Art & Words – A Marriage in St. Martin – An Exhibition of 39 years of book covers

Guests around the center table display of selected HNP books at the “Art & Words” exhibition. (SWC photo)  


By Jacqueline A. Sample

GREAT BAY, St. Martin (2017)—Art helps us to imagine, even create our possibilities. Literature, the word, gives us license to put pen to paper, to creatively express our thoughts. The wedding of both genres in books from House of Nehesi Publishers (HNP), was recently celebrated with an art exhibit in St. Martin at the intimate gallery of the elegant Sheer Restaurant.

The HNP exhibition, entitled “Art & Words – A Marriage,” showcased 27 prints and original art of mostly book covers linked to the indie press for the last 39 years. A number of the pieces were on loan from their owners.

Among the not well known and famous artists featured were Roland Richardson and Ruby Bute (St. Martin); Virgilio Mendez (Dominican Rep.) and Danielle Boodoo-Fortuné (Trinidad/Tobago); Keith Mallet (USA); Fay Helfer (St. Martin/USA); Angelo Rombley (St. Martin); Fernando Botero (Colombia); and Romare Bearden (USA).

The styles and media of the 18 artists in the exhibit ranged from traditional oils to bronze sculpture and digital art. The pieces were diverse as the artists and sometimes influenced by the “movement” of history and culture.

The marriage of art and the word “in” the book allows the reader to join in a relationship of imagination and expression. It also reflects a founding principle that continues to guide book design at HNP.

The courtship that led to the marriage between art and the word for HNP was first expressed in 1978 on the cover and pages of Moods for Isis – Picture poems of Love & Struggle. That self-published book was the first poetry collection by a teenager who had just taken the name Lasana Mwanza Sekou. He was then a student at the High School of Art & Design in New York City.

In 1982, Lasana founded House of Nehesi in his dorm room at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. From the very beginning, an emphasis on original art for the book cover and content pages became a creative building block of the publishing project.

Last May, I interviewed Lasana for the exhibition, which I curated with Marcus Kwame-Anderson. Lasana said that when his seminal manuscript was ready to layout for the printer, he had “some kind of an idea that art would help to bring people to the book and into the book; that original art would help to illustrate the poetry and the reading or interpretations of it; that art would help to convey meaning, that it could move the word.”

In 2017, as projects director of HNP, which has been based in his Caribbean homeland of St. Martin since 1984, Lasana admits to long being inspired by artists and their work. He still thinks that, “book cover art conveys ideas that inform or inspire how readers may enter and engage the published text. Art may be an implicit conspirator of the narratives published in St. Martin in book form, no matter where the authors published by HNP may hail from.”

At the foundation of this artistic collaboration were New York City artists who enthusiastically provided artwork for the first four books linked to HNP between 1978 and 1983. Among these co-conspirators of Lasana M. Sekou — themselves teenagers or in their early 20s — were Gary Jefferson, Isis Rochelle Curry, Margaret Matz, and Cozbi Sanchez.

The exhibit of “Art & Words – A Marriage,” between May 31 – June 4, 2017, was the highlight of the Authors Reception at the 15th annual St. Martin Book Fair. I hoped that as the guests “experienced” the non-textual collection, and viewed the center table display of selected HNP books, that they would consider books as hands-on media to continually bring both literature and fine art into our lives, into our homes.

As for the guests who owned one or more of the books that featured the art on exhibit, I also could not help but wonder what images were being conjured up as they viewed especially the original art for the first time.

(Editor’s Note: Jacqueline A. Sample is a former president of Black Dimensions in Art, Inc., NY.)