” Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies & Gender Issues, 15, Indiana Press. Spring 2008, pp. 202-211.