What is paper?

A show at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts asks us to rethink the very concept. When we define paper as a single sheet of processed plant fiber, we're ignoring important, Indigenous traditions, its curators argue.

Bark is paper, "Paper Is People" artfully argues. Cloth is paper. Pottery is paper.

"During our research, we found that entire histories, like that of bark paper, connected distinct continents and peoples and yet were denied classification as paper in the contemporary definition," curator Stephanie Sauer said via email. "We began to interrogate this very definition and found inside of it a colonial legacy that remains alive and well."

That connects to a conversation Sauer and co-curator Tia Blassingame — a book artist, printmaker and scholar — had been having for years: What is book art? Who is a book artist?

They found "large gaps that tended to cut across racial and socioeconomic lines," Sauer said. "We wanted to work to bring more visibility to the incredible works that we read as book art."

The conversation turned to paper, "since it is often the question of what paper is that seems to 'disqualify' ... works that we considered to be books."

The result is a rich exhibition that spans continents and features local, national and international artists. Blassingame, based in Connecticut, and Sauer, based in Brazil, will be in town this week for a June 22 reception. Also attending will be New Orleans-based artist Hannah Chalew, who creates beautiful, intricate, sculptural works with paper made from sugar cane and shredded plastic waste.

Other artists in the show are making modern works with traditional fibers, including kapa, made in Hawaii from mulberry plants. Artists Page Chang and Chenta Laury are among those "reclaiming and revitalizing kapa and tapa traditions that have been systematically erased," Sauer said.

In the gallery, a delicate dress sways in the air. Artist Aimee Lee of Cleveland fashioned the frock from hanji, or Korean paper, toying with the traditions and expectations that accompany that word.

"We are not so different, disconnected," Blassingame said. "Seemingly disparate cultures may actually be connected by paper traditions, generations of artistry, papermaking fibers."

Paper Is People: Decolonizing Global Paper Cultures
What: A reception for the exhibition.
When: 7 to 9 p.m. Thu.
Cost: Free.
More info: www.mnbookarts.org/paper-is-people-exhibition-reception/