11 March 2023
Indie Publishers III Women Powered Platforms
In Parts I and II of this spotlight series, we looked at niche material and limited series production across the Middle East, North Africa and Asia. In this third feature, we look at three women-run publishing programmes that operate as community platforms. Each of these practices has been initiated by women artists and creatives who use publishing as their production medium. In a pay-it-forward model, the following collectives support and educate creative communities that wish to participate in, or learn about DIY publishing. These are stories of friendships, collaborations, and knowledge-sharing communities that sidestep the barriers to entry of established and mainstream publishing.
In 2016, a group of Sudanese women living and working in the UAE as artists, photographers, writers and designers decided to make a photo zine to feature elements that define Sudanese homes; facets that are pronounced in diaspora dwellings. It was a low-budget, self-funded effort and The Room is the City was born. A call-out was made and submissions came in from writers, poets, artists, designers and photographers based in Sudan. The resulting zine was designed at home on a desktop computer, printed and bound by hand and then distributed in Sudan, and sold in the UAE and at international fairs.
Members of Locale Sudan are now based globally. The group retains a passion for connecting to and highlighting Sudanese talent while giving back to a community that has seen deep turmoil and political upheaval in the struggle between the government and the Sudan Revolutionary Front in recent years. Although Locale Sudan started as an online platform, the group of (now) five ー Aala Sharfi, Qutouf Yahia, Rund Alarabi, Safwa Mohammed, and Nafisa Eltahir ー quickly realised that print would be a better medium to fill a void in printed material on contemporary Sudanese creatives. Thus, Locale offered an alternative to physical spaces like galleries and institutions, and a tangible stand-in for the online domain.
Yahia tells me that while the group is female-led, Locale isn’t necessarily a platform solely for women. While they started with a focus on photography, art, and illustration, it wasn’t long before prose and poetry became an important part of their content mix. The group have endeavoured to make works available in both English and Arabic where possible, applying for grants to realise these projects. Publication themes include identity, memory, history-making and personal narratives, but Locale Sudan is careful not to impose a voice. Instead, they provide space for a multiplicity of experiences and opinions.
The publication After Memory, a project Locale worked on from 2019 to 2021, embodies this ethos. Initiated for an exhibition they curated in Khartoum, the mini-booklet took on a life of its own. The exhibition This Will Have Been: Archives of the Past Present & Future looked at the challenges Sudanese face in accessing historical archives and how this affects their approaches to politics, policies, and culture. As they reached out to professionals and organisations in art, literature, music and design, they garnered an incredible response and willingness to share work. The resulting content necessitated a standalone publication. After Memory is the group’s first commercially-printed book and includes 15 essays that cover Sudanese traditions, rituals and ceremonies, as well as music, poetry and architecture, making for an eclectic cross-section of contemporary Sudanese society.
Distribution however, is a big concern, and Sudan’s volatile currency makes it difficult to make books affordable to the general public. Content deemed politically sensitive coupled with limited resources adds to these challenges. The collective believes in the power and longevity of print media and continues to focus on making books, placing copies in libraries, cafes, hotel lobbies, and cultural spaces in Sudan. Internationally, they sell their books at book fairs.
Rabbits Road Press (RRP) is a publishing collective run by three artists, two of whom are women of colour. Sofia Niazi, Heiba Lamara and Rose Nordin are founders of OOMK publishing practice — the umbrella under which the RRP is run and the OOMK zine issued — and have been publishing content for women and girls highlighting themes across art, activism, creativity, and faith since 2014.
Initiated as a platform to showcase the art and stories of Muslim women, the OOMK zine sought to publish content outside of stereotypical and superficial narratives. ‘It was about Muslim women creating new work and not being sucked into discourse about hijab and other things like that,’ says Niazi. ‘The platform was meant to nurture one other, and hear one another.’ As such, the platform looks to cultivate talent and exhibit a range of voices from a heterogeneous group. Soon, it expanded its mandate to include other sub-groups, cultures and underrepresented people within its community. Subsequently, RRP became a permanent space to support these and other printing practices, in contrast to temporary setups they organized at fairs or institutions for DIY publishing.
