Early in September 2016, students at Howard College, on the Durban campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, after two weeks of angry protest about the demand for university fees to be abolished in South Africa, set fire to the college’s law libraries.1 Books, journals, everything. In the wake of widespread condemnation for this action in the broader political and educational spheres, one cannot help but consider the implications of this extremely violent gesture, not only for the state of education in this country, but also for the culture of the book itself. The book remains the kernel of an understanding of values that can be damaged and pummelled, sheltered and treasured, burnt and salvaged as a means of reflecting on who we are, as a society.
In 1823, the German Romantic poet and essayist Heinrich Heine said that where books are burned, eventually human beings will be. This was a reflection on the way in which the milieu he occupied was fraught with irreconcilable differences between Jewish and German identity in a potently anti-Semitic society. And his words were to prove prophetic, when just over 100 years later, in 1933, his writings were among the other works of literature and art burnt by the Nazis, less than a decade before the European Holocaust, where millions of living people and human bodies were, indeed, incinerated.
The city of Timbuktu in the west African country of Mali is renowned for its ancient collections of precious handmade manuscripts and has also, over the years, been the focus of much debate, given the rise of radical forms of Islam and the danger under which such an institution comes. In so many ways, the handmade book is arguably a cipher to the very core of what makes us human.
Joshua Hammer, a seasoned journalist and contributing editor to Smithsonian, in his important recent publication The Bad-Ass librarians of Timbuktu and their race to save the world’s most precious manuscripts (2016) offers an intensely readable reflection on the remarkable trajectory of the world’s biggest collection of handmade books, from 1509 which began under the wide-eyed enthusiasm of a 16-year-old Hassan Mohammed Al Wazzan Al Zayati who arrived in Timbuktu after the expulsion of the Moors from Spain. Timbuktu was at that time considered to have an important international reputation for academic scholarship.
Beginning his career in the markets of Timbuktu, Al Zayati quickly realised that the sale of manuscripts was far more profitable than that of other goods. While he established himself as a travel writer in later years, he never lost his enthusiasm for the beauty of the manuscripts and the massive collection he amassed over his life time was passed down – as it continued to grow – through the generations and centuries, eventually to Abdel Kader Haidara in the mid-20th century. Haidara was the youngest of twelve children, a mild-mannered historian who became the custodian of the collection. Hammer explains how Haidara organised the smuggling of all 350 000 volumes of this collection to safety when threats by Al Qaeda for the destruction of the culture were made.
Conversely, and leaping across geographies to a terrain where the life of books is less threatened politically, it was American modernist poet Ezra Pound who said a book should be a ball of light in one’s hand (Pound 1970:55). And Czech writer Franz Kafka who reckoned it should be a hurtful instrument, one that drums on our skulls, an axe to access the stuff beneath “the frozen sea within us” (Pawel 1984:158).2 Jews, Muslims and Christians recognise themselves, in various ways, as ‘peoples of the book’, and, through a torrid history of warfare, have sanctified their liturgical illustrations almost above all else.
The books that irrevocably are the root of this catalogue for the exhibition of Johannesburg collector Jack Ginsberg’s enormous and fascinating collection of artists’ books, are not only balls of light and strong axes, but they’re also the kind of books that Umberto Eco premised as irretrievably precious in his 1980 novel The Name of the Rose, and Orhan Pamuk glorified as a motive to murder in My Name is Red, a novel published 18 years later. Granted, they’re not liturgical books, but in their dignity and thought processes, in the challenge they pose to the discipline of making a book, they embrace that same level of preciousness. Unlike any other kind of visual art form, the artist’s book secretes its own secrets within its pages and interstices. Logically it can never be displayed entirety or in all its permutations at once. By its nature, it is something that must be contemplated. Time must be spent gazing at and engaging with its thinkings.
Big books and small, books that boast unusual binding and earth-shatteringly beautiful images, books capable of turning the world on their spiritual or political axes, books turned inside out, literally or conceptually, and books exploded by the notion of bookness that manifest in the ancient caves of Europe comprise just a tip of the iceberg of this extraordinary collection, which is important not only for the curious art lover, but for the book arts discipline internationally. And, in reflecting on the preciousness of these tomes, anti-tomes and un-tomes, a candid glance at the collector of these books, offers a rich perspective.
Jack Ginsberg is not the son of an empire. His name is not synonymous with untellable wealth. By profession, he is an accountant. His passion for art and artists’ books has enabled him to become a giant in his own time, and the collection that he has grown, for close to 50 years, has guided him in acquiring astutely – and in advising institutions and corporate businesses on how to allocate money to the arts in South Africa.
It was a passion of his that took him all over the world and features some immensely rare and important works that are unique in all the world and celebrate the best of the best in modernist practice, post-modernist thinking and the sense of possibility in our contemporary technology-laden era.
The central piece in this collection is Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France [Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of Little Jehanne of France], an artist’s book created by Blaise Cendrars and Sonia Delaunay in 1913, effectively one of the first artworks to confront the issue of simultaneity in text, illustration and binding, and in dealing with the context of a poem. This significant piece not only forms the conceptual – and art historical – pivot on which this exhibition turns, but is the central spine to the first essay in this publication, which is written by David Paton, who is a senior lecturer at the University of Johannesburg.
