Book art opens viewers’ eyes

Artists’ books are not just aesthetic but also convey cultural, social or political messages, said Prof Keith Dietrich, Chair of the Department of Visual Arts at Stellenbosch University (SU), in his inaugural lecture at SU’s Sasol Art Museum on Tuesday (4 October).

According to Dietrich, artists’ books – artworks in book format and produced in a wide range of forms, such as paper codices, scrolls, accordion folds, fan folds, gatefolds – often offer a form of protest against both institutionalism and elitism.

“Images and texts combine, enhance or stand in for one another, or engage and collide with one another, giving rise to a variety of questions and possibilities. Artists’ books question and challenge our ideas of what a book is and communicate their messages visually.”

Proff Russel Botman, Rector and Vice-Chancellor, Keith Dietrich and Hennie Kotzé, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, at the inaugural lecture. (Photo: Wayne Muller)

Dietrich said artists’ books transgress the boundaries of the conventional book form and have now entered the field of digital and screen-based media, such as iPads and e-books.

“Conventional obstructions and conflicts between text-based and image-based publications, and between handcrafted and industrially manufactured books have evaporated.”

Dietrich is of the view that technological advancements have made it easier for artists to manufacture books by themselves.

The integration of text, image and form, as well as self-publishing and distribution remain significant features in artists’ books today, he said.

Dietrich mentioned that after World War II, leading American and European artists began to explore the functions and forms of the bookwork as a way of experimenting with an alternative space for articulating their ideas, theories and values.

“From the 1970s onwards, libraries and museums began to collect artists’ books and numerous group exhibitions of artists’ books were organised in Europe and America. Bookshops specialising in artists’ books were also established.”

Dietrich is of the opinion that artists’ books are neglected and relatively unknown in South Africa.

  • Dietrich’s work can be seen at the Sasol Art Museum in the exhibition Many Rivers to Cross: Conflict Zones, Boundaries and Shared Waters. A group exhibition Handbook: a collection of illustrated bookworks, curated by Dietrich and Ulrich Wolff on behalf of SU’s Centre for Comic, Illustrative and Book Arts, is also on show until 29 October. For more information, contact the Art Museum at 021 808 3691/3/5 or