This Artist Drew an Essential Reading List for Activism

Grapefruit by Yoko Ono. Photo: Promised gift of Helen and Sam Zell; Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

For a new exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, filmmaker and multimedia artist Cauleen Smith sketched 57 book covers as a reading list for activism in 2017. The drawings depict notable works of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry by authors who bridge gender, class, and race, including Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde and Wild Seed by Octavia Butler. Smith calls the collection of artwork “Human_3.0 Reading List.” Each book cover appears on a piece of torn graph paper, often held by a black hand — Smith’s intentional show of defying white bodies as a default.

“These are some of the books that literally changed my life, saved my life and sustain my life, but also, (fair warning) make it difficult for me to go along, get along, look the other way,” Smith wrote in a 2015 manifesto for the project. She began with 14 books, initially creating the list as a reference point for young activists. She intended for it to expand, inviting readers to suggest additions. The drawings pose a challenging question, suggested by the Art Institute of Chicago in a press release: “Have you read these books? Will you read these books?”

In an email, organizing curator Victoria Lobis said the collection is meant to serve as a crucial first step for people who want to be more informed. “Together, they suggest a reading list for our place and time,” she wrote, “a call for greater awareness of the socio-political underpinnings of our collective shortcomings in achieving just and equal treatment for citizens of different gender orientations, as well as different racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds.”

Best known for experimental works that address issues facing black women in America, Smith first achieved acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival with her 1998 film Drylongso. Her artwork often examines intersections of art and protest, particularly within Afrofuturism. See her must-reads from the exhibition in the slideshow ahead.

Cauleen Smith: Human_3.0 Reading List” is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago until October 29.

This Artist Drew an Essential Reading List for Activism