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Chapter 4

Robbin Ami Silverberg

A New Yorker’s Parallax View

Much of my practice as an artist involves crossing borders and cultures. I’ve travelled and worked in many countries over the years, whether for exhibitions, workshops, lectures, consultancies on paper mills and book programmes, or the collaboration on actual artists’ books. I am privileged to have had many opportunities to learn and nowhere more so than in South Africa.

Twenty years ago I joined my husband, sculptor András Böröcz, on a trip to Johannesburg, for the First International Biennale in that city. Little did I know how this first venture would inextricably enmesh me to its people and its art. After numerous inquiries about the book arts scene, I heard from Granary Books’1 publisher, Steven Clay, who told me that there was one man on the continent of Africa involved with artists’ books and his name was Jack Ginsberg.

Of course, this was a (slight) exaggeration, but when I visited South Africa that same year, it appeared that only a handful of artists were involved in the idea of the book as art. This might have been due in part to the difficulties of self-publishing under apartheid. But in truth, the book as art was not a dominant art form in the rest of the world as well.

The book / the artist’s book

Before continuing, I want to address this “thing”, the artist’s book, which is defined by a conjoined noun, rather than having its own proper name… Hence the paradox we book artists face summed up in the Sumerian posit that “nothing exists unless uttered in a clear voice” (Spradlin & Porterfield 1984:38).

Just as a “book” is (by its denotation or from the perspective of medium theory):

  • A sequence of pages bound together;
  • A text and its paratext, produced and distributed;
  • A sign carrier for some kind of graphic semiotic interaction (Mignolo 2000:361);
  • The pith of papyrus stalk biblos or the inner bark of a tree liber;
  • “An ark of deposit” (Venegas cited in Barron 2011) that keeps the treasures of knowledge;
  • An institutionalised mode of composite technology (Vogler 2000:448) or
  • An act or object to record something.

It becomes more complicated when we consider the artist’s book, as a conjoined term:

A subset of BOOK, one made by an ARTIST. In the name of disambiguation I must list the definitions of “artist’s book”, which are several:

  • An artwork in book form (Phillpot 1998:33);
  • The synaesthetic experience of the art of reading;
  • A concept of a visio-textual statement;
  • A “three-dimensional interactive tool for learning” (Schreyer 2005) not to mention
  • The general tendency to define artists’ books simply by its many forms: livre artiste, photo-book, zine, chapbook, bookwork, book object, etcetera.

    Book artist Michael Hampton says it well: Charged with data management tasks and duties, the smart phone and personal computer have taken a load off the conventional book, simultaneously enabling the artist’s book to become an off-rad stealth vehicle roving interdisciplinary space, a new branch of sculpture, as much as literary text… (Hampton 2015).

    Jack Ginsberg and the Ampersand Foundation

    At the time of Johannesburg’s First Biennale in 1995, I was invited to give a series of lectures on American artists’ books along with workshops in papermaking, in Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town.2

    I met Jack on my first day in the city of Johannesburg [Plate 8]. He was warm and effusive from the start but intent on immediately inspecting my books; it seems I passed muster after a short presentation. Then, he rushed us off to our first braai,3 and we soon became fast friends. Over the past 20 years, I’ve returned to South Africa on several occasions and spent time with Jack but I also had the pleasure of Jack’s yearly visits to my hometown of New York City.

    I remember well Jack’s stay in New York, in Spring of that year. We were at dinner when he confided to András and me about his nascent project: he had recently bought an apartment (sight unseen!), with the intention of launching his other life’s work – the new Ampersand Foundation. Earlier that day, he had purchased everything needed for an apartment (“down to the colander”) and was fretting about delivery options, since he was returning home prior to taking ownership of the flat. Typical New Yorker that I am, I was simultaneously awed by his vision and generous spirit, as I was amazed (read aghast) at his audacity (read naiveté) to imagine that this could possibly work. After all, Johannesburg was half a world away; one could not possibly set up an apartment, never mind run it, to say nothing of a residency programme, from afar.

    I immediately offered our services with this initial installation … not imagining that 20 years later I would still be involved, assisting in the running of Ampersand, which invites South African artists and members of the arts community on residencies to New York City.

