Master printer Legate has a pressing need to start a communal arts centre

Joe Legate assisted by Darlington Sifa at the Bag Factory studio in Fordsburg, Johannesburg. (Oupa Nkosi)

Joe Legate assisted by Darlington Sifa at the Bag Factory studio in Fordsburg, Johannesburg. (Oupa Nkosi)

Leshoka Joe Legate keeps a small, photocopied portrait of American-born master printer Robert Blackburn above his desk at the far end of his Bag Factory studio. Legate, the proprietor of Legate Lithography Editions (LL Editions) says he sees himself walking in the footsteps of this underappreciated great whose contribution to the art of printmaking was always overshadowed by the United States’s racial politics.

LL Editions is becoming Johannesburg’s mecca for artists seeking the artisanal magic and collaborative rigour of lithography. The studio’s website features an alphabetic roll call of editions for artists ranging from Asanda Kupa to Usha Seejarim.

On the press, Legate readies the mixed-media cityscape photographs of James Delaney for a corporate client, before putting the finishing touches to a large series of prints for Nelson Makamo, which will form part of an upcoming exhibition at the Turbine Art Fair in Newtown, Johannesburg, in July.

Delaney’s mixed-media photographs have been carefully thought out for corporate appeal. A series juxtaposes the neobaroque architecture of the old Standard Bank building on Commissioner Street as it appeared in the early 20th century with the same street as it appears today.

A particularly intriguing piece features an old photograph of the Statue of Liberty being assembled in a French sculpture house, along with a strip in the middle of a photograph of Lady Liberty, in colours echoing a dollar bill, in all her torch-wielding glory.

I watch Legate produce a series of these prints by hand, using an offset printed photographic plate as a base from which to superimpose Lady Liberty. It’s a laborious, delicate and technical practice with zero margin for error.

“It’s quite a process,” says Legate. “Nelson’s project [which consists of 12 prints, each with 10 editions] we started in January and we are just finished now.” The collaboration can be time consuming, Legate says, because “artists have a picture of what they want their image to look like and then, come the printing process, it doesn’t always come out like they planned”.

“It can also be frustrating for the printer in the sense that, if you’re not getting it right, then you feel you are failing the artist. It’s a push-and-pull process and the plan is usually to work it over a week, but sometimes it takes longer than that.”

Legate can take up to 30 minutes to mix a single colour, to get it to the exact tone the artist wants. “Sometimes an artist might want to use seven or eight colours and at other times they can mix photograph plates with hand-drawn plates.

“In the case of Delaney’s work, he could have easily done digital prints, but he wanted them hand-printed because the quality is different.” Legate’s editions rarely exceed 10 for each print. “Normally, artists decide on how big the edition should be based on the matrix. Sometimes our matrix can fall apart within 20 prints. So we try to keep the editions small so they can be consistent.”

To create the matrix, Legate’s collaborators can use three surfaces: ball grained aluminium plates, limestone or positive photo plates.

For Makamo’s prints, the line drawings were created on ball grained aluminium plates and his trademark splashes of colour were added on photo plates.

Legate is hoarding a collection of German limestones — perfect for holding details — for future use. He got these from Caversham Press founder Malcolm Christian. Legate draws a lot of inspiration from Christian’s model of turning the Caversham Press in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands into a community arts centre.

He says he will only consider himself successful once he has turned LL Editions’s lithographic successes into a concurrent institutional practice. Legate’s model is based on sharing the proceeds equally with the artist, after covering his production costs.

Raised in Polokwane, he got his start in art by drawing in high school and later progressing to the Johannesburg Art Foundation between 1999 and 2001. From there, he interned and later worked with Mark Atwood, a Tamarind Institute, New Mexico, alumnus who moved his studio operation from Johannesburg to White River. Legate was based at the University of New Mexico between 2004 and 2007, eventually attaining the prestigious level of master printer.

“Per year, they take four international students and four American students,” he says. “Then they select six students to go forward and, after that, they select two students to do the senior master programme.”

There is a focused air about Legate, and a sense that his practice is on the upswing. But with Blackburn hovering above his head at his corner desk, there is perhaps a sense that he will not be completely happy until he turns LL Editions into a more inclusive practice.

LL Editions will exhibit their lithography prints at the Turbine Art Fair from July 14 to 17

 
Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo studied journalism at Durban's ML Sultan Technikon before working at Independent Newspapers from 2000 to 2003. In 2005, he joined the Mail & Guardian's internship programme and later worked as a reporter at the paper between 2006 and 2008, before working as a researcher. He was the inaugural Eugene Saldanha Fellow in 2011. Read more from Kwanele Sosibo

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