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July 17, 2023

Book Recommendations Based on Your Favorite Piece of Art at UMMA

By Kasey Rosatti

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Student Blog

If you’re anything like me, you have a ‘to–be–read’ list that’s already ambitiously long (mine’s at a shocking 264 books), but I’m here to add a couple more gems to your stack. I’ve chosen six pieces of art that are currently on display at UMMA and matched them with six books. So let’s begin, here are six book recommendations based on art on display at UMMA:

Hide and Seek
If you are intrigued by the fascinating history behind Alfred Stevens’ Hide and Seek then you may enjoy reading The Portrait of a Thief: A Novel by Grace D. Li. The oil on canvas painting by Stevens is showing a scene of a European person’s house from the 19th century, which has on display various objects imported from Eastern Asia, such as ceramics and lacquered furniture. This scene exemplifies the Western obsession and exotification of East Asian art, and alludes to the colonial pursuits of Europe and the United States. I, therefore, paired this with the Portrait of a Thief, which centers Will Chen, a Chinese American college student, who believes art belongs with its creator. In the book, we follow Will through the adventure of a century as he forms a team to help him steal back priceless Chinese art from American museums.

Celestial Tower
The next match-up I have in store for you is between Matthew Angelo Harrison’s Celestial Tower and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The Thing Around Your Neck. Photos of Celestial Tower really can’t do this soaring installation justice. Harrison, a Black American Detroit-based artist, constructed this amazing piece of art out of wooden masks from the Dogon people, an ethnic group indigenous to Mali. He says he aims for his work to dialogue with themes of “extraction, fragmentation, and disintegration of culture” and to provide commentary on how African art is held within American museums, separated from its place of origin. I paired Harrison’s work with The Thing Around Your Neck because it explores the ties that bind Africa and the United States and people to each other through 12 short stories. A collection of small stories stacked together to tell a larger story–much like Celestial Tower. Adichie is a well-known Nigerian author whose other works include We Should All Be FeministsAmericanah, and Half of a Yellow Sun.

Box with Double Dragon Design
Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo and a piece in the museum titled Box with Double Dragon Design (Korea, Joseon Dynasty). From reading the description of this box, I learned that it would have been found in a woman’s room and was meant to express wishes for the successful careers of the men in her life. I immediately thought of Cho’s novel, which is credited with propelling South Korea’s feminist movement. If that doesn’t convince you of the power of this book, I simply don’t know what will. It follows protagonist Kim Ji-young, who is meant to represent the “everywoman” of Korea. We see her life from childhood to adulthood with misogyny and sexism creeping in at every turn. This book tells the story of how the men around her slowly unravel her sanity, while calling-out the reality of many men’s success being founded on the women they step on to get there.

Detroit/Soweto
The fourth pairing is between Detroit/Soweto by Jon Onye Lockard and The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi (they/them). This vibrant and tragic painting by Lockard shows a mother holding her deceased child in her lap. Lockard says that this piece is really a call-to-action and asks for the “perpetuity of life for Black people and their Africanity.” I paired this artwork with an astonishing novel about a mother in Nigeria who opens her door to find her child’s body wrapped in colorful fabric. It’s a heart-wrenching story written by Nigerian writer and artist, Akwaeke Emezi. The Death of Vivek Oji has an impressive 4.25 stars on Storygraph, which is like Goodreads but better in every way, much more fun, and not owned by a billionaire– highly recommend.

Nociceptor – Heart Sutra 
For the penultimate book recommendation, we are dipping our toes into non-fiction () with The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk. This book choice was inspired by Susan Crowell’s Nociceptor- Heart Sutra, which can be found in the Japanese art gallery. Crowell’s Nociceptor- Heart Sutra (which is very cute in my opinion) is an anatomical-ish sculpture that is meant to represent pain, suffering, the body, and impermanence. Nociceptors are the part of the nervous system that allows our bodies to react to pain. In The Body Keeps the Score,  Kolk explains how our bodies and our brains are impacted by trauma.

The Break-Up of the Ice
For the last book recommendation, I’ve paired Monet’s The Break-up of the Ice with a novel titled Icefields by Thomas Wharton. Monet painted this landscape of the Seine river in 1880 during one of the coldest European winters on record. Icefields follows Dr. Edward Bryne as he slips and finds himself stuck sixty feet below the surface in the crevasse of a glacier in the Canadian Rockies. From there, the story develops into an expedition style mystery that garnered the novel multiple literary awards.

If any of these recommendations seem up your alley, I implore you to find a cozy spot at the museum to delve into your new book! Thanks for reading!

Blogger’s note: I suggest, before reading any of these books, that you first check the content and trigger warnings, as some of the books mentioned contain troubling contents.