Bookmarking Book Art – Nia Easley

a dozen deaths (2015)

a dozen deaths (2015)
Nia Easley
Case bound, cloth-covered book board, modified accordion structure. H7 x W9 x D1 inches, 24 pages. Text laser-printed on 90lb Neenah paper; interior images stencil-printed in acrylic, exterior pattern inkjet-printed on bamboo paper. Edition of 5.
Photo: Courtesy and permission of the artist.

Nia Easley’s birthday in 2012 felt very different. The day before, George Zimmerman had killed Trayvon Martin. Over the days, weeks and months after, the outpouring in the mainstream and social media in reaction to the event and the jury trial that followed only intensified and complicated the emotions and memories evoked on the day.

Turning to art, Easley asked twelve individuals to recount Trayvon Martin’s last moments based on their memories of the reported event. An implicit rule in Easley’s request led to the stories being told from the first person. Her only explicit rule for the retelling was that the imagined teller must die at the end. She recorded each retelling and, with the participant’s collaboration, polished it into a transcript.

Two double-sided bamboo-paper accordions are joined together, a structure influenced by The Diary of a Sparrow by Kazuko Watanabe. On their exterior is a horizontal gray-white pattern, ink-jet printed, that seems to shift between an image of house siding panels and that of backlit drawn venetian blinds. In the exterior valley folds of the accordions, gatherings of the twelve retellings, laserjet-printed, are sewn to book tape used to join the accordions together. With the twelve narrators, we are on the outside. For this white reader, here begins an uneasiness that will not ease.

The structural plan shows how the double-sided accordions attach to the cover and, in green, where the narratives attach.
Photos: Courtesy and permission of the artist.

On the inner side appear stencil-printed images in naples yellow, maroon, deep blue-violet, cobalt blue, moss green, neon orange and sienna brown; however, each copy in the edition differs in colors and orientation of the images made from two stencils of hoodie-wearing figures taken from neighborhood-watch signs. More uneasiness as the images’ shifting orientation creates a threatening abstraction, a suggestion of claws. Are they clawing to get in or out? Are the hooded figures real monsters whose shadows we see cast against the venetian blinds? Are they imagined from inside the house, projected on the venetian blinds?

Views of the stencil prints. Photos: Courtesy and permission of the artist.

The modified accordion structure lets the reader move through the work codex-fashion or extend it to its 4-foot length as a sculpture to be read/viewed in the round. When read the former way, the hooded images peek out from the edges of the interior; when viewed the latter way, the work takes on a sort of mise-en-scène of the event — or of Easley’s twelve gathered around a jurors’ table even though they are each taking on the role of the deceased Martin as witness to his own death.

Just as each copy of the edition differs in its colors and orientation of images, each of the twelve retellings differs. In selecting the twelve from her circle of acquaintances, Easley aimed for a representative diversity of members. Only at the end and then only their first names — Allison, Damien, Deandre, Derek, Doc, Jae, Molly#1, Molly#2, Natasha, Ronnie, Tanuja and Werner –are given and not in the order in which their retellings appear. As each of the twelve takes over Martin’s voice, we cannot tell whether it is actor, actress, young or old, or what race. The ground of identity and perspective under the reader/viewer’s feet keeps shifting.

Easley suggests, “the narratives are a meditation of sorts, into the kind of people we are together and how we see others.” The artwork’s epigraph — “Like narrative, imperialism has monopolized the entire system of representation” (Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism, 1993) — frames that meditation. By “destabilizing” narrative and perspective, a dozen deaths makes us uneasy. In that uneasy meditation, we may indeed recognize the kind of people we are together, how we see each other, and find a way to change the narrative.

Four copies of the work reside at Depaul University Library, Northwestern University, University of Iowa Libraries and the Joan Flasch Artists’ Books Collection, Art Institute of Chicago.

Easley’s other work includes For Safety’s Sake (2015), It’s Just OK (2019), And you hold power (2020-21) and Annotated Graphic Design Timeline, an ongoing Instagram project addressed to the book Graphic Design Timeline (2000) by Steve Heller and Elinor Pettit. At the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she works as an Administrative Coordinator, she also teaches the graduate seminar “History as Material” and the course “Drawn to Print”.

Further Reading

Tia Blassingame“, Books On Books Collection. 17 August 2020.

Clarissa Sligh“, Books On Books Collection. 2 September 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.

Said, Edward W. 1993. Cultural imperialism. New York: Knopf.