Books to take note of this summer

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This article is printed in the latest issue of British Journal of Photography magazine: Tradition & Identity. Available to purchase at thebjpshop.com.

From the latest chapter of Laia Abril’s long-term project ‘A History of Misogyny’ to Rachel Papo’s collaborative exploration of pregnancy and motherhood, we round up the publications not to miss

Bradley II, 2020 © Shikeith.

“What is love for black boys in the context of a world that does not think black life, and black boys, beautiful?” asks Ashon T Crawley, an author and academic, in an essay punctuating Shikeith’s first monograph, Notes towards Becoming a Spill. “What is love when the very possibility of finding joy in another black boy is considered to be that which makes you abominable, shameful, and thus, the opposite of anything beautiful?” He continues, reliving his first experience of love, fractured by the anxieties “of doctrine and theology” and the teachings of the Blackpentecostal Church, which later rejected Crawley when he came out.

The essay explores vulnerability, tenderness and joy relating to queerness – themes that are central to the arresting studio portraits of Black male subjects that compose the book. Indeed, the figures glisten with sweat and tears, their meditative expressions and the references to Christianity imbuing the scenes with a religious, almost surreal quality. However, in a marked subversion of the Blackpentecostal Church’s rejection of Crawley’s sexuality, in Shikeith’s portraits, Black men’s erotic potential is excavated and “intangible presences that haunt their bodies and psyches” exorcised.

The Men Who Would Be King
Jon Tonks and Christopher Lord
Dewi Lewis Publishing, £39

Francisca, Eva and Lyn, Million Dollar Point, Espiritu Santo © Jon Tonks.

The archipelago of Vanuatu stretches 1300 kilometres across the South Pacific Ocean. The majority of its inhabitants are Christian. However, several communities believe in the coming of a messiah from a distant land; an individual who will bring prosperity and wealth, allowing Vanuatu to embody the glory denied by centuries of colonisation. Over the years, the legend has compelled several Europeans and Americans to travel to Vanuatu and claim they are this individual. These curious pursuits of ‘kinghood’ underpin photographer Jon Tonks and writer Christopher Lord’s book, The Men Who Would Be King, which traces these stories through intricate images and detailed text.

Claude-Philippe Berger, for instance, claims to be the exiled king of an island in Vanuatu called Tanna, and the pair meet him at a bizarre royal ceremony in Berlin. Meanwhile, the US documentary filmmaker Cevin Soling is described as the “last man” to reveal the destination of their movement by a local chief. He transports hauls of strange cargo to the believers, even making necklaces with his own face printed on them. However, beneath all the curious narratives the book explores, a darker message prevails with the publication highlighting the problematic and enduring idea of ‘Western adventure’ and the communities subjected to it.

Still Fantasy
Absalon Kirkeby
Disko Bay, €54

Image © Absalon Kirkeby.

To leaf through Still Fantasy is to encounter a swarm of images — of colours, forms and styles. Strokes of white paint covering a wall; snowy feathers reddened with blood; a young girl’s hunched figure cloaked in golden hair; fingers flecked in tangerine paint. The pictures’ subjects veer from the mundane to the surreal, with vivid streams of colour composing several frames. Kirkeby has digitally manipulated many photographs, unsteadying the viewer’s gaze. The artist provides no explanation or context. Instead, collectively, the images lull us into a meditative and dream-like state.

Still Fantasy comes alive once we surrender to this. The publication engulfs us in pure colour, line and shape, inciting a kaleidoscope of feelings. However, there are subtle references to contemporary landscapes and life. The presence of X-rays, machines, signs and urban sites suggests an underlying narrative of place, about which we can only wonder. Still Fantasy is not a conventional photography book. Indeed, it demands open-mindedness — an immersion in the images and the mishmash of elements they reveal.

On Rape: And Institutional Failure
Laia Abril
Dewi Lewis Publishing, £40

Mulier Taceat In Ecclesia. The scold’s bridle, used during medieval times in Britain and Europe, was a common control and torture device. It was used as a punishment for “riotous and other ill behaviours” and in order to prevent women from speaking, especially those who allegedly gossiped, lied, showed off or were considered bad-tempered with a tendency of disobeying their husband. By wearing the scold’s bridle, women were forced to be silent in church, “taceat in ecclesia”. According to some interpretations, it was more about being “silent in the presence of the male” © Laia Abril.

On 07 July 2016, five men who called themselves la manada – ‘the wolfpack’ – gang raped an 18-year-old woman in the lobby of an apartment building in Pamplona, Spain. The entire assault was recorded on CCTV, but in 2018, when the verdict was finally handed down, the court acquitted all five perpetrators of rape. Instead, they were found guilty of the lesser crime of ‘sexual abuse’, a decision that came down to an interpretation of the law’s fine print. The men had verbally coerced the woman into the building, rather than using violence. Therefore the crime was not categorised as sexual assault, which includes rape. The case inspired widespread protests against sexual assault laws in Spain. For photographer Laia Abril, it galvanised her “to understand why the structures of… law enforcement were not only failing survivors but actually encouraging perpetrators”.

On Rape is the second chapter in Abril’s long-term project, A History of Misogyny. Following on from On Abortion, this new publication, out in September, collates testimonies, historical archives, myths and popular beliefs to critically examine structural failures to deal with sexual violence. Executed with urgency and care, Abril’s investigation into the failing structures that perpetuate rape culture is both compelling and heartbreaking.

Words by Marigold Warner. 

Image © Rachel Papo.

When Rachel Papo gave birth to her second child in 2013, her world turned dark. Instead of the anticipated joy new mothers are expected to feel, she experienced the reverse: severe anxiety and suffocating fear. Papo recognised her postpartum symptoms immediately because she had been there before, following the birth of her first child three years earlier. In 2015, almost two years after her son was born, Papo explored the idea of creating a project, hoping to shed light on this deeply misunderstood issue. Living in Berlin at the time, she posted an ad on a Facebook group for ex-pats, inviting mothers to partake in the project. To her surprise, women began responding immediately.

It’s Been Pouring: The Dark Secret of the First Year of Motherhood is the result of this collaboration. The book sensitively merges Papo’s experiences with those of other mothers through a dialogue between image and text. Instead of capturing portraits of the women, Papo explains that she was “primarily interested in photographing objects and places that embodied their experience”. She spoke to mothers about everything from birth experience to reflections on the image of motherhood in society, to musings over a changing identity, realising that many of them shared a common thread. For the mothers, it was a relief to share their experiences after so long keeping them inside: “Some broke down and cried, because many of them never opened up about it to anyone, not even to their own family members or closest friends.”

Words by Eva Clifford