THE BRITISH LIBRARY

American Collections blog

What's on the mind of Team America?

Introduction

Find out more about our Americas Studies collections on the Americas blog, written by our curatorial team and guest posts from the Eccles Centre writers in residence. Our collections cover both North and South America, as well as the Caribbean. Read more

03 April 2019

América Latina: Artists’ Books at the British Library

In early February the British Library held its third hugely successful Artists’ Books Now event: América Latina. The evening brought together artists, collectors, academics and curators to consider the multiple dynamics at work in the creation of Latin American artists’ books. It also enabled the audience to handle and explore the works on display and to discuss them with the contributors and each other.

Jerry - group shot

Artists, curators and members of the audience engaging with the artists' books. Image: Jerry Jenkins.

Amongst the items considered were cordel literature and cartonera, both of which are richly represented in the Library’s collections. Cordel literature are popular and inexpensively printed booklets or pamphlets containing folk novels, poems and songs which often have decorative covers printed from woodcuts.

Jerry book

Brazilian woodcut prints illustrating cordel publications from Connie Bloomfield’s collection.  Image: Jerry Jenkins.

Cartonera is a publishing movement which originated in Latin America in the early 2000s and which employs recycled material to make literary works. Historically these works have social, political and artistic significance. The British Library holds cartonera from Argentina, Uruguay, Peru, and Mexico. Beth Cooper, Curator for Latin America and Caribbean collections, has been working with Lucy Bell and Alex Flynn on an AHRC funded cartonera research project ‘Precarious Publishing in Latin America: relations, meanings and community in movement'.

The Library also holds works from Ediciones Vigía, an independent publishing house located in Matanzas, Cuba. Vigía originally opened as a space for writers and artists to gather and discuss their work. Participants began creating single-sheet flyers that advertised meeting times for interested artists, and eventually they evolved into a book publishing house. Many of their works are produced in coarse paper from substances including sugar cane, offcuts of cardboard and other leftovers. They are decorated with drawings, cut by hand and enhanced with material objects: scraps of tissue paper, cloth, cord, as well as less likely ornaments including sand, twigs, leaves and nails. The maximum number of any work produced by the house is two hundred. Clearly there is an intersection with the cartonera, although the roots of each movement are differentiated by time, with Vigías being a backlash to the uniformity of Cuban printing and publishing of the 1980s.  

Jerry woman speaker

Artist Francisca Prieto discussing her work The Antibook [British Library shelfmark: RF.2003.a.233]

América Latina offered a wonderful opportunity to explore and unpick the ways in which  artists’ books can be seen as a transnational and international medium which does not respect boundaries or borders.

Huge thanks are due to all of the contributors: Michael Wellen, Curator, International Art, Tate Modern; researchers and collectors Lucy Bell and Connie Bloomfield; artist book and zine maker Rafael Morales Cendejas; visual artist Francisca Prieto; and Beth Cooper, Curator, Latin America and the Caribbean, The British Library.

Jerry Jenkins, Curator Contemporary British Publications, Emerging Media

 

15 March 2019

25 Cats Named Sam

This weekend is the last opportunity to see the Library's free exhibition 'Cats on the Page', which celebrates our feline friends in literary and illustrated form.  It thus seemed appropriate to share two of our favourite cat-themed books with you.

One of his lesser known works, Andy Warhol's 25 Cats Named Sam and One Blue Pussy is a soul-warming depiction of the twenty-six cats that co-habited with Andy Warhol and his mother, Julia Warhola in their New York apartment.  Beautifully illustrated by Warhol, it is accompanied by his mother's distinctive script. 

Warhola Cats
Shelfmarks 1551/459 and 1551/460

Alongside this volume sits Holy Cats by Andy Warhol's Mother, which is illustrated in full by Julia.  Holy Cats opens with a dedication: "This little book is for my little Hester who left for pussy heaven".  The legend goes that the 25 Sams were acquired so that Hester wouldn't feel lonely.  Looking through the works, the influence of Julia's distinctive illustrations and creative imagination on her son is readily apparent.  Indeed, Warhol regularly worked with her throughout his illustrative and design career, both before and after his meteoric rise to fame in the art world.

