A little theory, a little care for non-human realms, humour, and a lot of humanity—a list to soothe the edges.

Curators Summer Books 2021

“For a moment, nothing happened. Then, after a second or so, nothing continued to happen.” Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

When asked about a book she was currently reading, curator Devanshi Shah reminded us of the brilliant and hilarious masterpiece that is “Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy” by Douglas Adams. A classic—and that’s how Shah treats it, regularly coming back to read passages from the book—it was originally a BBC radio comedy, in 1978, and had since taken various forms in different media including a film.

Media and Film. Curator Laurent Montaron shared the names of Curator at the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou in charge of the collection of films, Philippe Alain Michaud, for his book, “Sur Le Film”, and the work of Canadian media analyst and literary critic Marshall Mcluhan. “The medium is the message” is Mcluhan most famous statement, and his thoughts are still very relevant today, the way he describes reading as rapid guessing—stating that a good reader often makes a good decision-maker—or that advertising is the folk art of the 20th century, or the way he describes the different properties of the visual and the acoustic worlds, or the way he talks about the global village. For more on his fantastic legacy, including soundbites and recorded lectures, see his estate here.

Oppositional Gaze. For Gisela Domschke, the book that still haunts her is “Black Looks: Race and Representation”, a collection of essays on the representation of the African American experience. In it, Hooks coined the term “Oppositional Gaze” in response to how white slave-owners historically punished their slaves for looking at them the wrong way—so looking become this act of self-determined resistance against repression. The New School features a serious yet entertaining conversation titled “Ending Domination: The Personal is Political”, between Bell Hooks and Jill Soloway here, where they share personal stories to expand on the larger theme of injustice, “I believe that what has saved my life as a victim of child abuse, is critical thinking” says Hooks.

Feminism, Fantasy, and Science Fiction. Tšhegofatšo Mabaso has been enjoying the work of legendary science fiction author Octavia Butler—who has a Mars landing site named after her by NASA—through the novel “Kindred” (where protagonist, Dana, time-travels from ‘70s California to the pre-Civil War South) or the trilogy “Lilith’s Brood” (an epic of human transformation and healing aliens). Mabaso realised that when science fiction wasn’t written exclusively through a cis-heterosexual white male lens, she actually really enjoyed the genre. A forthcoming Butler biography, by another creative and talented writer, who was mentored by Butler, Ibi Zoboi, is due to come out in 2022, and if you like graphic novels, Kindred has its version, via an adaptation by academics and comic artists Damian Duffy and John Jennings.

Queer Theory. Another book Mabaso really liked is “Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity” by late Cuban-American queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz—a book where Muñoz draws from the work of established and edgy artists to address queer cultural future and revive queer political imagination.

Amazing, underrated, plants. Australia-based curator Biljana Ciric praised Robin Wall Kimmerer’s writing in “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants”, the book she was reading at the time of her interview. The author describes herself as “a mother, scientist, professor, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation” and Braiding Sweetgrass was described in the Guardian as “remarkable, wise and potentially paradigm-shifting”. Below is an extract from another nature-revering work by Kimmerer, an article in Emergence Magazine where the author poses the question, what if scarcity is just a cultural construct, a fiction that fences us off from gift economies?
“As a person schooled by plants, my fingers stained with berry juice, I’m not willing to give scarcity such a prominent role. Gift economies arise from an understanding of earthly abundance and the gratitude it generates. A perception of abundance, based on the notion that there is enough if we share it, underlies economies of mutual support.” The Serviceberry, An Economy of Abundance by Robin Wall Kimmerer, Emergence Magazine.
You can read or listen to this article, narrated by the author, here.

The Riches of Creativity and Convictions. For Anca Rujoiu, it was Booker Prize novel “Girl, Woman, Other” (2019) by Bernardine Evaristo that left a deep impression on her as a companion to isolation when the pandemic started. British writer Evaristo authored several fiction books around her interest in the African diaspora, and is about to release her first non-fiction volume this October called “Manifesto: On Never Giving Up”. Evaristo’s books are funny, observant, and they mix together more than prose and poetry. As she states it herself : “As a storyteller, I like to mix things up temporally, spatially and stylistically—to cross the borders of genre, race, culture, gender, history and sexuality […] My Afro-diasporic interests have led me to writing books that connect ancient and modern history with our contemporary society”. A regular contributor to many BBC programmes, here is one recording where Evaristo talks about the importance of arts in her life, and life in general, especially if the future is to be holistic (based on her personal experience growing up in the UK). I am also intrigued by one of her earlier books, a road trip throughout Europe towards the Middle East by a mismatched black couple where he meets ghosts of colour from European history such as Pushkin, the Chevalier de St. Georges, but also his African great-grandfather.

Southeast Asian Lens to the Mecca. Journeying is also at the centre of “The Longest Journey: Southeast Asians and the Pilgrimage to Mecca” by Cornell University professor Eric Tagliacozzo—a book that was recommended by David Teh about the hajj from a Southeast Asian point of view. Tagliacozzo is a long-time scholar on Southeast Asia. In another perspective, linking the region with Chinese history and the big picture about the one belt road and it’s building on the silk road, he presents a short lecture here hosted by the University of Virginia.

Expanding on Angkor. Teh also introduced us to a book he often comes back to, peeling away its treasures periodically. Based on Southeast Asia history and research “Engendering the Buddhist State: Territory, Sovereignty and Sexual Difference in the Inventions of Angkor” by Ashley Thompson, from the SOAS University of London, revisits beliefs and perceptions on the role of art and language in the self-imagination of the ancient Cambodian empire. Thompson is a specialist in Southeast Asian arts, aesthetics, literatures, and cultural histories, with a focus on Cambodia. Thanks to SOAS youtube channel, several lectures by Thompson are available, including this one, where she presents parts of her work including ideas present in “Engendering the Buddhist State”.

The humanity within. To close this list, here is a little bit of contemplation and connection with our humanity within. Curator Taylor Bythewood-Porter’s periodical summer read is Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass”, a collection of poems published in 1855, for which Waltman got fired as a clerk at the Department of Interior, for inappropriate themes. Waltman speaks for the everyman in America, for whom he declares to be “Neither a servant nor a master I”, and against the polarising background of slavery, he pleads for equality and democracy, for acceptance of all faces and bodies, for love, friendship, and soul. For more on Whitman’s work you can visit his archives here or the online documentation of the exhibition honouring the bicentenary of his work and highlighting his inclusive thinking process and prolific writing at the Morgan Library & Museum.

Art critic and writer.

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