    A prescient interchange occurred not long after, when I received a phone call from Jack, who invited me to be a trustee on the Ampersand board. When I balked, he admitted he’d already given my name to the Warhol Foundation, in the process of applying for a grant, when they inquired about the United States-based trustees. Thus I became further enmeshed.

    Plate 8. The author’s first meeting with Jack Ginsberg: looking at my books. 1995. Photography: András Böröcz used with permission.

    Over the years, I’ve sometimes felt like a den mother as I’ve interacted with the many Ampersand Fellows (including artists such as Simon Stone, Linda Sihlali,4 Bevan de Wet, Christine Dixie and Julia Meintjes) during their stays in New York City. And, when life’s busy moments precluded our meeting Ampersand Fellows, I have been sorely disappointed. This is because, The Ampersand Foundation has given András and me the opportunity to meet so many extraordinary South Africans, to see their artwork, listen to their stories and gain fresh perspectives of the place they call home and of our home, this city they temporarily inhabit.

    Just as we’ve gained through these experiences, so have the Fellows. Each has been resoundingly grateful for the opportunities they’ve received from Jack: an apartment in Manhattan for one or two months, flights to and from South Africa, and support and assistance to enjoy all that New York City offers. And, most unusual, they are not required to work, which is truly a gift. Rather they gain exposure to the arts and culture of NYC, time and space to reflect, and the opportunity to step out of their daily lives.

    Just as my working in other countries has helped me to understand who I am, this is the gift Jack has given to so many South Africans, with his Ampersand Foundation. Ampersand Fellow Erika Hibbert wrote me in an email:

    When I was awarded an Ampersand Fellowship in 2003 I had never been to the USA. I was overwhelmed by the notion that I should NOT work away at art-making, but should be OUT of the studio – exploring NYC. That was the start of so many adventures. My Ampersand fellowship came at a crossroads in my life. My time in NYC is a marker: ‘Before Ampersand...’ and ‘after Ampersand...’ are ways in which I refer to my life. Before Ampersand I was a young, ambitious artist with a distinct geographic home and an engagement in art-making that I define as direct and literal. After Ampersand I lost that literal approach, lost my geographic home and redefined myself as an artist – less ambitious in my career and more ambitious in my embrace of cultural expression across histories and geographies.

    Papermaking in South Africa

    My 1995 lecture on American artists’ books at the (then) Witwatersrand Technikon5 was organised by artist/activist Kim Berman, whose early conversations with me quickly segued to papermaking, and how, this labour-intensive craft could be an asset in a country with high unemployment and, with a plethora of plant fibres that could be used in making paper by hand. In other words, South Africa was an ideal environment for the development of cottage industries in hand papermaking.

    Kim had already set up a small studio at the Tech for students and we spoke about its possible future development. When she visited New York later that year, I gave her some lessons in papermaking, its tools and machinery. With her usual drive and vision, coupled with incredibly hard work, Kim managed to get financial support to set up a paper unit, to focus on papermaking as poverty relief, an economic development opportunity in marginalised communities around South Africa.

    The paper and products it developed were sustainable and green, and served several goals: local paper production for artists’ use; archival papers for conservation purposes; the substrate for printing for a national Aids awareness programme; and the material for a range of carefully targeted marketable products. At the same time, it was offering much-needed job training and opportunities.

    Over the course of my subsequent trips to South Africa, I was one of several invited internationally-based papermakers who helped Kim train the personnel in papermaking techniques and product design for Phumani Paper – the research centre for hand papermaking in South Africa that she established in 1999. This work and the bonds made were extraordinarily gratifying [Plate 9].

    Also, in those first years I had South African artists and papermakers train at Dobbin Mill, my hand papermaking studio in Brooklyn, which enabled me to bond with many of them, such as artist Paul Emmanuel, and the late Linda Sihlali (both also Ampersand Fellows).

    In addition to working at the papermaking unit, I taught a book arts course in the printmaking department at the Tech in 1997. Several students who worked with me at that time continued their involvement, whether in book arts [Plate 10] and text-based art, such as Stephan Erasmus, and Bronwyn Marshall, in paper arts.

    Plate 9. Phumani Paper group in front of Durant Sihlali’s house (including Durant’s son, Linda on the far left), 2001. Photography: András Böröcz used with permission.

