Let us share/Masabelaneni: Book arts from Caversham Press at the JGCBA at Wits Art Museum  

Unpacking the title of this post! 

Currently showing at the Jack Ginsberg Centre for Book Arts (hence JGCBA) at Wits Art Museum (WAM) is a show of 66 items comprising the Book Arts Archive from the Caversham Press.  I have written before about Jack Ginsberg and his philanthropic role in the arts as well as describing what is meant by an artist’s book (ie a book made BY an artist, not a book ABOUT an artist). 

So what is the Caversham Press? 

The Caversham Press 

Malcolm Christian left academic life and in 1985, with his wife Ros, opened Caversham Press, an independent print studio in the midlands in KwaZuluNatal.  Malcolm’s ethos has always centred on collective projects and in this the Caversham Press succeeded admirably, establishing collaborations between artists, writers, printmakers and bookbinders.  In 2000 this principal of collaboration was given an added injection when a series of annual Residency Programmes were instituted under the auspices of The Caversham Centre for Artists and Writers.  The Centre closed in 2017 but the entire book arts archive, 66 items in all, was bought by Jack Ginsberg in 2023 and is now housed at the JCBAC at Wits. 

It is these 66 items (plus Andrew Verster’s Pages, already in Ginsberg’s collection, making 67 works) which are currently on show until mid December as an exhibition entitled Masabelaneni: The Book Arts Archive of the Caversham Press and Centre for Artists and Writers.    

Masabelaneni means Let us Share and that is what this exhibition encapsulates – shared experiences, collective projects, community development, multi-disciplinary skills, inter-disciplinary connections: image making, writing, bookbinding; crossing the “divide” between rural and urban, between professional “fine” artists and those informally trained.

Curating an exhibition 

This exhibition is beautifully and thoughtfully curated by Prof David Paton (Associate professor at University of Johannesburg and Senior Researcher at the JGCBA Wits Art Museum) and Dr Marion Arnold Honorary Fellow School of Social Sciences and Humanities Loughborough University, UK.   They have arranged the works into loose thematic groupings

  • Starting on your right as you enter the room with a single work The Cycad Collection: Volume 1 Natal Province (1993-1998).
  • On the short wall,to the immediate left of the entrance is E-pos, a bibliographic portfolio created with Veerle Rooms from Belgium, in which four visual artists each complete one part of the portfolio in co-operation with writers
  • On the long wall opposite the Cycad collection the majority of the archive is displayed including The Intimate Book also be Veerle Rooms; the Hourglass project: a Women’s Vision, a dialogue for the Millenium 1999 where 15 women artists produced 30 prints and a portrait book; Songs from the Earth (2009-2017) Mxolisi Nyezwa, Vusi Zwane and Simphiwe Cebekhulu;  amongst scores of works by individual makers 
  • On the short far end wall, books by individual artists are displayed. Hodgins’ Ubu, Limericks and Clerihews was one of the first print editions printed at Caversham in 1998 and Kentridge’s Ubu, Niles, Brutus was printed in 2017, the year Caversham closed.  A significant bracketing of the start and end of the extraordinary collaborative space of the Caversham Press.

Dramatically but also sensitively curated, The Cycad Collection takes up one wall. Paton has enlarged the cover of the bound volume as wallpaper to cover the entire back wall.
This extraordinarily ambitious “Cycad” project was originally intended to comprise 5 volumes in an edition of 100. Only some 25 of volume 1 have been completed over a period of 5 years, as the letterpress process for printing is challenging, and each image is hand-coloured.  With several editions there are mutiple images, but because of the handmaking process, there are always subtle differences. The small variations in the hand-colouring are fascinating to see. Make sure to ask the gallery curator to show you the different versions (some of which are located in drawers).
Paton has curated the works on this wall with not only a conscious acknowledgement of the predominance of black and white in the images,  but has emphasized the monochrome contrasts in the magnified backdrop against the wall.  The folds of the leporello (or concertina books) in the top cabinets jut back and forth in jagged zig-zag angles, giving a staccato syncopated visual rhythm.

Songs from the Earth (2009-2017) Mxolisi Nyezwa, Vusi Zwane and Simphiwe Cebekhulu

In 2008 the manager of the Caversham Programmes, Gabasile Nkosi, was tragically murdered. A year later, while on a residency at the Centre for the Artists and Writers,  Mxolisi Nyeza wrote 9 poems  about her murder. It was many years before Vusi Zwane and Simphiwe Chebekuku made the visual images which function not as illustrations of the poems but as “equivaelnces”. (Paton Masabelaneni catalogue page 13) . The printing and binding of this publication was to be one of Malcolm’s last Caversham undertakings.

During a walkabout of the exhibition with Arnold and Paton, we stop and hear about certain books in more detail.  One of these is Songs from the Earth. David takes the book out of the cabinet, handling it with gentle reverence. He begins to unfold the different parts, peel back the texts, open pockets,  extend layers. He talks about Malcolm’s training as a sculptor and how the book as conceived by Malcolm, becomes a sculptural set of ideas, an object to be felt, held, caressed.  He talks poetically about “the generosity of a book which asks you to explore more …. ‘and’ “. It is this combination of passion and criticality which makes his curatorial approach so powerful as well as his writing in the catalogue so thought-provoking. 

