Newspapers, magazines, and websites frequently offer lists: the 10 best new restaurants, the 50 top places to see in the world, the 100 best movies of all time. Chicago-based artist Cauleen Smith (American, born 1967) has created another kind of list, a new canon of humanistic literacy presented as a series of drawings. Titled Human_3.0 Reading List, the project represents a new dimension of Smith’s work, one that engages with the idea of a collective consciousness through manually drawn renderings of book covers.
In this series of 57 drawings—each produced on 8½ × 12- inch graph paper in watercolor over graphite, occasionally elaborated with acrylic—the artist proposes a selection of books that is both personal, conveyed by the frequent inclusion of fingers or a thumb shown holding up a given book, and idiosyncratic. Harriet Tubman, C. L. R. James, and bell hooks find their place alongside Starfish, Sea Urchins, and Their Kin by Nelson Herwig. Together the drawings ask challenging questions: Have you read these books? Will you read these books? What will they mean to you? What do they mean to us now? Which titles might be missing?
An artist whose primary discipline is film, Smith has incorporated various influences and references in her images—science fiction, the black diaspora, and the lyrical potential of landscape. She first garnered national recognition with her feature-length film Drylongso (1998), which she completed during her graduate training at UCLA’s film school. In 2010, Smith moved to Chicago, where her work has grown increasingly site-specific and engaged in social activism. She created the Solar Flare Arkestral Marching Band Project, which has organized flash-mob appearances of a marching band composed of youth groups from the city’s South Side. This and other recent works have explicitly invoked the legacy of pioneering composer and performer Sun Ra, whose music and elaborate self-defining mythology also propelled the broader artistic movement of Afrofuturism.
Grounded in a sober assessment of race relations and institutional power structures, Human_3.0 Reading List calls its viewers to prepare for social change through self-empowered education. In the final words of the manifesto accompanying the series, Smith exhorts her audience: “Love. Resist. Read on. Right on.”
Image: Cauleen Smith. Wild Seed, from Human_3.0 Reading List, 2015. Promised gift of Helen and Sam Zell.