    And of course, there were additional workshops and projects, as could only be expected when someone as committed and indefatigable as Kim Berman is the organiser. In 1997 Kim arranged for me to do a workshop at Artist Proof Studio, the community printmaking centre, based in the suburb of Newtown in Johannesburg.6

    Plate 10. The author looking at Sheila Flynn’s fold-out book. Johannesburg. 1995. Photography: András Böröcz used with permission.

    I managed to challenge her and her organisation thereby re-thinking the workshop into an artist’s book collaboration called Emandulo Re-Creation [Plate 11].

    Plate 11. Emandulo artists meeting, Artist Proof Studio, Newtown, Johannesburg. 1997. Photography: Cara Maccallum used with permission.

    Artist’s book collaborations

    Emandulo was conceived and designed to challenge boundaries between peoples: 19 South African artists7 with a range of artistic styles and demographic standings were invited to participate, as well as Atta Kwami from Ghana, András and myself. In addition, Artist Proof Studio artists functioned as the production printers for the work.

    My intention was to create a version of a printer’s “exquisite corpse”: where body parts are produced by the participants and can be re-arranged to form different configurations.8 The theme chosen was the creation myth (Emandulo means in the beginning in isiZulu), as I had imagined that a country with so many peoples would have a fascinating range of creation mythology. How life began and the mythologies adhered to concerning our life cycle are essential components to understanding any society.

    Johannesburg and its art world of 1997 appeared to me to be both quixotic and overwrought with the aspirations and realities of post-apartheid change. Emandulo attempted to stage some of these aspirations, by creating a physical mix between artists both in the act of production and in its structure and design: what American arts and culture scholar, Stephen Dubin called a “flipbook that dissolves the administrative rigour of racial categories under apartheid” (Dubin 2012) [Plate 12a & b].

    Its creation was a whirlwind eight-day marathon with around-the-clock efforts in design, printing, layout, collating and production. Each artist bound his or her own copy in a one-day workshop that we held at Artist Proof Studio, and 10 copies comprised the deluxe portion of the edition, which I bound back in New York City, with printed case and Dobbin Mill papers.

    With this collaboration under our belts, I was invited to return to Artist Proof Studio in 2001 to undertake another artist’s book collaboration. This time, I invited 13 South African artists9 in advance of my arrival, sending them my proposed theme and structure of the book. Again, one copy was sold in advance (to Jack Ginsberg) to cover production costs.

    The artists were asked to reflect on the South Africa of 2001, on their perceptions of how society had changed since the end of apartheid. I offered two texts as springboards for their ideas: the European fairytale written by Hans Christian Andersen, The Emperor’s New Clothes,10 and a line from a Carl Sandburg poem Paper (1950), where he says: “I write what I know on one side of the paper and what I don’t know on the other”. Both story and text seemed apt metaphors for the “world of appearances” – of a blend of reflections on what we can know, do know and want to know.

    Plate 12a (left) Emandulo Re-Creation. 1997 (cover). 12b (right) interior view of artist’s book in ‘Exquisite Corpse’ format with each print image cut into six parts facilitating diverse openings and figural combinations of head, torso and legs. Photography: Mark Stanley Adams.

    The resulting collaboration, Dihangara Uhanga, [Plate 13] is a box filled with 16 hangers-cum-art (András and I also contributed and a colophon hanger is included). The cheap metal hangers used as the framework for the “pages” reference the Emperor’s “clothes that were not there” or the difficult truth that must be told, central to the Andersen tale. In addition, that hanger offered each artist a two-sided (or opposing) structure to present his or her ideas.

    Each artist was responsible for the design and production of his or her “hanger art” with my support and that of Artist Proof Studio printers and director, Kim Berman. Upon my return, I designed the boxes for the seven copies brought back to the United States.

    Plate 13. Dihangara Uhanga. 2001. Artist’s book with seventeen coat hangers each with decorated covering: from fifteen artists - one with a double hanger - and the colophon on a separate hanger. Housed in a box made from handmade decorated paper by Robbin Silverberg with hanger motifs both inside and out and with the hangers hanging from a copper bar fitted to the inside of the box. Photography: the author.

