Artist Books, a Slippery Genre

Artists Making Books by Venetia Porter seeks to argue that the artist book is not exclusively the property of the Western canon

Kareem Risan, Every Day, 2005, book, mixed media. Courtesy the artist

An artist book is not, as you might think if applying your knowledge of language and its normal usage, simply a book produced with the involvement of an artist. Or even a book about the work of an artist. Rather, it seems to be a publication in the production and physicality of which the artist is intimately involved. Photobooks yes; exhibition catalogues no. Although as far as this book is concerned, it’s not even as simple as that. ‘Artists books are hard to define as a genre,’ concedes Venetia Porter in her introduction, ‘but one common thread is that these works share a feeling of intimacy, a feeling of discovery.’ Which, you might well say, could include a large amount of ‘conventional’ literature too.

Shafiq Abboud, La Souris (The Mouse), 1954, book with silkscreen prints. Courtesy the estate of the artist

Still, if Artists Making Books is not exactly clear about what it’s about, it is very clear about where it’s about: the Arab-speaking world from the Middle East to North Africa, and South Asia. And it’s very clear too that it seeks to argue that the artist book is not exclusively the property of the Western canon. That’s one of the areas in which this book truly comes into its own; not just in linkages to Arabic calligraphy, miniature painting and literature, but also to concepts like daftar (coined by art-historian Nada Shabout, literally meaning notebook or ledger, but equally pointing to the context – Iraq – in which these books were made) and more generally to artist books as particular products of their times. Iranian-American artist Ala Ebtekar is quoted as saying that he is influenced by political pamphlets and zine culture as much as the Arabic classics.

More than a simple reflection of the British Museum’s artist-book holdings (although it is substantially a catalogue of images of and pages from works in the collection), this is an important index of artists’ responses (by figures from Dia al-Azzawi and Etel Adnan, to Ahmed Morsi and Al Braithwaite) to the issues and circumstances that have shaped the Arab world in recent times.

Artists Making Books: Poetry to Politics by Venetia Porter. British Museum Press, £25 (softcover)

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