07 September 2011 by Dianne Tipping-Woods

Every week should be national book week

It’s National Book Week in South Africa so it was fitting that this week, I came across a really special South African book, Irma Stern’s limited edition, illustrated travel journal, “Congo”. It is one of only about 250 copies published in 1943, each one hand bound in raffia Stern bought from the Congo.

This particular edition was a gift from art dealer Warren Seibrits to Mike Frampton, artist, entrepreneur, former ad agency director and publishing pioneer, who now runs, among other things, the Chalkham Hill Gallery in Hoedspruit.

When I asked Mike about the book, he found it and let me have a look. It’s a gorgeous example of its time, with a delightfully obscure type-face, loose illustrations and a modesty that belies its importance.

Stern’s books, and indeed older books by a number of South African artists, are increasingly sought-after. Collectors buy them to complement their art collections. The auction results back this up. A copy of Esmé Berman’s Art &  Artists of South Africa (1970) reportedly fetched R6300 at a Sotheby’s auction. Other reference books benefiting from this trend include works like The Dictionary of South African Painters and Sculptors (1988) by Grania Ogilvie, as well as reference publications and books on other early twentieth century South African Masters like JH Pierneef.  Apparently, even catalogues of important exhibitions can become valuable. Mr. Siebrits himself has a list of his favorite ‘obscure’ texts relating to modern and contemporay South African art history.

There are a number of specialist book stores in South Africa that cater to this market, such as Collectors Treasury, in Johannesburg, Quagga Art and Clarkes, amongst others. That said, it’s not easy to anticipate how this market will develop.  Signatures or inscriptions, can enhance a book’s value, but for me, it’s still about what’s in the book.

This short quote from Stern’s Congo journal show how the artist responded to the new environment she found herself in. “The Congo has always been for me the symbol of Africa, the very heart of Africa. The sound “Congo” makes my blood dance, with the thrill of excitement; it sounds to me like distant native drums and a heavy tropical river flowing, its water gurgling in mystic depths.”

Her writing, in “Congo”, “Zanzibar” and even in her published letters, is richly evocative and adds considerable insight into Stern as a person and an artist.

And this is the beauty of books. They expose us to a variety of life situations. They give us new ways of seeing the world, take us to new places in the world and show us the world at different times, through different eyes. They allow us to reflect on our own lives and re-imagine them.  In light of this, National Book Week aims to encourage citizens to view reading as a fun and pleasurable activity. It also aims to address some of the reasons people don’t read; namely, because books are too expensive, there is no library nearby, or, because more work needs to be done improve literacy. Rare and valuable books aside, I think every week should be National Book Week.

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