What is Black and Red and Sepia?

Native Art Bookshelf

Native Photography and Art History Bookshelf in the shop at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, Santa Fe.

Notice the fairly uniform color scheme of these books. It is predominantly black, red, and sepia-toned. I took this photograph at the Museum Store at MoCNA, which has a great collection of books about Native American and First Nations art and culture. The photograph has been sitting in my phone for a couple months, but I still find the aesthetics of it symbolically important. These particular shelves are the photography and art history shelves. The bright green book in the upper right is an exception to the color limits. It is Our Land, Our Images, Our Selves, edited by by Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie and Veronica Passalaqua. The cover photograph is sepia-toned, though, so it does not break the preferred symbolic color scheme in that sense. The limited design aesthetics for books of this type is also apparent at book fairs at academic conferences, too. I noticed it at NAISA, but particularly at CAA, where art books can get fairly arty-looking.

Does this very limited palette of design colors for books about Native peoples reinforce stereotypes about Native peoples? Do these aesthetics imply Native peoples are only authentically located in a distant past? Is this design scheme necessary to sell the books?

Could I please have a hot-pink book about Native American art? A serious book.

5 thoughts on “What is Black and Red and Sepia?

  1. if a publisher thought that by putting a hot pink cover on a native art book it would result in it selling more units than without, they would do it without a second thought. so it’s the market (which you mentioned at the end.)

    let’s look at romance novels. this category also has a largely homogenous palette and design, some might even call it cookie-cutter. despite many readers being so embarrassed of these types of covers that they remove them after purchase, research has shown that romance novels with these kinds of covers will outsell the same book with a cover that does not share the aesthetic. there actually are several online topics that discuss ‘choosing a book color cover’ and the psychology behind it.

    here’s what i find interesting: i have a large collection of native art catalogs spanning a few decades that have native cover art, most likely selected by the native curator(s) who put the book together, and these tend to align themselves with your observation about similar tones and colors. i wouldn’t accuse them of being racist or operating within an aesthetic stereotype, but perhaps they are?

    • Great comments, Jason. I’ve only been editing or doing chapters in books and have not been “the decider” about cover design. I sat at an eating/refreshment establishment and by chance became involved in a group discussion with the next table’s occupants about the mock-up for the cover of a new folk-art book,The discussion centered around the “reviews” on the back, but the design elements, overall colors had been decided upon by a design team and were not open for discussion. The only design question: does it look tooooo folk-arty? Not folk-arty enough? I wouldn’t go so far as to say the authors, designers publishers are racist or stereotypical. But the design conventions appear to be very narrow and when they are assembled into proximity with each other, it’s not a terribly appealing scene.

      I want pretty, and variety, I guess.

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