David is not only a book artist in his own capacity, but he is also one of the curators of this exhibition, and his career trajectory boasts an association with Jack that reaches back to the early 1990s. David’s essay is rich with interpretative detail, splaying out as it does to embrace the whole exhibition under the iconography and in a sense, the wings, of Cendrars’s pages and poetry.
It leads to an essay by Keith Dietrich, who has just retired from the position of distinguished professor of fine arts at Stellenbosch University and director of the Centre of Comic, Illustrative and Book Arts in the same city. An award-winning artist and academic, Keith is also a highly respected book artist. In his essay in this book, he explores the work and thinking of Czech-born, Brazil educated philosopher Vilém Flusser in conversation with that of WJT Mitchell, the Gaylord Donnelley Distinguished Service Professor in English and Art History at the University of Chicago, and holds it up as a prism to the discipline of artists’ books, in terms of their design, thinking and reading methodologies.
Pippa Skotnes, a professor of fine arts at the University of Cape Town cut her proverbial teeth as an artist with printmaking which pointed to artists’ books and the sense of possibility they contain. She has crafted a beautiful contemplative piece for this publication, aligning the notion of the medieval cave as a book, an idea which grew out of her brush with the law over the copyright issues surrounding an artist’s book she had made. Is it a book? Is it an artwork? It was a challenge which presented itself to the National Library of South Africa in a legal dispute which went all the way to the Supreme Court in the early 1990s and which richly nurtured her own continued thinking about the discipline of book arts, fitting as it does into ancient liturgical practices as well as bleeding edge contemporary thought and yet shying away from the conventional understanding of art in a gallery.
A good friend of Jack’s as well as a respected book artist and papermaker in her own right is New York-based Robbin Ami Silverberg, who has written a thoughtful and detailed piece which contextualises the way in which Ginsberg has forged possibility in the conventional art world – through his Ampersand Foundation, of which Robbin is a trustee – as well as in the book arts. Indeed, Robbin’s essay contextualises a very important aspect of South African book arts history, which segues rather beautifully with an understanding of Jack’s seminal role in the trajectory of South African art in general. As Kim Berman, currently a professor of fine art at the University of Johannesburg and one of the cofounders of the Artist Proof Studio, based in Newtown, Johannesburg, writes in her forthcoming publication Finding Voice (2017), from the mid-1980s in South Africa, the country’s artists and intellectuals were intensely aware of a shifting energy in the state of things. In 1986 a State of Emergency had been declared by the government, and in that brief and torrid period between then and the formal collapsing of the bastion of apartheid in 1992, many deeply significant things happened that would shape South African society significantly: Politically and socially, these events were premised on Nelson Mandela’s3 release from prison in February of 1991.
From within the art world, initiatives such as Jack’s Ampersand Foundation and Kim’s Artist Proof Studio ,which she cofounded with the late Nhlanhla Xaba, were born. Arguably in the South African book arts field, these two formal initiatives, although not only boasting book arts credentials as they supported a wide variety of artists, serve as powerful incentives to legitimise the myriad of linked skills and specialisations associated with a strong book arts tradition. Robbin’s essay is an important pivot into this rich and heavily creative new beginning in South Africa.
Finally, the publication features a verbatim interview with Jack himself, conducted by Kim in collaboration with David, and with Rosalind Cleaver, a central colleague and long-time associate of the University of Johannesburg, who is also a book artist in her own capacity. Not only is this informative interview rich with the kind of personal anecdotes that make Jack, Jack, but it is also an important reflection on where the book arts are, at the moment, in South Africa, and where they can expect to be, going forward.
Editing this collection of material has been an immense and humbling privilege for me. Not only because I, too, have dabbled in the book arts since the early 1990s, and it has become a means of making art very close to my heart since I was introduced to the possibilities it engenders in printmaking and art making by my university teachers, the late Colin Richards, Alan Crump and Neels Coetzee, but also because of the great variety in language, tone and context of the five different components to this publication. While some of the texts are more academic in their focus and language, and others more anecdotal, I have endeavoured to retain the unique, individual voice of each of the writers.
Effectively, the Booknesses exhibition comes a full circle from 1991, in book arts traditions and collections, premised as it is on South African values and situations. How privileged the collaborators in this major initiative are to have been able to work again with Jack Ginsberg and David Paton.
1 At the time of writing this introduction, in ongoing student violence under the so-called Fallist movement, a fire was started also in the Wartenweiler Library – library of the humanities in the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg destroying about 100 books. There has been a variety of opinions voiced about these gestures of burning books – or buildings – some of which suggest that protesters in South Africa only get noticed or taken seriously when something important is burnt.
2 This was written by Kafka in a letter to his friend Oskar Pollak in 1904.
3 Nelson Mandela one of the most famous anti-apartheid activists in the world, was one of the co-accused at the Rivonia Trial in 1963. He was sentenced to jail on charges of treason and was incarcerated for a period of 27 years, after which time he was released and went on to become democratic South Africa’s first black President in 1994.