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.