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Five Powerful Examples of Contemporary Independent Publishing from Africa

The organizers of the new AFROPHON’ book fair are questioning the politics of the book

For the organizers of Afrophon’, a recent art book fair in LUMA Arles, France centering contemporary independent publishing from the African continent, there’s a significant lack of knowledge, acknowledgement, and access to African art books in the West. In 2018, the project’s guest curator Gee Wesley, came together with friends who run Ulises — an artspace in Philadelphia — to think more concretely about how to bring attention to this often overlooked world of artistic production. Drawing inspiration from existing gatherings like the African Art Book Fair, which was held at the Dakar Biennale and was organized by Pascale Obolo (the founder of AFRIKAADA), it became clear that a book fair would be the perfect format for providing access and visibility. 

Africa is arguably one of the most culturally and socially diverse continents in the world, with thousands of living languages and thousands of distinct ethnic groups. However, when Africa is geopolitically referred to, the vast continent often gets classified in the terms used by euro-cetric Anglophone, Francophone nations. To counter this, the organizers of AFROPHON’ were wondering about this when first putting together their art book fair, asking themselves: “What does it mean for a fair or a project to be Afrophon?” 

The word “Afrophon’” is a portmanteau made of ‘Afrophone (African speech)” and “Colophon,” the area in a publication where publishing credits live — evoking a nimble, dual association of African voice and speech, as well as a nod to the creative labor of independent publishing. This moniker for the project, importantly, was imagined so that it could function nimbly between multiple languages.

The main goal of the fair, according to Wesley, was to “to dedicate greater visibility, dialogue, and distribution to publishers who happen to be from the African continent and who represent some of the most important publishing activity going on today” — also noting that unexpectedly, the majority of the publishers involved were women. Participants included publishers ranging from artists making robust 200 page, monographic, and intensely researched tomes to a two year old riso studio from Cape Town. Along with the fair there was an accompanying Reading Room, which continues to remain open till the end of summer, and which includes several post-independence African publications and magazines such as Black Orpheus. 

The format of book fairs “question the governing assumption that one must turn what is impermanent into what is permanent in order for it to gain value and be admitted as a kind of valid form of culture knowledge record, for it to have political efficacy,” said Wesley. Ultimately, he hopes to “continue this thread of hospitality and have those who are invited to the initial round to invite someone else and receive that level of decentralized curatorial agency — and have the book fair grow in the future.”  

With its ruminative approach, AFROPHON’ is “challenging and redefining independent art publishing in a way that was fundamentally different, by asking questions about the politics of the book and the politics of publishing,” said Wesley. “Since publishing ought to and does mean something fundamentally different to populations in which the book has been a tool of colonization or populations in which access to publications and literacy has been policed.”

Below, Gee Wesley generously shares five publications from the fair that reflect the spirit of AFROPHON’ and what independent publishing looks like in Africa today.

1
Ukuzilanda

by Lunga Ntila, published by DREAM PRESS

DREAM PRESS is an independent publishing studio in Cape Town. Ukuzilanda is a really beautiful and evocative collaboration between Candice from DREAM PRESS and the artist Lunga Ntila. I think it’s a great example of the types of exploratory and vibrant publishing that they do. So much of their work varies incredibly and pushes the medium of risograph printing.”

2
Archives & Crimes

by Iman Mersal (translated by Robin Moger), published by Kayfa ta كيف تـ

“Founded in 2012 by Maha Maamoun and Ala Younis, Kayfa ta have a history of publishing these how-to manuals — but with very poetic prompts like: ‘how to disappear’ or  ‘how to love a homeland.’ But not Archives & Crimes and Panorama, two from their latest series. I think these came out basically the week before the fair began. Maha and Ala told me that they got printed last Saturday. Anyway, Archives & Crimes is really interesting because it turns research and an archive into a kind of page turning crime novel. Kind of an archive-literature-novel hybrid. I brought back two with me and one of my coworkers got obsessed with it so I gave one away.”

3
After Memory

by various contributors, published by Locale

“I was thinking recently about this new publication called After Memory by the art collective Locale. They’re amazing. This group of four young women from Sudan collaborated together and created this really brilliant publishing project. The group’s members think a lot about the specificity of their context — one of them is a book designer, one of them is a journalist, another an artist, and then a writer. They do a lot of bilingual publications, and this one is bilingual as well. It thinks about the Sudanese archive. It has a number of essays contributed from researchers or practitioners in various fields. Essays range from considering the mixtape as an archive, to various food recipes and poetry. So it’s really amazing, and a gorgeous publication.”

4
Summer Flowers

by Ilze Wolff (Wolf Architects) and Kemang Wa Lehulere, published by pumflet

Summer Flowers is an zine about the role of gardening, agriculture, architecture, and plant life in the work of novelist and thinker Bessie Head. Bessie was an important touchstone for Ilze Wolff, one of the founders of the Cape Town-based publisher pumflet. It is full of archival images that show floral prints of Head’s dresses alongside scanned pressings of the plant life from her garden. This example is more Xerox, handwriting, and scanner driven than the others. It was also commissioned by the Chicago Architectural Biennale and was shown there.” 

5
Some Writers Can Give You Two Heartbeats

by various contributors, published by Black Chalk & Co.

Black Chalk & Co. is the publishing project of Nontsikelelo Mutiti and Tinashe Mushakavanhu. They were really interested in this pattern in which Zimbabwean writers are written about mostly by white literary scholars — Zimbabwean writers themselves seldom had the opportunity. The way these writers’ work was circulated wasn’t through their own publishing. Black Chalk & Co. were kind of trying to create this open format platform in which they could bring together writings, excerpts, and anecdotes from various interviews and sources about Zimbabwean writers into a shared space. It’s become an inventory of a range of Zimbabwean writers who were really pivotal but often under-recognized in some cases. Visually, it is also such a stunning publication.”

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