Books On Books Collection – Wendy Ewald

Wendy Ewald: American Alphabets (2005)

American Alphabets (2005)
Wendy Ewald
Casebound with white headbands and colored doublures. H305 x W260 mm. 168 pages. Acquired from Judd Books, 17 September 2022.
Photos of book: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with artist’s permission.

As seen throughout the Books On Books Collection, book art is more often than not a collaborative effort — even if only in the final stages of printing and binding. Ewald’s works, however, depend from the start on collaboration with her subjects — the children. Another recurrent aspect — perhaps the core aspect — in book art is the interaction of the visual and verbal. So, too, in Ewald’s art. In American Alphabets, she brings the collaborative and visual/verbal aspects of book art together at the elemental level of the alphabet. It is the children who pick the letters, words and their illustrative objects to be photographed. In the book’s “Afterword”, Ewald writes:

Like most everyone I know, I first encountered written language in children’s alphabet primers. Looking back, I now see that the words and visual examples used to represent letters reinforced the world view of the middle-class white girl I happened to be. … Putting together these various alphabets — each of them at once American and foreign — taught me a lot about written language, especially about how we have come to take this sophisticated and fundamental medium for granted. … The shape of letters mimicked the objects for which they were named. The letter R, for example, came from the Egyptian hieroglyphic for head or chief: resh. … When Woroud, one of my students from Queens, chose the word raas, or “head,” to represent the letter R, it seemed natural enough. I was startled, though, when she insisted that her head be photographed in profile, just as in the drawing of the ancient letter.

An abiding aim of Ewald’s art is to elicit or allow her collaborators’ voices and world views to create communities that overcome differences by celebrating differences. The reduced, screen-bound images here do not do justice to her four alphabets in one volume or her portraiture and photographic artistry. They may, however, convey the breadth and racial inclusivity of her vision. Arab-American, Latinx-American, White American and Black American are the American alphabets that Ewald aims to capture in this volume.

Another of Ewald’s projects ripe for an artist’s book — or rather artists’ book — is Black Self/White Self (1994-1997). Imagine the book she might create from her young collaborators’ efforts if they were brought to Penland, Women’s Studio Workshop or Art Metropole. Here is the North Carolina-based project in her own words:

When I began working in Durham’s inner city, more and more of the white population had moved to the suburbs and the public schools became segregated along city-county lines. Proposals to merge the school systems were stymied by objections from both sides.

In 1994, after the Durham school systems were finally merged, I designed a collaborative project that looked directly at the issue of race. I asked children to write about themselves, then to write another version, this time imagining themselves as members of another race.

This was greeted first with silence, then laughter, and finally with an enthusiastic barrage of questions.

Once the children had completed their written portraits, I photographed them posing as their “black” and “white” selves, using props they had brought from home. I gave them the large-format negatives to alter or write on, in keeping with ideas from their written portraits, so they could further describe the characters they had imagined themselves to be.


Further Reading

Abecedaries I (in progress)“. Books On Books Collection.

Tia Blassingame“. 17 August 2022. Books On Books Collection.

Global Afrikan Congress“. 15 May 2023. Books On Books Collection.

Tupoka Ogette“. 15 May 2023. Books On Books Collection

Arial Robinson“. 15 May 2023. Books On Books Collection.

Ewald, Wendy. 2002. The Best Part of Me : Children Talk About Their Bodies in Pictures and Words.Boston: Little Brown. Fifteen subjects decide what part of their bodies will be photographed and then described in their own words.

Ewald, Wendy, Adam D Weinberg and Urs Stahel. 2000. Secret Games : Collaborative Works with Children 1969-1999. Zurich: Scalo.

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