    The concepts behind each of the artists’ choices were wonderful and varied. For instance, the shape of the hanger spoke to Diane Victor, who chose to design the pediment friezes of a building: one side in blind embossing (quite literally a white-washed presentation) that depicted an idealised image of the new South Africa, with relaxed “happy warriors” [Plate 14a]; the other side, a densely pigmented etching, displayed its harsher reality, of burdened and damaged figures [Plate 14b].

    Durant Sihlali11 chose not to reflect on present-day but rather the past. He designed a hanger that depicted a dead bok (goat). He explained to me that at feasts, his family often used a hanger to fashion the tool to hang the animal being barbequed (or braaied). As a result, hangers reminded him more of these celebrations than something used to hold clothing. Sihlali was one of the first artist/papermakers in South Africa to work with stencilled paper pulp, using local fibres, and it was this technique which he used on his hanger.

    Plate 14a (left) Diane Victor, Dihangara Uhanga. 2001. Blind embossing on paper with coat hanger and 14b (right) Diane Victor, etching on paper. Photography: Mark Stanley Adams.

    Similarly, Nhlanhla Mbatha looked back at the cultural detritus of South Africa’s apartheid regime. He made different hangers: one is a large organic form papier-mâché box: “this is how we hid dagga [marijuana]”, he explained. Mbatha’s second hanger comprised a slingshot and bits of hanger wires, which he explained to me was cut up as ammunition: “In the uprising, we kids used to make slingshots from hangers and tire rubber, and used them to fight”.

    In addition to these large-scale collaborations, I’ve published a range of solo and collaborative artists’ books connected to South Africa. During a visit to Dobbin Mill in 1999, Kim Berman and I produced Tracks [Plate 15] a collaborative artist’s book in an edition of five.

    Plate 15. Robbin Ami Silverberg and Kim Berman, Tracks. 1999. Collaborative artist’s book. Dobbin Books, NY, New York. Pulp-sprayed flax and cotton rag paper with drypoint, collograph, woodcut, monoprint and inkjet printing, chin collè, collage, hand colouring, burning and piercing. Photography: Mark Stanley Adams.

    Working together in papermaking, printing and collage, we created a ladder-like slat book that focused on our joint interests in man-made structures and their symbolism: mine in stairs, after my body of work on the Staircase of Death12 in the Second World War labour camp at Mauthausen in Austria, and Kim’s focus on train tracks and mines as archetypes of apartheid’s hidden acts of aggression. Collaborating with Kim this time was far different from the rigour of the large project we had previously undertaken. Timing was short as she was visiting for less than one week and my abilities were somewhat compromised by my pregnant state at the time, but nonetheless, it was a pleasure to explore ideas one-on-one, and come up with a dynamic result.

    Clew: In 2004, András and I returned to South Africa on a Ford Foundation grant, as trustees of the Ampersand Foundation. At that time, we also worked at the Artists’ Press Studio.13 I designed an artist’s book in advance, making all the papers at Dobbin Mill and arrived with ideas as to how the proprietor, Mark Attwood, and I would collaborate. Fortunately, time with Mark allowed other ideas to percolate: Mark, a master printer, was hesitant to relief print on my translucent papers; I on the other hand, am a mediocre printer with few preconceived notions. The blend achieved some lovely results.

    Clew [Plate 16] focuses on the marriage tree in a Hindu temple in Durban, in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. The text reflects on a ritual where young women wrap a tree with silk threads as a prayer to acquire a husband.14 The prose, which is printed in thin lines of red on translucent paper, crosses over a pulp-painted palimpsest on both its front and back and makes connections between the ideas of marriage and bondage; text and textile. A hanging tag must be spun around, in order to read the final sentence.

    Plate 16. Robbin Ami Silverberg, Clew. 2004. Artist’s book. Dobbin Books, NY, New York. Polymer-plate printing on Dobbin Mill abaca papers. Photography: the author

    My artist’s book practice

    Most of the books I’ve mentioned thus far are collaborations of sorts. In reality, time constraints due to being an artist, parent, professor of book arts, trustee and board director for four nonprofit art organisations have made it difficult to work with others in collaboration. As such, the four to six artists’ books which I publish each year, are more often solo work, usually in tiny editions of 5, 10 or 15. When I have total control of the process, my goal is that every aspect of the artist’s book should be working towards communicating the content – that the entire object is a work of art.

