Dietrich wins sought-after prize for book art projects
When he received the e-mail from the South African Academy for Science and Arts (Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns), informing him that he had won the Stals Prize for Art Studies, it came as a big surprise to Prof Keith Dietrich, chairperson of the Department of Visual Arts at Stellenbosch University.
“I had no prior knowledge of it,” said Dietrich in his office, a few days after he had received the prize, nearly six months after the announcement had been made. “It is an honour to receive this prize.”
He received the prize specifically for his book art projects: Horizons of Babel, Fourteen stations of the Cross (comprising three volumes, 2007) and Many Rivers to Cross – Conflict Zones, Boundaries and Shared Waters (four volumes, 2011).
His fourth book art project is in the final phase of rounding off, and it will be exhibited in the Brundyn + Gonsalves Art Gallery in Cape Town from 10 October. He will be exhibiting alongside his colleague Elizabeth Gunter. The exhibition, Fragile Histories + Fugitive Lives, consists, among others, of four photographs of four human figures surrounded by a circle of patiently folded origami rosettes. The rosettes are pinned to the photos like butterflies and contain the names of people who were convicted and punished by the courts at the Cape between 1696 and 1803. There also is an artist’s book, Fragile Histories – Fugitive Lives, Justice and Injustice at the Cape 1700 – 1800. This art book project is based on the historian Prof Hans Heese’s book, Reg en Onreg: Kaapse Regspraak in die Agttiende Eeu, in which he looks at the verdicts in the trials of and the punishments meted out to European settlers, soldiers, sailors, Khoi, slaves, Chinese, convicts and free blacks at the Cape of Good Hope. The dates of the trials, the names and origin of the transgressors and the summaries of both the crimes and the punishments are represented.
“Some of the punishments were truly extreme,” says Dietrich. “People were displayed and humiliated in public, often with a rope around their necks or a poster describing the crime, they put in chains, they were banished, sentenced to imprisonment on Robben Island, burned with white-hot tongs, flogged, branded, mutilated by having their hands, ears, noses or heels amputated, burnt alive at the stake, beheaded and burnt alive on a spit.” Throughout the book, the punishments are recorded in red – in fact, red flows right through Dietrich’s art book projects – like a river of blood.
Each of the books also has a substructure of social awareness. Many Rivers to Cross, for example, deals with the many conflicts in the Cape that played off around water. Central to the project are the Great Fish, Vaal and Gariep Rivers. All three rivers are linked to each other, with the Gariep feeding the other two.
“Water is such a scarce resource and the future will still see many big conflicts relating to water,” says Dietrich.
Fourteen Stations of the Cross takes a look at the first fourteen mission stations in southern Africa, while Horizons of Babel is concerned with place names that are found between seven geographical co-ordinates between Cape Agulhas (the southernmost point of Africa) and Cape Columbine. The project is also informed by various Mediaeval cartographic conventions and there is direct reference to the Catalan Atlas, Waldseemüller’s maps and the Ebstof map in which Christ’s body is superimposed on the earth.
“I am fascinated by the history of South Africa,” says Dietrich. “Our country has a history of people who were brought together from different parts of the world. The VOC probably was the first transnational global company. And where this company was threatened by Indonesian Muslim monarchs, regents and priests, they were banished to Robben Island, the Castle in Cape Town or the Cape Town environment on political grounds. Leaders, rajahs, monarchs, they were simply banished to the Cape. At the Cape there was a cosmopolitan mishmash, consisting of people from India, China, Indonesia and Europe. There were troublemakers, slaves and governors. There are so many histories in this country and the perspective depends on who recorded the histories.”
Through his work he examines the South African legacy of pain – wrought by colonialism, slavery and other forms of inequality – and healing.
Dietrich says book art meet the requirement for academics to undertake research.
“Through book art I can still do research and pay people to help me with it. I enjoy the consensual and interactive nature of book art.” In his inaugural lecture last year, Dietrich said that book art not only has aesthetic value, but also conveys cultural, social and political messages.
“The way in which images and texts combine and supplement one another or link to each other gives rise to a number of questions and creates new possibilities. Book art conveys specific messages visually and questions our understanding of what counts as a book.”
Book art deviates from what books normally look like, and has now also become part of digital media such as iPads and e-books, says Dietrich.
Dietrich believes technological progress has made it easier for artists to create their own book art.
The combination of text, image and form, and the fact that artists publish and distribute books themselves, are important characteristics of current book art.
And it is clear that Dietrich does justice to this art form. – Stephanie Nieuwoudt