Mourning/Warning: Abecedarian (2015)
Sixteen folios including cover, staple-stitched, digitally printed on 32 lb laser paper. H280 x W212 mm. Edition of 30 copies of which this is an artist’s proof. Acquired from the artist, 5 August 2020. Photos: Books On Books Collection with permission of the artist.
At its most fundamental, Mourning/Warning — as with any abecedary — is about doing the work of learning to read. In this case, doing the work extends also to learning the maritime signals associated with the letters of this alphabet. In one of several signals of its artistry, it strips the nautical flags of their primary colors (with the occasional exception of the color blue) and replaces them with black and muted browns. Obviously difficult to read in practice, these modified signals for mourning and warning intentionally raise the bar on “doing the work”.
As with any abecedary, each letter is printed to stand out; here, it is in Josefin Sans Bold, a typeface designed for display and having a nautical feel. As with any abecedary, each letter offers an example of its use: here, it is the name of an individual. The bar may be raised a little in that the letter may be the initial letter of the first name or the last. Still, as with any abecedary, the reader is expected to say the name aloud to memorize the letter. “A for Marissa Alexander; for Marissa Alexander, this flag”. In itself, a very small step in doing the work.
Some readers will know these names, some will not. For those who do not, doing the work means learning that Marissa Alexander is now free but with seven years of her life lost to incarceration and home arrest in Florida and a felony conviction for firing a warning shot at an abusive husband in 2010. Or that Ousmane Zongo was an immigrant from Burkina Faso in the wrong place at the wrong time, unarmed and shot twice in the back by police in 2003 in New York.
The work of learning the ABCs or the International Code of Signals is about memorizing. Doing the work with this abecedary is about memorializing. By the time the letter “P” is reached, there can be no question how hard this is. If there is, readers will be stopped in their tracks here: there is no letter “Q”. Why? Because the question mark at the end of the question — “Where is Relisha Tenau Rudd?” — is in bold, demanding the work of remembering Relisha and her circumstances as one of the many Black children gone missing in the US. But the question demands another: “Why?” This is another aspect of Blassingame’s artistry that makes the impact of “doing the work” — learning what lies behind the individuals paired with letters — land with that much more force.
And why do the letters “I”, “U” and “X” have no names assigned? Of course, “I” and “U” have no names; they are reserved for the readers to be drawn into mourning and warning, to imagine themselves speaking the letter aloud to themselves, to imagine themselves as one of the named. As for the letter “X”, the artist writes that it refers to
the anonymity experienced by African Americans today back to when they were enslaved. It references how education and literacy were and in many ways continue to be restricted. How many of our enslaved ancestors made their mark or signed with an X in lieu of being able to sign their names. How they were often forced to make their mark on documents that diminished them. X as a reminder of those that cast off their given, or slave name to own their identity and authority. X is the nameless, unnamed, renamed. X is the sharecropper. X is those that fought fear, and terrorist threats of violence, poll taxes to vote. X is Malcolm X. X is the potter’s field, the slave cemetery, those incarcerated brothers and sisters, the penniless and the powerless. (Correpondence with Books On Books, 10 August 2020)
The fact that the maritime symbol for “X” is cruciform and, here, plain and dark should make for edgy and uncomfortable reading/viewing. Doing the work of learning these altered nautical signals means “doing the work” of looking into the heart of transatlantic slavery and the Black diaspora. It signals a mourning for the known and unknown dead and a burnt warning of those to come if we do not learn these ABCs.
Mourning/Warning: Numbers and Repeaters (2018)
Twelve folios (including cover), digitally printed, H280 x W212 mm 8.5 x 11 inches. Edition of 30 copies of which this is an artist’s proof. Acquired from the artist, 5 August 2020. Photos: Books On Books Collection with permission of the artist.
Numbers and Repeaters signals to its readers there is still more to the work begun with An Abecedarian. The flags for the numbers 0 through 9 must be learned, so too the four “repeaters” for handling messages with duplicate letters or numerals.
Numerals are not numbers, of course, but symbols of them. By associating a name with each numeral, repeater and its altered maritime flag, Numbers and Repeaters doubles the symbolism: the number of names continues to increase and the circumstances to repeat themselves. “Doing the work” required in this added volume reveals, though, that “circumstances” have widened to include gay, lesbian and transgender victims, others who may have been mentally disturbed, the domestically abused and the political activist. The widening does not dilute. It confirms that, as Blassingame writes on her website, “hatred comes constantly in waves”.
As with An Abecedarian, some readers will know the names of the individuals in Numbers and Repeaters, some will not. Readers will also naturally break down into two other groups: those who see themselves as persons of color and those who do not. On her website, the artist writes to all, regardless of how they see themselves, that Numbers and Repeaters “serves as a method of honoring, mourning, and remembering the slain and wronged”. For those who do see themselves as persons of color, she calls it also a method of “teaching our children and ourselves to be vigilant and wary in hostile terrain, where your skin color makes you an easy target.” Whichever group into which readers fall, Numbers and Repeaters demands “doing the work” to learn this “alternate means of communication in times of emergency and duress”. Those times are with us now.
“Abecedaries (in progress)”, Books On Books Collection, 31 March 2020.
“Case/Issue Search”, NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Accessed 26 June 2020.
“Fighting Hate”, Southern Poverty Law Center. Accessed 26 June 2020.
The Innocence Project. Accessed 26 June 2020.
“Spotlight on Faculty: Tia Blassingame, Director of Scripps College Press Assistant Professor of Book Arts/Scripps Press”, Scripps College News, 7 February 2020. Accessed 20 July 2020.
Gleek, Charlie. “Centuries of Black Artists’ Books“, presented at “Black Bibliographia: Print/Culture/Art” conference at the Center for Material Culture Studies, University of Delaware, 27 April 2019, pp. 7-8. Accessed 20 July 2020.
Hannah-Jones, Nikole. “The Idea of America”, New York Times: The 1619 Project, 14 August 2019. Accessed 20 June 2020.
Michaelis, Catherine Alice. “Crossroads and Currents”, Artist’s Books Unshelved. Bainbridge Island Museum of Art. 6 February 2021. Accessed 7 February 2021.