Why South African art books matter
If ever there was an argument for why the African book should survive in the digital era, Fourthwall Books’ Hââbré, The Last Generation would be its winning response.
In hundreds of pages, each of them the perfect thickness and gloss, and oozing the kind of colours that our screen-fatigued eyes are so hungry for, we experience the sort of storytelling that is impossible to create anywhere but in the medium of a book.
The startling images, taken by photographer Joana Choumali, reveal a story of scarification in west Africa that contrasts the history of this centuries-old practice with what it means for those people who wear the scars on their faces each day.
Though the rhythm changes, the first page of the series is of an enlarged quote that comes directly from the person being photographed, followed by an image of the person from behind – their face hidden – and then a portrait of the subject facing the camera.
Holding the book now, I am allowed to look at them at my own pace, in my own home, guided by the photographer’s lens, and the book designer’s framing, and accompanied by the quote of the sitter. I see them from the back, unscarred, and then become aware of how I see them differently once they turn around.
“We all have the same pattern on the face in my family,” says Christine Sawadogo, a 32-year-old from Burkina Faso. “I don’t like my scars. I sell at the market and people make fun of me – they insult me because I have scarification on my face. I don’t answer them, but it hurts. I have two children, and I would never do such a thing to my children.”
I have always imagined that tribal markings bring the wearers pride and, for some, they do, but many resent the damage done to their faces – often without their permission.
As I read more of their stories, I can feel the weight of knowing that these people in Choumali’s photographs may be the last people in Abidjan to wear these ritual facial markings – a very real, tangible feeling.
Hââbré is the sort of antidote to those anthropological documents of the past that the complicated subject of scarification demands, and a more private experience than a museum curator could create. It was the joint winner of the first Fourthwall Books Photobook Award for African photographers last year, alongside Limpopo-born George Mahashe’s Gae Lebowa series.
This week, Fourthwall Books’ co-director and founder Bronwyn Law-Viljoen told me: “We started this African photo book prize because there are great bodies of work by African photographers that would make excellent photo books, but they can’t get made because there’s no money in photo books for most publishers, or because the photographers are not well known outside of their own immediate context.
“A photo book award aimed at the continent and published in South Africa has its challenges, and is not necessarily ideal, but perhaps it’s a start – one way to draw attention to photographers working here. We should be looking for ways to collaborate across borders to make interesting books because, really, the best people to conceptualise books about a place are usually the people who live and work in that place,” she says.
“This year’s winner of the award is Rahima Gambo, who has made extraordinary work about the education of girls in northern Nigeria. We hope to have her photo book out by September.”
Fourthwall releases a small selection of carefully researched, designed and constructed books each year, but the market is small.
Partly, Law-Viljoen says, this is because they are expensive objects – about R700 each. But I also think there exists a perception of coffee table books, that are decorative objects, more than art experiences of their own.
I ask Law-Viljoen how she feels about the term ‘coffee table book’:
“Well, I think of a coffee table book as something glossy that is filled with wildlife photography or pictures of trees. It’s big and heavy and has a shiny dust jacket.”
But what Fourthwall does is different, she says. “We’ve done several photo books and no two of them look alike. Several are smallish and soft covered, like the ones in the Wake Up, This is Joburg series.
A couple, like the two made for the Fourthwall Books Photobook Award, have monochrome linen covers and typographical titles.
One rather unconventional one is square and looks like a calendar, and another has four pull-out posters and a booklet of dense text in English and isiXhosa about the platinum mining industry.
“The most interesting ones are those in which the text rises to meet the image on equal terms. Lisa King’s book, Sometimes I Make Money One Day of the Week, is a good example of this.
Sean Christie’s serious, funny and illuminating essay on the Zimbabwe Stock Exchange grows out of Lisa King’s unusual and quirky visual study of the room in which the brokers of the exchange traded before it was digitised.
There’s a lovely relationship here between image and text, which is quite rare for a photo book – and it’s the quality I look for when we are doing these kinds of projects,” she says.
“For me, a photo book is a book in which the images drive the ‘narrative’. They are not illustrations illuminating an essay. They are the reason that the book has come into existence.”
Visit the Fourthwall Books shop in Parkview, Joburg, and head to fourthwallbooks.com to check out