New ways of dreaming with iwalewabooks

iwalewabooks is a publishing house, art consultancy and online space characterised by the Yoruba dictum iwa lewa, or “character is beauty” in English. Started in 2018, the publishing house is dedicated to aesthetic social discourses, the politics of curation, collecting and debates about archives, as well as exploring varying artistic and academic positions from the Global South.

The house’s work is strongly rooted in collectivity and “each book is a unique aesthetic experience”, says Katharina Fink, who heads up publishing and editing at iwalewabooks in Bayreuth, Germany.

“iwalewabooks is our way of realising our desire for books that are both aesthetically and intellectually outstanding. Both of us [Fink and cofounder Nadine Siegert] come from the field of curation and academic work, and we were both often appalled by the politics of publishing in these fields, whether concerning design, rights or accessibility,” Fink says. “Finding ethical ways to collaborate as practitioners around the globe, with fair contracts, with beautiful bonds and with new ways of dreaming and working together, is very important for us — and a constant learning and unlearning,” 

These mechanisms were not in place when iwalewabooks was started — other than at a handful of publishers globally — and the founders’ move to independent work came from their desire to reimagine the arts publishing space. “It’s beautiful and important to do what you want to do, without compromises. We believe that this raises the quality — aesthetically, discursively, ethically,” Fink says.

iwalewabooks presents a variety of books, zines and other publications about art and discourse, with a focus on theories such as hauntology, and the current restitution debate surrounding museums. 

“Most of our books are carried by an attempt to decolonise discourse and aesthetics but also to rethink concepts such as the ‘Global South’. We work with authors and artists from different African countries such as Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria and South Africa but also Brazil, and in different languages such as Arabic, French and Portuguese. Our books are high quality aesthetic products with a lot of attention given to details such as paper, typography and material,” Fink says.

iwalelabooks’ praxis transcends the confines of a traditional publishing house — its work includes partnering with Global South artists, such as Rai Gandra, Emeka Alams, Yassine Balbzioui and Ndidi Diketo, and selling high-quality prints and graphic work, as well as offering an art consultancy.

Yassine Balbzioui’s exhibition and book project Identity to Rent. (iwalewabooks)

The consultancy work is based on the house’s expansive network, which encompasses artists, cultural practitioners and academics from South Africa, Brazil, Angola, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Turkey and Germany.

“Since we worked with a number of contemporary artists based on the African continent for many years in the context of curatorial projects as well as in academic research projects about African modernisms, we have a wide range of contacts in the art world, as well as academic networks,” notes Fink. “We have a broad expertise in the conceptualisation and in curating of exhibitions and art events (both analogue and digital) that  provide space for discursive engagements. Our foci are African modernisms, feminist and queer arts and contemporary positions in literature and fine art.”

Arts consultancy services offered include developing exhibition concepts and sharing contacts from the iwalelabooks network. “We also support in curating and moderating events in a number of languages, and organise translations of exhibition texts, such as in Yoruba, Igbo, Zulu, Kinyarwanda, Portuguese, French, German, Shona, Sepedi, Oshivambo, Arabic, Turkish, German Sign Language, Swahili and others,” Fink says.

“A recent project was an exhibition and book project with Marrakech-based artist Yassine Balbzioui, both encompassing his wide oeuvre ranging from painting, sculpture and graphic works to tapestry and porcelain. We are also engaged in a number of archival projects that lead to publications, such as in a co-operation with Asele Institute in Nigeria, which hosts the legacy of the great Nigerian modernist Uche Okeke, or ongoing cooperations with the Centre for Black Culture and International Understanding in Osogbo (Nigeria), with whom we published about the post-independence cultural club Mbari,” Fink notes. 

“In South Africa, we are currently working with Visual Identities in Art and Design, based at the University of Johannesburg, on two book publications, as well as with Kim Gurney and the Association for Visual Arts Gallery in Cape Town.”

The team is spread across continents, with hubs in Lagos, Johannesburg and Bayreuth. “At the moment, we are nomadic by choice, and operate between the continents,” Fink says.

The name “iwalewabooks” not only expresses the organisation’s guiding philosophical and aesthetic principle, but hints at this transcontinental movement of ideas and people.

The Strategic Radicals Manifesto. (iwalewabooks)

“We called our publishing house iwalewabooks for several reasons. One was, because we worked at a German institution called Iwalewahaus at that time, which is dedicated to Yorùbá arts and culture, as well as other things. Since this is the place where we met and worked together for many years, it seemed right to also work with this name for our publishing house,” Fink says. “Being connected to Yorùbá knowledge in such a way supports us but also challenges us every day to meet these requirements.” 

As a first-time exhibitor at FNB Art Joburg, iwalewabooks hopes to titillate art-goers with its works about pleasure — its theme for this year’s art fair.

“We present our works centring pleasure in the everyday — an act of resistance in a world often deprived of sensuality. As Raí Gandra puts it in the book bixinho: ‘Yes, we are fighters, but if our art, our bodies can be weapons we choose to fight side by side the ones who love, staying strong, staying together. And our bodies become resistance, beyond any and every art. In the midst of chaos, hope resists’,” Fink quotes. 

At iwalewabooks’ pop-up at Radisson Red Johannesburg Rosebank, FNB Art Joburg audiences should keep a look out for its presentation of 11 books and one tape, alongside its showcase of Johannesburg-based multimedia artist Goldendean, who will be presenting new work, and Raí Gandra, a Brazilian visual artist who is presenting his work RILF: Revolutionaries I’d Like to Fuck

“We also present our most recent publication, the anthology We are f*****g here! An African Queer Collection on Safer Sex, Sexuality and Gender, realised together with Gala Queer Archives and Hola Africa!, which brings together issues of sexuality, pleasure and safety. Various contributors share their knowledges and experiences and affirm: ‘We are. We are f*****g. And we are here.’ It’s a book of essays, photography, musings and understandings that brings together African queer experiences in one deliciously diverse volume,” Fink says.

As well as iwalewabooks’ pop-up during FNB Art Joburg, you can find its work online or with its partner bookshops. In Jo’burg these are Commune Bookshop, Bridge Books and Love Books. Black Ark, its distribution partner, ensures iwalewabooks’ work is also represented at relevant festivals and pop-ups across the globe.

“And yes, one day we might have a space — with a gallery, a big dinner table and a good bookshop,” Fink  concludes.

The FNB Art Joburg Open City Programme runs from 28 to 31 October 2021. The new Radisson Red Johannesburg Rosebank will be home to Open City’s gallery pop-ups as well as the Art Books + Prints pop-up. The pop-up will showcase art literature and art prints exhibitors such as Artist Proof Studio, iwalewabooks, Clarke’s Bookshop and Artthrob.

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Youlendree Appasamy
Youlendree Appasamy
Youlendree Appasamy is a freelance writer and journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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