With RRP, Niazi, Lamara and Nordin, sought to overcome obstacles they faced as publishers, indie artists and designers. They also didn’t want to keep working for free on the zine. So with a public partnership with Create London, Arts Council England and Newham Council, they set up a press in the Old Manor Park Library. In 2016, RRP was founded as a small-scale community risograph print studio and publishing press in East London, providing printing and book binding services for artists and the community. Developing organically from a need to support those who want to use publishing as a platform but don’t necessarily have the technical skills or resources to do so, the press operates as an alternative to the traditional and more expensive model of printing. The idea is not to focus on the limitations of the press but to produce publications within its intimate discipline.
Risograph printing is a quick, cheap, and flexible medium that lends itself to a particular DIY poster and pamphlet sensibility favoured by many illustrators and artists. It is making a comeback to mainstream publishing after its initial boom in the ‘80s, retaining a subculture aesthetic. At RRP, publications are printed and bound by hand (there is no folding machine), with print runs at about 300 copies per title. This way, RRP keeps costs low and reprinting an out-of-print title is not cost-inhibitive.
OOMK has since made zines, posters, books and more. Their educational platform includes graphic design, zine making and drawing. Ticketed workshops and publication sales generate funds that keep the press sustainable while funding new initiatives. Niazi tells me that this model also addresses gatekeeping. By educating individuals through affordable or subsidised workshops, the press equips creatives to enter the publishing realm on their own terms.
While initially distributing through niche bookstores and galleries, the group now relies on online sales, DIY networks and social media to reach audiences. In addition, they continue to organise fairs independently or appear at others.
Check out What are the Art jobs?, a booklet seeking to demystify the art world job market from the perspective of two freelance artists and read more about their desi diaspora collaborative project in Kathmandu, Nepal, Mil ke Chai.
Offset Projects was set up in New Delhi by journalist and photographer Anshika Varma. Her creative journey across India, Italy and New York led to the awareness that the power of visual narratives in social, cultural, and political stories transcended the boundaries of language and literacy. At first, she transitioned away from the written word to photography and started curating photo exhibitions in galleries and institutional spaces. However, Varma wanted to break away from this limited structure and create a published format that could be distributed, shared, and read more widely – a process in her practice that evolved through conversations and collaborations with other creatives involved in grassroots and DIY publishing networks.
Offset Projects’ first publication was entitled Guftgu (Urdu for ‘conversation’) which stemmed from a series of discussions with participants of a programme she organised alongside a pop-up library. Guftgu became a collection of individually bound photo essays by contemporary photographers in India, Pakistan, and Nepal. Varma intended to debunk what a book like this from South Asia could look like, mediating what it means to curate images today ー especially in a region where photography was introduced as a colonial enterprise and where the Orientalist gaze aesthetic still prevails. Varma speaks of the masculine characteristics of documentary photography ー the authoritative tone, the divisive narrative framework of ‘us’ who make the documentary and ‘them’ that are being documented ー versus what it means to bring softness, vulnerability, and sensitivity to a narrative. Each of the photo essays documents deeply personal life experiences such as Ahmedi persecution in Pakistan, or the Dalit perspective of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (an Indian social movement by tribals, farmers, environmentalists and human rights activists against dam projects across the Narmada River.) Or gender politics such as acts of inequality performed through rituals and taboos around menstruating women in Nepal
The curatorial premise ofGuftgu included inventive means to reduce production costs. The cover was a box made from packaging material, printing was done digitally on standard paper, and the design was done by a friend at a reduced fee. The result was something that did not feel precious. The second print edition of the book employed offset printing, screen-printing, and debossing, but since the design was repurposed and the book printed on unbranded paper, the cost of production remained low.
A vital part of Offset Projects is increasing access to such works via channels other than social media. The Offset Pitara (Hindi for ‘trunk’) travelling library programme, which gave birth to Guftgu, was developed initially out of Varma’s collection of photobooks, which are expensive to purchase and distribute in India. Through generous donations of books from supporters, the library now has about 400 diverse titles from India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Burma, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. They are regularly toured around India in public spaces, community centres and festivals allowing free access to people, especially to students or underprivileged communities. In addition to this, Offset Projects provides educational and training workshops, assists with other artists’ publication projects, and hosts independently produced photobooks. This includes the incredible Har Shaam Shaheen Bagh by artist Prarthna Singh on the Shaheen Bagh movement in Delhi, seen through the eyes of the artist as a participating protestor; a publication that would be difficult to distribute due to its political content.