Hester
little Hester who left for pussy heaven

Retellings of Andy Warhol's life are full of myth, and it is often difficult to decipher fact from fiction, and from deliberately self-perpetuated fantasy.  Perhaps one of the more widely favoured versions of Warhol is of the publicly celebrity-obsessed yet socially-awkward recluse.  More recently, Olivia Laing has written about Warhol within a lineage of artists who struggled with social acceptance and meaningful communication, whose works speak of and to the loneliness that accompanies this.  She describes Warhol thusly:

The loneliness of difference, the loneliness of undesirability, the loneliness of not being admitted into the magic circles of connection and acceptance – the social and professional groupings, the embracing arms.  Another thing: he lived with his mother.  In the summer of 1952 Julia had arrived in Manhattan… Andy had recently moved into his own apartment and she was anxious about his ability to care from himself.  The two of them shared a bedroom, as they had when he was a sick little boy, sleeping on twin mattresses on the floor and re-establishing the old production-line of collaboration.  Julia’s hand is everywhere in Warhol’s commercial work; in fact her beautifully erratic lettering won several awards.  Her housekeeping skills were less pronounced.  Both that apartment and the larger one that followed quickly degenerated into a state of squalor: a smelly labyrinth filled with wobbling towers of paper, in which as many as twenty Siamese cats made their homes, all but one of them named Sam.

It leaves a sad impression of one of the Twentieth-Centuries most recognisable artists, which is driven home by the vision of cat-filled squalor and over-protective mother.  Indeed, owning multiple cats is often seen as a sign of personal decadence.  And yet, when one reads 25 Cats Named Sam and Holy Cats, this is decidedly not the impression that one is left with.

Sam no 3
One of the Sams
Another Sam
Another Sam

The 25 Sams may share a name, but they each have distinctive portraits and in many ways it is perhaps Warhol's warmest work and is suggestive of companionship and familiarity rather than an existential loneliness.  These are also playful books, with a distinctly tongue-in-cheek self-awareness and a dry humour that is shared by mother and son.

Chapeau
Some cats go to heaven, some wear chapeaux
The Devil
and once in a while one of them goes to the devil

This is the memory that Warhol's nephew, James Warhola, an illustrator in his own right, has of his uncle and grandmother's living arrangements:

Andy was always portrayed as disconnected from his family, but this was definitely not the case. He was close to the family he had, his two brothers and their kids. Some biographers have' written that he kept his mother in a basement, like a dungeon, and I always found that odd. My grandmother lived in a beautiful apartment on the ground floor, and we hung out in her kitchen and living room.

Andy was playful, and he laughed a lot. He would always buy us gifts. There was a magic shop in Times Square, and he would get us cameras with birdies that popped out; he had an affectionate side. But it was important for him to keep up his persona, with the sunglasses and the silverish wig. He tried to stay in character.

These are the memories that he records in two children's books he has made about his uncle.  From the perspective of a child, they give a very different insight into Warhol's private life.

Uncle_andys
Uncle Andy's by James Warhola
Uncle_andys
Uncle Andy's Cats by James Warhola

Read alongside Warhol's and Julia Warhola's books, one here gets the sense that Warhol's private family life was rich, and that cats provided additional companionship for both mother and son, as well as playthings for young nephews.  While their living arrangements could be seen as alternative, by looking at these without preconceptions, we get a fuller picture of the lonely socially-awkward artist we might be looking to find.

 

In memory of Matthew Neill, former curator for Australasia and English Language Asia, and cat-lover.

References

25 Cats Named Sam and One Blue Pussy, shelfmark 1551/459

Holy Cats by Andy Warhol's Mother, shelfmark 1551/460

Olivia Laing, The Lonely City, shelfmark YKL.2018.a.4059 

Interview with James Warhola, Publishers Weekly, 1/27/2003, Vol. 250, Issue 4

 

14 March 2019

North American Indigenous languages

The North American collections section is currently recruiting for a PhD student to work on a Collaborative Doctoral Partnership PhD focusing on Indigenous languages in the post-1850 print collections.  The student will be supervised jointly by Professor Joy Porter at the University of Hull (see separately the 'Treatied Spaces' project underway there) and Dr Francisca Fuentes Rettig, curator for the North American collections at the British Library.  Additionally the student will have access to a wider support team consisting of Indigenous academics and experts in Indigenous languages, and training opportunities in languages, digital humanities, and more.