    In Thoughts in the Form of a Letter (2003, edition of 5) [Plate 17/Catalogue Image 0223] the paper is, as always in my art, specifically designed in my hand papermaking studio. I explore the haptic possibilities of the book’s content through this activated substrate: in this case, pulp painting the dual communications of a failing marriage on the two sides of the translucent paper. The end result is that the texts become virtually unreadable. The idea of communication and its inherent limitations are further represented by the pockets in the covers, filled with the pieces of paper ground that have been cut out around the pulp painted writing, graphic signs inscribed but not transmittable. And because this book is illegible, the choreography of the read 15 suggests a re-focus away from language to marks and spaces, to a complex rhythm, as it is an empty silence.

    Plate 17/ 0223. Robbin Ami Silverberg, Thoughts in the Form of a Letter. 2003. Artist’s book. Dobbin Books, NY, New York. Pulp painted and cut abaca papers. Photography: Mark Stanley Adams.

    Subterranean Geography (2011, edition of 5) [Plate 18/0201] is an artist’s book that describes subway travel as a metaphor for the psycho-geography of urban spaces. The double pamphlet structure and its overlapping double covers echo the two texts present: the first recites the details of an ambulatory mapping, while the other is a memory of a specific subway ride. Distraught feeling is expressed in the manually typed text fragments such as: One day on the subway a man cut out his heart. I just sat there.

    Plate 18/ 0210. Robbin Ami Silverberg, Subterranean Geography. 2011. Artist’s book. Dobbin Books, NY, New York. Mixed media on cut maps of the New York City subway system. Photography: Mark Stanley Adams.

    The sense of layered feelings is likewise felt in the density created by both the filigree cutting of the subway map and in the layering of pages and papers. It is also transmuted by the commonality of (actual) New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority maps, (erstwhile) library catalogue cards and (faux) Post-Its. The book becomes a simulacrum of both the spaces indicated and the simultaneous experiences and memory of them.

    Lastly, Abriss (2012-13, edition in English, French or German of 27) [Plate 19/0224] uses my postings, which I created in my ambulatory mapping-cum-colportage project in New York City. It is really a nonlinear combination of installation, performance and the book – and the largest book I’ve made to date. The 12x18 inch [just over 30cm x 45cm] postings are both vertical and horizontal in format, resulting in the book folding out like a map in two directions. The postings go out onto the streets – and only (sometimes) come back to the studio. Each has embedded paper detritus that I’ve collected, and since these portions are unique finds, the grangerised pages vary between copies. Abriss is, in essence, a map – a referent of the physical spaces of my process I call “anamnesis” – the opposite of forgetting.

    Plate 19/0224. Robbin Ami Silverberg, Abriss. 2012-13. Artist’s book. Dobbin Books, NY, New York. Mixed media and materials. Photography: Mark Stanley Adams.

    Book arts in South Africa

    When I received the invitation to contribute this essay, I was honoured, pleased, and slightly horrified. I love the creative process of writing and regularly produce prose for my artists’ books and lectures for my teaching, but an article for an exhibition publication felt beyond my purview. Ultimately, my profound admiration for Jack Ginsberg prevailed.

    Jack’s commitment to both his collection and to the city he calls home has been pivotal in creating the synergy that has facilitated the development of book arts in South Africa. He has almost singlehandedly supported a range of book arts endeavours, including urging South African artists to explore this art form with wonderful results; purchasing artists’ books made by South African artists; distributing how-to books to anyone interested; hosting events in his library for an ever-growing audience [Plate 20]; co-curating or assisting others in artist’s book exhibitions; and, finally, managing the steps to make his artist’s book collection public.

    It is extraordinary that an artist’s book collection of this magnitude and breadth is the result of one man’s passions. It is not specious to say that there are few private collections in the world as fine as his [Plate 21]. Both his Ampersand Foundation and his artist’s book collection are astounding legacies.

    Plate 20. Jack Ginsberg, John Roome, Kim Berman, Anel and Willem Boshoff and others looking at artists’ books in the Jack Ginsberg Collection, Johannesburg. 1997. Photography: András Böröcz used with permission.

