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Desecrating books for art and literacy

It is hardly an unusual occurrence to find lengthy queues running along Cape Town’s Harrington Street, although the crowd amassing in the late afternoon of Thursday, 12 November was noticeably different to the usual throng of Assembly-goers. Instead, this gathering encompassed a more art-inclined demographic, eagerly awaiting the Nando’s Broken Monsters Charity Art Exhibition. 

The exhibition won’t open for another half hour, but the line is already snaking around the block. It is clearly still fresh in everyone’s memory that the previous charity exhibition in 2013 sold out in 20 minutes flat. 

A staunchly democratic affair, there is no secret VIP preview and artworks are sold on a strictly “first come, first served” basis with a limit of one per person. Those in line are waiting for the chance to purchase an original artwork by artists such as Brett Murray, Conrad Botes, Kilmany-Jo Liversage, Liza Grobler, Roger Ballen and more than 130 other well-known and emerging local artists for the paltry sum of R1 500. 

Some of the artworks on sale at the Broken Monsters Charity Art Exhibition. (Supplied)

All proceeds from sales are directed to the children’s literacy NGO Book Dash, with each sale covering the printing and distribution of 150 books aimed at children who are usually denied the privilege of owning their own books. The exhibition is a collaboration between award-winning South African author Lauren Beukes and curator Jacki Lang and has been fully sponsored by Nando’s this time around. Over 300 artworks were received and split between two exhibitions in Cape Town and Johannesburg.

Facilitated by Lang, participating artists were sent one or more pages torn from a copy of Beukes’ most recent novel, Broken Monsters, using these however they saw fit to produce artworks. As can be expected, there were a diverse range of results. Some chose to stick to their established visual vocabulary, others responded to themes in the book (such as doors between physical and imagined reality, social media simulacra and bodily violence), while a few opted to work with the text printed on the pages which they received.

Reflecting on this cycle of inspiration and interpretation between her text and the artists, Beukes observes that “It’s very humbling to have people engage with your work like this and put in such time, effort and generosity for a really great cause.” She adds, “The idea of collaboration ties into the themes of the exhibition. The whole point of reading is that it is a kind of telepathy and you bring your own experience, vision and your own perspective”.

Artwork made from the pages of Lauren Beukes’ book Broken Monsters. (Supplied)

Beukes has arranged fundraising initiatives for all of her books, linking the recipient charities to the content of each book. For instance, her previous novel The Shining Girls centred on a time-travelling serial killer who targets girls. The accompanying fundraising exhibition (which set the template for the current one and was also curated by Lang) raised R100 000 for Rape Crisis. A central theme of Broken Monsters is “the power of story-telling and the ways in which stories allow you to be more than you are” (as Beukes puts it) and it was decided that a children’s literacy charity should be the beneficiary, settling upon Book Dash.

Book Dash’s co-founder Michelle Matthews concurs that the two were a perfect fit. “The metaphor of opening doors to other worlds is a strong theme and we aligned that with the ideas of literacy and imagination. We want to reduce the friction in getting books to children so that they can feel that the books are theirs and can reach those first steps of feeling comfortable with information and applying their imaginations”.

6pm strikes and the doors are opened as excited viewers flood into the space to locate their artwork. Held in a vacant shop, this year’s version affords more room to move around than the narrow Cape Town School of Photography space which housed the Shining Girls exhibition. What follows is a bit of a frenzy –albeit an extremely civil one – as works are quickly snatched up. The constraint of being limited to a single piece from a rapidly diminishing pool adds a sense of high stakes pressure to proceedings; hesitate and your work is gone.  Of course this is all part of the fun. 

Of the 150 artworks on display, 120 were sold on opening night. The remainder found homes sporadically over the next few days. In total, the Cape Town exhibition raised sufficient funds to cover 21 000 children’s books. The Johannesburg incarnation, taking place on Thursday, 26 November at the Nando’s Central Kitchen in Lorentzville, will hopefully double this.

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