Art books generally fall into two categories – books about art and/or artists, in which case the writing is the important characteristic: and books that are intended to be looked at, where its design and the overall quality of the images are key. If you’re lucky, you’ll find one book that can carry the two objectives – a good-looking piece of work that is visually and textually entertaining, stimulating, or both.
That’s why art book fairs can be so interesting. The best art books are those where the book format (rectangular pages, stitched or glued with a spine down the middle, protective and/or decorative covers on the outside) isn’t a pragmatic restriction so much as a framework that can complement the works and pictures.
So we’re looking forward to 8 to 10 November and the Sharjah Art Foundation’s first edition of FOCAL POINT, a new annual art book fair for “printed matter and products” by publishers from the region and across the world.
“Very few platforms locally and regionally cater to the interdisciplinary nature of publishing,” says SAF. FOCAL POINT will fill that gap by offering a broad perspective on art publishing; the inaugural edition of FOCAL POINT will focus on “independent and alternative publishing practices”. Those invited to attend will include independents and text-oriented artists and designers as well as more mainstream publishers.
The three days will also have talks, screenings, one book launch (sort of), “themed educational workshops”, a lecture-performance, and art projects including an open studio.
The Open Studio belongs to Nasir Nasrallah, noted for his experiments with basic materials that can be physical objects, ideas, theorems … and presumably books.
The book launch, at 6pm on 9 November, is for Ibrahim El-Salahi’s Prison Notebook. Jailed in Sudan without trial in the 1970s, and subsequently an artist, diplomat, and grand old man of African art, El-Salahi was the first African artist to get a Tate Modern retrospective. His Prison Notebook was actually published back in the summer jointly by MOMA and SAF as a bilingual English-Arabic volume; it comprised a facsimile of the original he kept while incarcerated with an English translation, contemporary remarks by the artist from a recent interview, and a contextualising essay by art historian, critic and curator Salah Hassan of Cornell University that addresses the social and political milieu in which it was produced. Hassan will actually present the launch.
In addition, there’s a collaborative symposium developed by Asia Art Archive from Hong Kong under the somewhat unwieldy name ‘It Begins with a Story: Artists, Writers, and Periodicals in Asia (FOCAL POINT edition)’. That will look at the past and present of publishing in the wider Asia region, and AAA’s track record is so good that this should be well worth attending.
Founded in 2000, Asia Srt Archive has amassed a library of more than 33,000 titles related to contemporary art; to its library and archival activities it has added an extensive portfolio of programmes and projects.
AAA already has international outposts in New York and New Delhi. This partnership with SAF marks AAA’s first official collaboration in the GCC region, and hopefully it will be the start of something bigger … Maybe there’s scope for a relationship with the Jameel Arts Centre, too, which itself has a library and research function.
But it’s the publishers and book makers that should grab the attention. By our count more than 40 are taking part, which should make this event a genuine celebration of books on art and books as art. There’s lots of African involvement, including Chimurenga (a pan African platform for writing, art and politics whose publishing activities include a magazine of the same name) and the African Art Book Fair – the third edition ran last of May as part of the Dakar International Contemporary Art Biennale.
Another art book fair will be represented: Bon Art Book Fair has just had its inaugural two-day event in a suburb of Tehran.
Lebanon contributes the likes of Ashkal Alwan, an organisation promoting and producing contemporary art practices that has become a major player in the regional art scene. Its founding director is Christine Tohmé, who curated the last Sharjah Biennial; Ashkal Alwan has always sought to network with similarly inclined local and international partner institutions.
Kayfa Ta, also Beirut-based, produces books in the form of how-to manuals (kayfa = how, ta = to) that respond to some of today’s perceived needs – the development of skills, tools, thoughts, or sensibilities. “These books situate themselves in the space between the technical and the reflective, the everyday and the speculative, the instructional and the intuitive, the factual and the fictional.”
America still has several small publishers, and FOCAL POINT will see influential independent presses like Semiotext(e) (“works of theory, fiction, madness, economics, satire, sexuality, science fiction, activism and confession”); and Half Letter Press, which aims to publish and distribute book and booklet length works “to build long-term support and expanded audiences for people that work creatively in experimental ways”.
Another iconic indie is Book Works, a UK publisher that specialises in contemporary arts. Also from Britain comes One of My Kind (OOMK) – a collaborative UK publishing practice that makes, publishes and distributes books and printed works including OOMK Zine, a highly visual, handcrafted, biannual small-press magazine (OOMK also co-curates DIY Cultures, one of the UK’s largest annual independent publishing fairs).
From Australia there’s Perimeter Books, big in architecture and photography; Indian presses include Blaft Books, with a list ranging from Indian and Pakistani crime novels to experimental writing, graphic novels, and “picture books about girls who are in love with monsters”.
We also like Vestoj, a European (mostly British) magazine of fashion – but it’s not a fashion mag. “We write about the cultural phenomenon that is fashion in a manner that opens up for dialogue between theory and practice in order to raise awareness for fashion as a cultural phenomenon and field of research and cultivate an even greater understanding for the discipline.”
Against them are more conventional publishers like Lars Müller Publishers from Zurich, “the bibliophile passion of designer Lars Müller”; Jabal Amman Publishers, a mainstream Jordanian publishing house with a strong catalogue of knowledge-based Arabic language titles; Saqi Books from London, an independent publishing house producing quality general interest and academic books on North Africa and the Middle East; and Kaph Books, a publisher from Beirut that specialises in quality art books on Middle-Eastern artists and art practices in photography and fine art.
A number of local galleries will be taking part, too, and there are several individuals with a practice that includes shaping words in experimental ways – Eman AlEghfeli, Sarah Alfarhan and Zainab Al-Masha, Khalid Mezaina, Amina Menia, Tulip Hazbar, Hessa Al Ajmani, and more.
Other highlights we picked out:
Mantiq of the Mantis: this experimental publishing house in Lahore is “a retreat for dreamers, thinkers, writers, poets, artists, and book lovers – an experiment for realising weird fiction, obscure art and elusive impressions of the strange and insatiably curious.”
Migrant Journal: rather good issue-based magazine that explores the circulation around the world of people, goods, information, fauna and flora, and the transformative impact they have on space. (And it’s much more interesting than that sounds.)
Triple Canopy: a magazine-style publication based in New York to produce “projects that demand considered reading and viewing”. Its model also includes public conversations, exhibitions, and books. “Triple Canopy resists the atomisation of culture and, through sustained inquiry and creative research, strives to enrich the public sphere.”
And Fehras Publishing Practices is running an ongoing installation and will also be giving a ‘lecture-performance’ (8pm on 8 November). This should be fascinating; the Berlin-based organisation specialises in publishing projects in which alternative forms are tested, attempting to extend the notion of what ‘publishing’ is and to foster a culture of critical engagement.
FOCAL POINT takes place in the Bait Obaid Al Shamsi in Sharjah’s Arts Square. Originally built in 1845 as a residential house and now refurbished into studio and exhibition space, the location has often served as a venue for past Sharjah Biennials and SAF exhibitions.
More information here.