The Library has a rich collection of materials from North America in Indigenous languages.  Thanks to detailed research by our Library colleague Adrian Edwards, there is a clear record for earlier publications particularly for early Eastern Algonquian languages and early Northern Iroqouian languages.  The latter article also covers print materials up to 1900.  Additionally, we know from our internal cataloguing system that we currently have catalogue records for publications in approximately fifty North American indigenous languages.  Given that we know that there are 296 indigenous languages in North America, it is clear that significant gaps in our holdings knowledge remains.  These gaps are partly due to the nature of large historic collections with multiple origins, and the processes of libraries.  For just one example, materials predominantly in English or French language, and which contain Indigenous languages do not always clearly indicate this in catalogue records.

Another challenge is the sheer diversity of languages across North America, as well as the complexities of language cross-overs.  In the US particularly, the historic movement of languages from traditional geographical territories was a consequence of government policies of forced relocation. Policies of forced assimilation further impacted on the decline of some languages. 

Rb.23.b.7830 cover
Treaty between the United States and the Choctaw and Chickasaw Indians, shelfmark Rb.23.b.7830
RF.2018.b.80
The Catholic Sioux Herald, shelfmark RF.2018.b.80


From an information science perspective, Library systems and catalogues have of course developed historically from and within Western systems of classification of knowledge.  As such, they do not necessarily respond to the complexities of these languages and the cultural sensitivities associated with them.  Finally, the specialist knowledge that would be required to conduct a comprehensive assessment of materials is sparse in the UK.

Yh.1988.b.1362
An Ethnologic Dictionary of the Navaho Language, shelfmark YH.1988.b.1362

However, we are thankfully not starting from scratch.  Vital lessons can be learnt from our library and archives colleagues in the US, Canada, and Australasia.  In the last decades substantial amounts of research has been conducted in the field, which has seen critical interventions made by Indigenous library and information science (LIS) professionals and researchers who have developed the theory, tools, and methods to recalibrate information management systems.  They have done this with the needs of Indigenous materials in mind, working closely with communities. 

L.49 1416 a
L.49 1416 aContemporary bilingual publications in Hopi and Upper Kuskokwim Athabaskan, shelfmarks L.49/1416 ; YA.1992.a.15015 ; YA.1995.a.24337

Of particular interest are open source digital humanities projects, such as the Mukurtu platform.  Projects such as these are a major part of the effort to revitalize Indigenous languages and cultures to ensure their longevity for future generations of tribes.  Given that many languages have already died, and many more are on the UN's critically endangered list, this is important and time-sensitive work.  The new approaches present interesting challenges to a large international institution that uses massive knowledge-systems, has standardised practices, and is responsive to the growing demand for digital materials and data.  Yet, we would be remiss to see this as anything other than an important opportunity, both in intellectual and ethical terms.

It is our sincere hope that this CDP will signal the start of a longer journey towards reconsidering how we work with existing Indigenous language collections, and build a clear rationale for if, how and why we acquire such materials for future collections.  Central to this longer-term project will be open conversations with tribes.  However, the first step is to rationalise and complete existing collections knowledge so that we have a comprehensive picture of the languages and kinds of materials that we hold, so that we can identify who we need to approach.  We also need to review how existing digital humanities projects might work in a specific British Library context, and what practical challenges we could expect.  The Collaborative Doctoral Placement will play an important part in this process and, we hope, be received as a signal of our commitment to this project through the training of research, LIS, and cultural institution professionals in the UK who can carry this work forwards in future.

For any enquiries regarding the PhD opportunity, please refer to the information on our website.  The deadline for applicants is April 15.

For interested parties who do not meet the eligibility criteria of our funding body, please see the Eccles Centre website for details of alternative funding opportunities, collection guides, and bibliographies.