Bellagio Publishing Network  

 BPN Newsletter Issue No 25, July 1999 


Amabhuku—African illustrators at Bologna Children's Book Fair, April 1999

Rachel Wiggans
Rachel Wiggans is Assistant Co-ordinator of the Bellagio Publishing Network.

Amabhuku, the Zulu word for books, was an inspired title for the exhibition of sub-Saharan African children's book illustration at the 1999 Bologna book fair. To anglophone ears the sound 'book' rattles around inside, while francophones hear 'aimer beaucoup' (to like very much). Visitors wandering round the impressive collection of African children's book illustrations at the fair, though, needed none of these languages to experience liking books very much.

Amabhuku, organised by the French NGO La Joie par les Livres, was on everyone's walk from the fair entrance to the exhibition halls, so many visitors passed through several times. Abdoulaye Konaté's display blended African and European very effectively: beneath the original artworks mounted on the wall was a low shelf holding calabashes, and nesting in each was a children's book containing one or two of the wall illustrations in final form. By standing back to gaze, or stepping forward to pore over the published version, the complexity of the illustrator's and publisher's joint task became obvious. Some illustrations that were magnetic on the wall lost much of their attraction reduced to the page; others were unprepossessing in frames but wonderfully enticing inside book covers. The best books had clearly involved hours of publishers and illustrators pulling each other's skills and knowledge together.

It was invigorating to have the exhibition opened by His Excellency Alpha Oumar Konaré, President of the Republic of Mali, an African head of state whose enthusiasm for books dances as he talks. He repeats wherever he can his conviction that it is crucial for children to get good books in their hands. In a meeting on the eve of the fair, where some of the illustrators also discussed their work, and again at a lecture in Bologna University, he stressed that democracy and development in Africa are utterly dependent on books and reading, and this means producing books that children actively want to read.

The first impression of the exhibition, overheard from many visitors, was excitement at seeing so much African art for children's books in one place. Some visitors lamented that they had to come to Europe to see it, though with Amabhuku moving to this year's Zimbabwe Book Fair, then to other venues in Africa, many more people will be able to enjoy African illustration close to its roots. The organisers hope they will share with Geneviève Patte, Director of La Joie par les Livres and one of the six jurors responsible for selecting which illustrations would be displayed, the pleasure in discovering 'such unsuspected variety and richness of expression'.

The variety came in different ways. Materials included pen and ink, watercolour, gouache, etching and Baba Wagu‚ Diakité's striking illustrations done originally in ceramics. Themes ranged from the more traditional moral and animal tales, to engaging stories building on children's imaginations and hopes, to Hassan Musa's stunning animal alphabet in Arabic calligraphy. The quality also varied, and another of the jurors, Marie Wabbes, a Belgian illustrator who has run workshops for illustrators in Cameroon, Benin and Congo, commented on the constraints facing some illustrators in Africa:

'Side by side we saw highly polished illustrations, printed on glossy paper, set by qualified graphic artists, published by professionals, and na‹ve often awkward pictures.But for their part, the poorer projects had sincerity and freshness of expression...Young African illustrators work in incredibly harsh conditions and can hardly be blamed for the technical imperfections which handicap their projects. Imagine a group of five illustrators with only one paintbox amongst them! No wonder the colours of their pictures are similar; were we to penalise them for insufficient resources?'

The jurors' task was to select the best of the 130 artists from 27 countries south of the Sahara who answered La Joie par les Livres' invitation to submit works (north African countries were not included). Amongst the 34 illustrators finally selected, some countries were strongly represented: a quarter of the illustrators were South African, and over ten per cent were Cameroonian. Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe and Benin were also well represented. Others were surprising by their absence: where were the illustrations from Senegal, Kenya, and even Nigeria, whose book industry is one of the most developed on the continent? Juror Elibariki Moshi, former executive secretary of the Tanzanian Children's Book Project, commented that 'although there are several good illustrators for children's books in Africa, they are not evenly distributed within the continent. There is a great need for training and exposing children's illustrators in Africa to improved techniques.'

Looking at the books gave rise to some more uncomfortable questions. How many of the selected illustrations were published in Africa? According to the catalogue, only 60 per cent (one third of these came from South Africa). A quarter were published in Europe and the USA, and the rest were unpublished. And where were the African artists who had found success living now? Nearly a third had left Africa for Europe and the United States.

The exhibition meant that many African publishers came to Bologna for the first time, and alongside the stall of the African Publishers' Network were a further 15 stalls, all showing children's books from Africa alongside the thousands of others spread among the Fair's six exhibition halls. Deals were discussed, amongst them an American publisher wanting rights to a Cameroonian book and a possible Danish co-publication; the coming months will show what emerges for African publishers. And books were sold; on the final day, which was open to the public, Italian teachers were to be spotted buying African books for schools whose local communities include children of the diaspora. [end] [BPN, no 25, 1999, p 9.]

^^Back to top

Return to table of contents for BPN Newsletter 25, 1999>>

home about us news resources subscribe
newsletter forum search

© Bellagio Publishing Network 1999.