Four books have been selected by TSA’s Shep Award Book Committee for a shortlist of titles published in 2021 under consideration for this year’s R. L. Shep Award. The four were chosen from a list of fourteen eligible works nominated by TSA members, publishers, and the public earlier this year.
The selected books share several features. All are single author works that examine a specific textile-centered area in an important geographical region. Whether in the transatlantic worlds or in Spanish America, traversing the Mediterranean and Indian Oceans or the mountain reaches and river valleys of the Southeast Asian mainland, the four works present textiles in context through thoughtfully produced and beautifully illustrated volumes. Like all books honored in past award cycles, each of these works dig deeply into the history of each textile tradition while showcasing the continuing centrality of cloth in many areas of human endeavor.
Black bodies, White Gold: Art, Cotton, and Commerce in the Atlantic World by Anna Arabindan-Kesson and published by Duke University Press focuses on cotton, a commodity central to colonialism and the slave trade as a starting point for new interpretations of art, commerce, and colonialism in the nineteenth-century Atlantic worlds. Though chiefly art historical in approach, the book connects cotton cloth production and its artistic renderings to the Black bodies of the West African diaspora, whether expressed in the cloth used by enslaved plantation workers or the visual culture that depicts Black sharecroppers in photographs and paintings.
Clothing the New World Church: Liturgical Textiles of Spanish America, 1520-1820 by Maya Stanfield-Mazzi and published by Notre Dame University Press studies the rich textiles furnishing Catholic churches in the “New World” of the Americas. The first comprehensive survey of textiles used for Spanish American church adornment, the book not only delineates how these works contributed to the establishment and expansion of Christianity in the Americas but also focuses on the hybrid/mestizo qualities of these cloths that consciously drew on both Indigenous and imported textiles and world views.
Sea Change: Ottoman Textiles between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean by Amanda Phillips and published by the University of California Press focuses on textiles as the second-most traded commodity in world history and its trajectory during the Ottoman Empire. The book offers the first comprehensive history of this important sector, showing how economic, artistic, and technological innovation shaped the production and consumption of textiles in the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean from around 1400-1800.
Textiles in Burman Culture by Sylvia Fraser-Lu and published by Silkworm Press traces the history and evolution of the textiles of Myanmar (Burma), made and used by the Burman (Bama) ethnic majority. The book addresses the importance of textiles in the life cycle, literature, politics, and religion, as well as throughout British colonization, post-war isolation, and more recent engagements through the country’s “open door” policies. In this richly illustrated volume, the author examines the use and production of textiles of both royal and nonroyal society, including a consideration of textiles made by minorities in more remote areas of the interior.
The R. L. Shep Award is now in its twenty-second year and the number of nominated books has grown substantially, reaching twenty or more in recent award cycles. In 2020, the award committee began announcing a “shortlist” to bring well-deserved recognition to the multiple leading contenders for the award.
The guidelines for the award define the category of ethnic textile studies and task the judges with selecting books that excel equally in field-advancing scholarship and in broad popular appeal. These requirements were set out deliberately with the goal of bringing the broadest possible public attention to the books, textile studies, as well as the work and the interests of TSA.
This year judges identified books worthy of special mention though they might not be as well matched to the complete criteria for the award as the four shortlisted above. Both are highly recommended for interested readers:
- Encyclopedia of Embroidery from Central Asia, the Iranian Plateau and the Indian Subcontinent by Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood & Willem Vogelsang (Bloomsbury Publishing) is an extraordinary achievement, comprehensively exploring the rich embroidering traditions of three regions. Profusely illustrated with photographs, diagrams, and stitch layouts, accessible in writing and explanation, this work will stand as a lasting reference tool for academics, artists, and enthusiasts.
- Crafting a Future: Stories of Indian Textiles and Sustainable Practices by Archana Shah (Niyogi Books) presents the natural resources of the region as well as the artisanal skills of local Indian weavers and craftspeople. This thoughtful, context-rich and well-illustrated work provides insights into how contemporary studies of textiles specific to a world region can contribute to the exploration of sustainable solutions to social issues as well as the environmental challenges of the future.
The winning book to be chosen from this year’s shortlist will be announced by early September.
The current award committee members are Dr. Cherubim Quizon (chair), Dr. Elena Phipps and Dr. Rachel Silberstein. Elena Phipps will be next year’s chair and nominations for books published in 2022 will be due by March 31, 2023 (TSA’s website will provide details after the New Year).