Keisha Scarville, Lick of tongue, rub of finger, on soft wound

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by MACK Books (here). Hardcover (20 x 25 cm), 168 pages with approximately 150 images. Includes a text by Harmony Holiday. Design by Morgan Crowcroft-Brown. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Keisha Scarville, a Brooklyn-born, Guyanese-American photographer, uses her artistic practice to explore her family heritage. Scarville was born in New York, and has spent plenty of time in Guyana, the homeland of her parents. She started photographing her family in Guyana during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, and that effort sparked her interest in the traditional Caribbean limbo dance (which may have originated on the slave ships of the Middle Passage) and the way Black bodies maneuver through space. Her two geographies, and two homelands, often merge in her work, and in her series “Li/mb”, she reconstructs the limbo in expertly staged self-portraits. The series was presented as her first solo gallery show in 2022 (reviewed here).

Scarville’s striking first photobook, titled Lick of tongue, rub of finger, on soft wound, traces a broader range of ancestral narratives, while considering the layered questions of memory and time. It brings together images from the past 20 years, mixing them with collages, drawings, and other archival materials, exploring personal and family histories that reflect on identity, personhood, and the materiality of memory. Movement is embedded in these investigations, including Scarville’s parents’ move to America, the artist’s own trips between two places, as well as previous ancestral movements and migrations. 

The title of Scarville’s photobook is as intriguing and collage-like as its content. Lick of tongue, rub of finger, on soft wound is a softcover book with flaps, and a photocollage takes up the entire cover, while the title and the artist name are placed on its spine. Inside, the design evokes movement, and the visual flow feels extremely dynamic and totally unpredictable, employing a dense approach to layout, packing in over a hundred images. There are no page numbers or captions, and while there are pages with sparse texts by the artist, their intention is to offer a pause. An essay by the poet and author Harmony Holiday is placed on the back flaps closing the book.

The book opens (and ends) with a sequence of close up photographs printed full bleed: movements of water and fragments of a seawall, all of them shot over the years in Guyana. Then the narrative shifts to the section showing gestures and limbs. A photograph of a Black woman with a baby on her lap, their faces abstracted, is placed against a selection of various richly patterned fabrics. It is followed by another image showing an extended arm against a patterned background, while two arm shadows appear underneath. Evoking duality and the idea of being in between places, Scarville’s charged photographs seem to represent a fluctuating state of being.

As we continue onward, a page reading “1967 This is not the beginning” opens up to a photograph of the artist’s parents taken shortly after they moved to the United States in the mid 1960s. Two separate images of her dad and mom are placed at the very right side of the spread, against a black cosmic background. The photographs that follow show Scarville’s family members, moving the narrative through the time, but presenting it in a nonlinear flow. There are photographs from family archives, drawings, film stills, collages, archival shots, and even a full spread X-ray of a jaw included in this progression. Collages and overlaid images became particularly important as Scarville sees them as a way to create new movements and genealogies. The layered visual flow, both hypnotic and poetic, evokes memories that drift across past and present. 

In her artistic practice, Scarville liberally leverages her personal heritage, reframing the possibilities of the underlying photographic narrative. A number of other notable contemporary photographers have also incorporated family histories into their practice. In his book What’s My Name, Micaiah Carter uses treasured family photographs as touchstones for commercial and personal work centered on Black style and beauty (reviewed here). And in her book El Jardín de Senderos Que Se Bifurcan (reviewed here), Tarrah Krajnak searches for her family roots as she explores the circumstances of her birth and adoption, using unorthodox portraits and archival recreations. Scarville’s photobook is an excellent contribution to this ongoing conversation.

While Lick of tongue, rub of finger, on soft wound brings together the work made over the past twenty years, the unstructured book format presents the work in a unique way, creating connections between various bodies of work, rather than offering a more straightforward chronological overview. The book encourages us to join Scarville as she engages in a complex process of self examination, disrupting linear histories. As an artist’s book, it is also an admirable example of how the photobook can be used as a creative form to re-present a complete body of work.

Collector’s POV: Keisha Scarville is represented by Higher Pictures Generation in New York (here). Her work has not yet consistently found its way to the secondary markets, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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