Reading List with Betelhem Makonnen



Betelhem Makonnen is a conceptual artist whose research deals with the perennial questions of existence. Her practice is process based and heavily relies on observation, reading and wandering.  A native of Ethiopia, Makonnen currently lives and works in Austin, Texas and is a member of ICOSA Collective. Her solo exhibition ኣለማየሁ : I saw the world is up at Pump Project through January 28, 2017.



I read a lot. I read continuously. There was a time when I finished every book I started, even if I didn’t like it. If I lent someone a book, I made sure I got it back. Walls of wherever I lived were dedicated to bookshelves. Moves meant scores of backbreaking boxes of books.

I have become a stack reader as I get older, transitory literary pillars everywhere—the living room, my studio, by my bedside—instead of permanent wall shrines. I will begin a book at the end or from a random page I open to. I can take months (years) to read some books or reread the same parts in a few and forget to finish others. I love to give away my books. If I could, I would implant an extra set of eyes on my forehead so I could read more than one text at a time.

Here are some selections from my various stacks that I like so much I wish I could read them for the first time again:


Known and Strange Things : Essays by Teju Cole
Teju Cole is a writer, art historian, and photographer who wonders as he wanders, practicing what he calls constellational thinking. He is an incredibly well-accomplished writer driven by an insatiable curiosity about the world and our experiences with/within it. If you haven’t had the luck of encountering his work before, his new book of essays is an ideal introduction. Cole’s scope, subjects, and searches are so vast and varied that he is bound to touch upon something that is of immense interest to you.


In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri (translated by Ann Goldstein)
I read this book in one sitting and repeatedly re-read parts of it. A beautiful investigation of the desire for and process of learning to express oneself in another language (Italian in the author’s case), but the writing easily lends itself to application to the visual arts and its languages; as you are reading it, just replace Italian/writing with your medium or just art.


Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems by Robin Coste Lewis
As it is said, poetry meets us when we most need it. It is where we go when there is nowhere else to go. I maintain a steady diet of poetry, but 2016 called for larger helpings. This collection has remained on my nightstand, within easy reach, since I first got it early in 2016. The dedication is to “Beauty,” and one poem is made up entirely of titles (yes, just the titles, and it works so beautifully) of Western artworks from ancient times to the present that feature a black female figure. So, so wondrous. Go grab yourself a copy.


Hegel and the Third World : The Making of Eurocentricism in World History by Teshale Tibebu
A thorough reading and critique of Hegel, with the argument that, although partially renounced, “the subtext of the discourse on Africa continues to remain essentially Hegelian with Africa still perceived through the prism of essential otherness.” Tibebu uses a bright flashlight as he walks us through one of the main corridors of Western Philosophy, lingering the beam on the floor and in darkened corners.


The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
Though published in 1963, Baldwin’s compassionate call to action for America to face its fear of confronting its history of hate and white supremacy for the sake of the salvation of the country remains shamefully relevant in 2017. To read and re-read and to take action, most especially for those of us who are existentially surprised by our current political and civic landscape. And also for those of us who are cautiously alleviated that possibly the lights are finally switched on for everyone to better see … maybe.



Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *