We think of a memory as a transient emotion, a temporal node of existence. But what if we could hold our memories like we hold a sacred object: fragile, between fingers, retracing their steps, exploring texture with waves of presence? Minnesota Center for Book Arts’ exhibition “Paper Is People: Decolonizing Global Paper Cultures” is an invitation to do just that. Linking the material with ancestral traditions and rich cultural histories, the works in the exhibition command presence, explore community value, and hold space for the paper arts as a way to bridge immaterial worlds.
Walking through the exhibit, one can almost hear the works conversing with one another. Whispered storytelling of remembered pasts blend with future traditions, revitalizing the connections of knowledge. “Paper Is People” challenges the viewers’ understanding of book art, book artists, and paper substrates by interrogating the contemporary definition of papermaking and reconnecting its often forgotten and appropriated histories. This curatorial expression contemplates the question: What role does representation and cultural regeneration play in decolonizing the art of papermaking?
When curators Stephanie Sauer and Tia Blassingame met in the summer of 2011 at Yaddo, a conversation sparked on widening the scope of book arts. They explain: “We found large gaps that tended to cut across racial and socioeconomic lines, and we wanted to work to bring more visibility to the incredible works that we read as book art. In more recent years, that conversation gravitated toward the topic of paper, since it is often the question of what paper is that seems to ‘disqualify’ from inclusion in the field works that we considered to be books. During our research, we found that entire histories, like that of bark paper, connected distinct continents and peoples, and yet were denied classification as paper in the contemporary definition. So, we began to interrogate this very definition and found inside of it a colonial legacy that remains alive and well. Making sure the show featured not only an array of phenomenal bark paper artists working in distinct traditions but the connections between those traditions and others was important to decolonize the medium. We intentionally wanted to showcase the work of artists like Page Chang and Chenta Laury, who are reclaiming and revitalizing kapa and tapa traditions that have been systematically erased, next to artists like Julio Laja Chichicaxtle and Aimee Lee, who are keeping their ancient technologies current by making them their own.”
Through studying substrates like Hopi pottery and Eastern Pomo, Paiute, and Nisenan basketry, Blassingame and Sauer found cultural significance and function inside each respective cultural context that challenged the definitions of book art. They continue: “This was when we really honed in on the need to formally redefine paper in a way that reflects not only the Chinese technology and its later adaptations, or legacies of colonialism and cultural genocide, but the whole of human knowledge and cultural production. That, to us, is the work of decolonizing the art of papermaking. It involves examining the impact of colonialism, slavery, and genocide on both the existing definition of paper and constructing—or at least beginning the work of constructing—a new framework that can more fully encompass culturally significant substrates made around the world. Skye Tafoya’s sculptural books exemplify this new framework, as does Alisa Banks’ piecework.”
Disrupting the perspective that traditional technologies and modern techniques live in opposition to each other, the artists featured in “Paper Is People” blend ancestral and cultural knowledge of paper and handmade substrates through a contemporary context. Working in tapa, (made from the paper-mulberry plant) artist Chenta Laury’s Patchwork: Holding Dichotomies ruminates on how each tradition carries its own cultural aesthetic and vocabulary along with the implicit vocabulary that lies within the materials themselves. In Holding & Grasping: the Wet + Dry, artist Hong Hong explores childhood memories of visiting a Buddhist temple through earthly materials (sun, dust, water) as well as hair, fiber-reactive dyes, mulberry bark, and repurposed paper, inviting the viewer to experience paper as a metaphysical object bridging into the incorporeal. In Dragonflies and Flower, artist Kelly Church connects to and highlights the uses of birch bark, a versatile fiber the Anishinaabe people have used for centuries before the colonization of this country. Church states, “I harvest birch bark in the same manner my ancestors did long ago and use it the same way for etchings or birch-bark bitings, creating vessels to hold objects, food, or a baby; and share my voice and vision of my life as a Native woman Artist living in today’s world.”
Blassingame and Sauer offer this further insight: “There often seems to be a dichotomy around the question of preserving tradition versus innovating. We don’t see these things as antagonistic to one another since traditions are preserved precisely because their practitioners innovate in order to adapt to their contemporary moment and circumstance. Especially in the face of changing temperatures and rainfall patterns, dwindling or disappearing access to traditional materials, and the like, innovation and change are often the only things ensuring preservation. So, we trust that each papermaker develops a relationship to their materials and their tradition, and that this relationship guides them in how to best work. Memories hold knowledge.”
Decolonizing the paper arts begins by valuing, representing, and acknowledging the contributions of the tools, techniques, and processes of communities and cultures that have made their mark and continue to add value to the artistry. Through these works, the featured artists seek to reclaim the importance of heritage, explore the symbiotic nature of memory in tangible objects, and showcase how innovation can play a core role in cultural preservation.
Located in Saratoga Springs, New York, Yaddo is a nonprofit retreat for artists and writers, who come from all nations and backgrounds to live and work in a supportive community.
Stephanie Sauer and Tia Blassingame, interview by the author, May 31, 2023, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Kelly Church, “Paper Is People” exhibition artist statement, 2023.