A mastery of paper sculpture and visual storytelling, Freedom, A Fable: A Curious Interpretation of the Wit of a Negress in Troubled Times tells the tale of a 19th century woman called N—, who is soon-to-be emancipated from slavery in the American South. She begins to “dream of a land where brown skin means nothing,” when faced with the prospect of being sent to Liberia after the Civil War. Upon reflection on her future, she “[concludes] it her duty to become a god.”

This artists’ book by American visual artist Kara Walker is part of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Library’s collection of books featuring pop-ups and movable parts. Pop-up structures, although typically associated with children’s books, often serve as a source of inspiration for artists and designers for their feats of paper engineering. For Freedom, A Fable Walker worked closely with architect turned paper engineer, David Eisen.

The book includes four pop-up spreads and a moving part that visually illustrate the progression of N—‘s story and her relationship to the land. Each scene is rendered in exquisite detail, an accomplishment made possible by new laser cutting technology.

Most of the story takes place in N—‘s future vision aboard a ship traveling to Africa: her New World. The first pop-up features a distant plantation home partially hidden by large, low-lying clouds. In the second illustration, a woman lays peacefully under the shade of a palm tree. The third spread details a hidden image and extends onto the following page, a woman smokes a corn-cob pipe and births eight children into the sea.

Learn more about the Smithsonian Libraries collection of artists’ books here.

Natasha Orlando is a 2017 Katzenberger Intern at Cooper Hewitt. She is an art history student at Brown University.

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