Songs of Earth with covers: pages opened, flaps peeled back, concertina images revealed – all set out like a mini sculptural installation
And slowly gently and carefully the pages get folded in on themselves and the images and text get swallowed in the protective covering. Finally David ties the string around the binding box in ritualistic closure.  A subtle murmur and gentle sigh of emotion resonates quietly from us all as we marvel at the craftsmanship, pathos and collaborative creativity of this memorial object.

The Intimate Book 2002

Before the 2003 collaboration of E-Pos with Veerle Rooms in Belgium, Caversham Press collaborated on a smaller project, The Intimate Book.   

De Vaert by Veerle Rooms.  Digital printing, intaglio with chine collé.  With the actual book at 13.5 X 16.2cm, this small book asks us to engage with the  scale in a such way that our bodily interaction plays out the theme of intimacy and close looking.

 The accompanying catalogue 

The 2 curators fittingly write the first 2 chapters of the catalogue which accompanies the work.  “An Introduction to the Archive, Its History and its Scope The history of Caversham Press ” by Prof David Paton, outlines the history of this remarkable print studio, its output and its impact on printmaking locally and internationally.  Prof David Paton writes (page 14 of the catalogue):  “These publications [from Caversham] are a remarkable commitment to giving voice consistently to local South Africans as well as making the fine arts of printmaking, binding and production visible. ” There are 20 photographs (pages 6 & 7; 44 & 45 ) which show some of the people involved in cultural exchanges and outreach programmes.

Dr Marion Arnold in “Artists Books: Culture and Narrative Drawing”, writes a dense but incisive essay (pages 18-27) about text and image and their relationship. She opens with an intriguing quote from the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein: “What can be shown, cannot be said” teased out with a reference to these 2 aspects of representation by the cultural theorist, Raymond Williams: the “seeable and the sayable” (visual representation and verbal commentary). She applies these concepts when she writes at length about Ingrid Winterbach’s book Exile 2001 exhibited on the end wall, along with other individual artist’s books.  

Marion Arnold demonstrates the layerings and different visual and verbal languages used by Winterbach in Exile

Arnold describes the way the book is constructed with images and text; as well as the content of the book – referencing Saartjie Baartman, although Winterbach never mentions her name rather always referring to her as “She”. Arnold deconstructs Winterbach’s  book within the context of complex contemporary culture theory: visual/verbal narrative or the concept of ‘imagetext’ (WJT Mitchel); translation theory (Venuti); narrative modes (John Berger); maps as signifiers of power and control; linguistic theory with language as an intrinsic marker of identity. This essay by Arnold, along with the other 3 essays, demonstrate the value of this catalogue as an addition to the archive on artists’ books and collaborative work; as well as providing an important record of the complete production of artists’ book made at Caversham Press between 1993 and 2017. 

Bronwyn-Law Viljoen’s chapter (pages 38-43)  focuses on a critical analysis of 4 “imagetext” books on exhibition: 

  • The Father the Son and the Gift of Noble Silence 2007 by Lynnwood B. Jenkins is dedicated to the memory of the artist’s father
  • Anatomy 2008 by Kobus Moolman and Witty Nyide assisted by Gabasile Nkosi deals with disability and limitations of the body 
  • Justice 2009 by Amy West speaks to notions of justice and the memory of Gabisile Nkosi’s death
  • Walking the Earth 2o09 by Mxolisi Nyezwa and Bongusama Hlongwa conveys ideas about life and existence in New Brighton, Gqeberha 

She concludes: “…while these four delicately made artists’ books represent, on the face of it, private rituals of grief and mourning, they bring private loss into the space of communal grieving” (p 41) 

Vonjani Bila ‘s chapter entitled “Caversham Centre: a catalyst for creative writing and engagement with writers and visual artists”, gives a fascinating and valuable autobiographical input. He writes about his first residency in 2005; some of the artists with whom he interacted (Lionel Davis, Peter Clarke, and Ayodele Heath, an American interactive performance artist); and his collaborative involvement in the E-Pos project as a delegate to Belgium. He concludes by quoting Malcolm (in conversation with Elza Miles) page 36:

Our lives start with raw materials of self-interest, but as we journey comes the realisation that it is only through sharing, becoming the spade in others’ hands, a collaborator, that the benefits of knowledge and resources are transformed into a source of continuity and affirmation of the human spirit. It is this that provides us with courage to embrace change and build in hope. 

This seems a fitting conclusion to this blog post about the Masabelaneni exhibition and its  recording of Caversham Press’s archive of printmaking in South Africa; as well as the fully illustrated catalogue as an invaluable addition to the academic field and as a toolkit for future researchers. 

DO not miss the exhibition which runs until mid December. You need to go the main reception desk at WAM 011 717 1365 (Closed Sunday and Monday) and they will direct you to the JGCBA on the 2nd floor. Curator David Paton is there on Thursday,  011 559 1118 or 011 559 1117. Or otherwise speak to the curator of the Centre, Ros Cleaver 011-717-1448 and 011-717-1455.  
The catalogue can be purchased at the exhibition for R400. 

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