December 2008, Banned and Recovered: Artists Respond to Censorship @ San Francisco Centre for the Book and The African American Museum and Library at Oakland

Banned and Recovered: Artists Respond to Censorship
at San Francisco Center for the Book
300 De Haro St, San Francisco, CA 94103
and the African American Museum and Library at Oakland
659 14th St, Oakland, CA 94612
August 15 through November 26, 2008 (SFCB), and September 5 through December 31, 2008 (AAMLO) 

By Courtney Dailey
For Banned and Recovered: Artists Respond to Censorship, over 60 artists have created work based on books that have been repressed or threatened in the United States. Curator Hanna Regev has marshaled two venues and a large group of artists to comment on (and through their commentary make visible) a great number of threatened books. The volumes referenced are a significant point of interest in the show: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the Bible, writings of the Marquis de Sade, And Tango Makes Three, a children’s book that is a true story of gay penguins raising a baby at the Bronx Zoo. The Catholic nature of censored books forces the viewer to consider the content of each threat; racism, sexism, and misogyny are cited along with homophobia, political repression, and nationalism as reasoning behind banning the work. Unfortunately, this information, written on wall labels, is more provocative than many of the artworks. 

Despite the exhibition’s fairly open premise, most artists have illustrated, rather than interpreted, the texts that they chose. Some thoughtfully engage with the topic of censorship, rather than specific titles, and their work is the most compelling, but the show on the whole feels like the execution of a class assignment. Surface engagement with the texts yields predictable and sloppy artworks that leave the viewer with less to ponder than the contested book ever would, without adding insight on the narrative or the controversies that surround it.  

A few artists addressed the issues implied by censorship: accessibility, visibility, self-censure, learning and knowledge acquisition. In Nigel Poor’s Washed Books, the artist chose 9 banned books with women’s names in the title: Alice in Wonderland, Annie on My Mind, Carrie, and put them through the washing machine. After cleaning the so-called dirty books, she assembled the lint and remaining printed papers from each book into rectangles and arranged them into a grid on the wall. Though all of the books were reduced to barely-legible pulp, the books that were cheaper (Carrie) dissolved quickly, while the more acceptable ‘classics’ (Madame Bovary, Lolita) retained more of the pages’ integrity. 

Naomie Kremer created Dictionary, an animated video collage of words projected onto vellum that was laid on top of a large, open dictionary. The words slowly flickered on to the page in succession over the course of two minutes, telling a story about her father’s childhood in Poland. As a child, he would read the pages of the dictionary, one of his poor family’s only possessions, for hours on end. One day, his brother caught him and was angered to find that he was spending time on such secular reading, and he tore the book to shreds. This piece draws out the destructive and personal nature of censorship, shifting its location from the institution to the home. It shows a deeper curiosity and understanding of the show’s theme, which in turn provokes more questions than answers in the mind of the viewer. 

Words by David Broom is a group of seven white frames with words silkscreened on the glass in red. The quotes all relate to banned books, and most come from readers or authors; a series of incredibly popular books are the target for Pope Benedict, “It is good that you enlighten people about Harry Potter because those are subtle seductions, which act unnoticed and by this deeply distort Christianity in the soul before it can grow properly.” In the center of each frame, behind the words, is a blank impression the size of the absent book, a space of unknown potential; what might have been in these books to cause such furor? This, according to Judy Blume, (as painted on the wall at both locations) is the problem: “It’s not just the books under fire now that worry me. It is the books that will never be written. The books that will never be read. And all due to the fear of censorship.” 

Perhaps because of greater access to self-publishing and online publishing, censorship in the United States has less of a menacing presence these days; however, one needs to look no further than the small easels at the entry of the exhibition at the SFCB to see that challenges to libraries and school reading lists continue. These attacks may not prohibit people from writing, but may slow or eliminate closer reading and study by a wide variety of students, thus maintaining the canon of dead, White male writers. Citing a variety of reasons (from sexual content to hate speech), 420 books were challenged in 2007; The Color Purple (Alice Walker), I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Maya Angelou), and The Golden Compass (Philip Pullman) were among the top ten challenged books last year.

NAIL Collective


NAIL is a curatorial collective in San Francisco California. 

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