Calligraphic Africa: A Personal Perspective

15 June 2011

By Leesette Turner

This Tombouctou series, entitled “Calligraphic Africa”, featured an interesting range of conversations.  The most common thread amongst the various talks probably being books.  When I asked Shamil Jeppie about the lecture series he said this was to inform some research he was doing on the book.  What did it mean to me? 

I started the lecture series with a talk on the history of Western Calligraphy. I had to ask myself what is happening in Cape Town and ,“Is calligraphy dead or is it alive?” I was heartened by the interest in calligraphy shown during my talk, and came to realize that this art form is dead for as long as we choose to let it lie there and that there is far more interest in it than I had imagined! Calligraphy could be a whole lot more alive and vibrant than it currently is!

This first talk was followed by the most stimulating set of lectures.

Joseph Deliza explains his papermaking techniques Joseph Deliza explains his papermaking techniques

Joseph Deliza of Thando Papers presented a conversation entitled “Papermaking in Africa”. Joseph has taught many people around the country to make paper and produces beautiful paper under very trying circumstances.  He is well supported by old clients but really needs to be better known. This was such a hands on lecture and it was so interesting to find how much can be made from very little – a “green” dream! I now have a renewed interest in using local papers. More calligraphers and paper lovers need to support locally made papers where possible. 

Kurt Campbell’s lecture entitled “Postcolonial approaches to contemporary font design” did set the cat among certain of the pigeons, raising debate around the political nature of font types. It is funny how someone opens your eyes. His own fonts, designed as part of his research, gave me a renewed interest in fonts and reminded me of when last year I spent time with Carl Rohrs, a internationally-known American calligrapher, and we marched all over Cape Town photographing writing, graffiti and fonts. Carl was not interested in the Helveticas of this world but rather in fresh, new SA ideas. Kurt’s work also reminded me of a similar approach by Joyce Cutler Shaw – The Alphabet of Bones - featured in a Letter Arts Review.  This is the cutting edge of SA type design.

Fabian Saptouw continued the themes of font and printing with his presentation on “The Artists’ Book”, looking at his own remaking of a particular book. This was fascinating not only in his thesis but also in his attention to detail through the whole process.  I just loved the printed pages, which he recreated, and also the chance to learn more about type.  It made me realize that books are more special than we sometimes realize.  Despite having authored a few and felt the pain thereof, it took a lecture like this to make one realize the importance of every aspect of the book.  Everything is so instant these days that one forgets what goes into a book, and how much the process of printing has changed in a very short space of time.

An example of Fabian Saptouw's work An example of Fabian Saptouw's work

Hugh Amoore, an institution all on his own at UCT, is a beacon for handwriting and the fountain pen. He presented a lively “Calligraphy as a Craft” lecture.  His beautiful notes left members of the audience gasping.  Hugh has an excellent calligraphic pedigree but prefers not to say that he is a calligrapher. His work is a real tribute to keeping handwriting alive and also to showing us how much people value something beautiful, even if it is just the notes to a colleague or those taken in a meeting.  Makes you think about what you do on every piece of paper! This raised an interesting discussion on computer-generated communication versus a written note.

The series wrapped up with a very detailed presentation on the preservation of the Timbuktu manuscripts.  Mary Minicka of the Western Cape Archives and Records Services presented “The Timbuktu
Manuscripts: From production to preservation”.  One could see why Mary was one of the main conservationists involved in the SA-Mali partnership in Timbuktu: her practical experience and knowledge on paper and bookbinding was amazing. I was fascinated by the attention to detail and the love and care that go into the preservation of old manuscripts. It seemed fitting to close this series of conversations with binding and boxes in which books sleep. I did rush home to check on some of my books and gather together all my examples of old handwriting!

I think a lot can come out of this series of interesting conversations.  The personal stimulation was great.  I think the legacy will be the possibility of the cross-pollination of ideas and the potential for more sharing across different areas of interest in the fields of writing cultures and book history.

Leesette Turner is a local calligrapher and member of the Cape Friends of Calligraphy

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