Back in July, Liza Lou came onto the second segment of this episode of The Modern Art Notes Podcast to talk about a new work she was exhibiting at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. She had also just published a new book titled “Durban Diaries,” a semi-diaristic account of the studio she set up in South Africa. I think I only asked her one question about it.
That was a mistake. In the weeks after taping with Lou, I found myself thinking about the book again and again. It’s a slightly odd little book: Half diary-cum-memoir, half exhibition catalogue of work that Lou showed at White Cube, her London gallery, in 2012. The images are fine. The text is don’t-miss level. Eager for a second-chance at the book, I made it the subject of my column in the November Modern Painters magazine.
Here’s an excerpt from what I wrote:
One day while Liza Lou was at her studio in South Africa, Phumzile, one of the women who worked for her, walked in wearing a big, black scarf around her head and oversize, celebrity-style sunglasses. The women in Lou’s studio teased Phumzile about her look. Everyone had a good laugh.
Prompted by her mother, Phumzile removed the sunglasses to reveal an enormous black eye. Lou’s studiomates said something in Zulu that she couldn’t understand. Whatever it was, it prompted even more laughter.
“My god, this isn’t funny!” Lou said. “What happened?”
“If our boyfriends want to beat us,” replied one of the other women, “what can we say?”
And so it goes in Durban Diaries, Lou’s new book about founding a studio with Zulu artisans in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Lou does not describe the structure of her South African studio as a co-operative or a collective, but as an arrangement designed to “help to build a solid economic entity amongst a group of previously unemployed women.” The book, published by her gallery, White Cube, follows the studio from its founding in 2005 until her return to California in 2012. It also includes a section of color plates of work she made in 2011 and 2012. It is excellent, uplifting and troubling, a rare must-read artist’s memoir.
The evident model for “Durban Diaries” is Anne Truitt’s 1982 artist-memoir “Daybook,” one of the best books written by an artist. (Coincidentally, Scribner has just published a new edition of Daybook in paperback and has released the title for e-readers. Kindle and Nook users can buy all three of Truitt’s diary-cum-books – “Daybook,” “Turn,” and “Prospect “– in one package — and for under $10.)
“What stood out when I read ‘Daybook’ the first time was Truitt’s practice, her art, her daily life-making,” Lou told me. “That’s the lovely thing about reading something. You can go back and find something else that’s really important to you.”
For the rest of the column, check out the November issue of Modern Painters. Look for it at a newsstand near you, or subscribe for just $30!