    So here’s to you, dear Jack: Thus affirmed as a polysemous object, the artist’s book certainly appears emblematic of our cross-cultural multinational “infra-ordinary” (Perec 1989:210) and exotic world we live in – both you and I – and which continues to challenge us from our parallax viewpoints, when Johannesburg meets New York City!

    I’ve often said that Jack is the “angel of South African art”.

    He is indeed.

    Plate 21. Jack with Claire Van Vliet at her book exhibition at the San Francisco Center for the Book, 2015. Photography: the author.

    End notes

    1 Granary Books is an independent small press in New York City, that publishes both artists’ books and works “at the intersection of word, image, and page”. (Granary Books website).

    2 The invitations came through Steven Sack and his group of curators in training at the 1st Johannesburg Biennale. They had been informed that I was travelling with András and would be available for talks and workshops on book arts. In addition, John Roome, who I’d already met through our mutual interest in papermaking, arranged activities in Durban.

    3 A braai is the Afrikaans word for barbeque and is a traditional part of South African cuisine. This event took place at the home of Johannesburg artist, Willem Boshoff, in the suburb of Kensington.

    4 Linda was the late son of the late Durant Sihlali and an aspiring artist in his own right.

    5 The Technikon Witwatersrand in Doornfontein became the Fine Art Department in the University of Johannesburg in 2005.

    6 Artist Proof Studio was co-founded in 1991 by Kim Berman and the late Nhlanhla Xaba as a collaborative printmaking studio that is committed to education, community-based programmes and fine arts.

    7 Participants were: Pepe Abela (1926-2013) South Africa, Deborah Bell (b. 1957) South Africa, Kim Berman (b. 1960) South Africa, András Böröcz (b. 1956) Hungary, Keith Dietrich (b. 1950) South Africa, Gordon Gabashane (b. 1949) South Africa, Carol Hofmeyr (b. 1950) South Africa, Basil Jones (b. 1951) South Africa, William Kentridge (b. 1955) South Africa, David Koloane (b. 1938) South Africa, Atta Kwami (b. 1956) Ghana, Moleleki Frank Ledimo (b. 1962) South Africa, Simon Mthimkhulu (b. 1967) South Africa, Sam Nhlengethwa (b. 1955) South Africa, John Roome (b. 1951) South Africa, Ruth Sack (b. 1947) South Africa, Mmakgabo Mmapula Sebidi (b. 1943) South Africa, Robbin Ami Silverberg (b. 1958), United States of America, Simon Stone (b. 1952) South Africa, Grace Tshikhuve (b.1965) South Africa, Diane Victor (b. 1964) South Africa, and Nhlanhla Xaba (1960-2003) South Africa.

    8 A variant of the Surrealist chance-based parlour game, played with words or images in the 1920s.

    9 Participants for this project were Kim Berman (b. 1960), András Böröcz (b.1956), Paul Emmanuel (b.1969), Terence Fenn (b.1975), Robert Hodgins (1920-2010), Osiah Masekoameng (1965-2009), Nhlanhla Mbatha (1966-2006), Paul Molete (b. 1970), Simon Mthimjhulu (b. 1967), Usha Seejarim (nee Prajapat) (b. 1974), John Roome (b.1951), Mmakgabo Mmapula Sebidi (b.1943), Durant Sihlali (1934-2004), and Diane Victor (b. 1964).

    10 The story was originally published in 1837.

    11 Colin Richards wrote in his article Humanism, History and Allegory in the Art of Durant Sihlali (1939-2004) in African Arts, Spring 2006:60: “Sihlali is central to a founding generation of black South African modernists”. Sihlali was born in 1935 and died in 2004.

    12 The Staircase of Death, Todessteige, is the name for the 186 steps built by prisoners in the Wiener Graben, the granite quarry in the Second World War labour camp, Mauthausen, in Lower Austria.

    13 Artists’ Press Studio in White River, in the province of Mpumalanga is a limited edition lithography studio that collaborates with artists.

    14 I found this ritual most perplexing, when we visited Hindu temples in 1997. As such I used one image as a wrapper for the book block in Clew, as personal counterpoint: a photograph of my husband’s arms, bound in thread!

    15 How the artist moves the reader/viewer through the book along with the pacing of that activity.


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