The ironies of publishing in a global neoliberal economy are gobsmacking, as revealed by a quick surf I undertook of google scholar using the search terms “Marxism in Africa”. The average article I encountered sells for between $45 and $47. In the Alice-in-Wonderland world of academic publishing, the Journal of Communist Studies is owned by Taylor and Francis, one of the world’s biggest and most profitable publishing stables. Despite receiving the labour of academic scholars, editors, and reviewers for free, the cost of journals increases by as much as 30% every 5 years. It is no wonder that George Monbiot calls scientific publishing “one of the most ruthless and profitable business models of any industry”George Monbiot:.
It comes as no surprise that the five big publishing companies are all based in the United States, the UK and EuropeReed Elsevier (British-Dutch), Springer (US), Taylor & Francis (UK), Wiley-Blackwell (US) and the American Chemical Society (US. Most universities in the Global South cannot afford subscription fees for bundled journals, which means that knowledge, much of it on the Global South, continues to be produced and circulated in the North. Independent academics are simply out in the cold. When it comes to art books, this problem is compounded by the high cost of colour reproduction.
But what can you do about the fact that knowledge remains trapped behind ridiculously high paywalls? You can pirate material, like the indomitable Russian founder of Sci-Hub Alexandra Elbakyan, but few have the courage or the know-how to become a web-scraper. You could choose to publish only in accredited open-access journals, but for that privilege you must fork up as much as R15 000 per contribution.
The only option is good old-fashioned activism.
Decolonizing Art Book Fairs celebrates a wide variety of radical, independent publishing initiatives from across the world, including Rwanda, Cameroon, Brazil, Kenya, Portugal, Germany, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Switzerland.
It comes as no surprise that South Africans feature prominently in the list of participants, considering our long history of civil activism.
In keeping with its anti-establishment intent, the format of the book is unconventional. The font, numbering, and format morphs from chapter to chapter, which can make navigation a challenge, but the creativity of the layout is refreshing, and what it lacks in consistency it makes up for in diversity. The format of contributions varies – some consist of interviews, some are more conventional histories of alternative publications, one is a transcript of an online meeting between three of the editors in which the daily, exhausting, frustrations of independent publishing are casually aired. Almost all the contributors comment on the current and/or historical inequalities of knowledge production and consumption in a world radically skewed by western imperialism. It is gratifying to learn how many radical independent art publications exist, and what a broad range of creative initiatives they cover.
Select decolonial aims and intentions run through these chapters like golden threads: to liberate knowledge about art from the stranglehold of the North, to air indigenous epistemologies, to create rhizomatic, communitarian networks. Authors share strategies for the production of non-hierarchical and freely available materials. The format of the contributions sometimes speaks to liberating intentions – the essay on Herri, for instance, is numbered backwards to undermine linearity and hierarchies, while Chronicling the Chimurenga Chronicle takes the form of an exquisite, painstaking, hand-drawn newspaper, a labour of love protesting the mass production of knowledge as consumer item.
Given the decolonial intent behind these initiatives, the archival impulse emerges strongly. Some contributions track a history of activist publications – prior publishing ventures not recorded or insufficiently recognised by conventional historiographies. “The Strength of the Ori that shines in the Brazilian editorial market” is one such, demonstrating how independent publications were a very effective form of revolt against the Portuguese colonial regime that feared and suppressed literacy. Many of the initiatives encountered in this book were created to address skewed archives. This would include ASAI, the open-access online arts site established to return an Africanist focus to an international obsessed South African art scene. Pissara tracks Asai’s growing repertoire of projects – decolonial initiatives aimed to address decades of skewed art coverage in SA, but also inadvertently provides testimony of lifelong devotion to activism.
Themes that emerge in these texts are the exorbitant expense of publication, investment in the local (see ‘Our Publishing Businesses aren’t Based on Reliable Management Founcations’), and the impact of Covid on independent publishing. The creative potential of digital publication for interdisciplinary research, and the radical nomadic prospects for exploring text, image and video in a non-linear manner is explored in Kaganof’s chapter on herri, a joyously experimental ‘journal’ (for want of a better word).
Collaboration emerges as a leitmotif: Pan-Africanism as a form of collaborationist revolt against colonial power (see the chapter on Jalada Africa, and For What? Making the Invisible Visible: Publishing as a Political Issue, on the African Art Bookfair); South South collaborations as a counter to the domination of the global north. There is strong focus on collectivism as a decolonial ethos, accordingly quite a few of the contributions appear in the name of the collective, not the individual who composed the text (for example o Menelick 2Ato, Brazil and Chimurenga, SA).
Some of the pieces explore individual experiences, such as Grada Kilomba’s essay on writing from the margins of the formal academic sector, and Sharleen Khan’s text on her experiences while trying to establish feminist decolonial publishing initiatives.
It is difficult to do justice to the diversity of the voices represented in this interesting volume. The pieces are quite short, the layout dense and compact, and editorial intervention clearly kept to a minimum. This makes for unevenness in the quality of the writing, yet the underlying consistency of the concerns, and the sustained commitment to activist resistance that all the contributions testify to, provide the necessary glue for a coherent read.
What I take away from this volume, is the rich potential of publication as repository or archive, as restitution of voice, as brilliant constellation of creative collaboration and inter-disciplinary networking.
What a pleasure and inspiration.
Edited by Yaiza Camps, Moritz Grünke, Pascale Obolo, Michalis Pichler, Parfait Tabapsi, and Nkule Mabaso as a contributing editor. Mosaïques, Miss Read, AFRIKADAA. 2021
|2.||Reed Elsevier (British-Dutch), Springer (US), Taylor & Francis (UK), Wiley-Blackwell (US) and the American Chemical Society (US|