Flashback Friday: An interview with Sharmini Pereira of Raking Leaves

A page from the original article published in Imprint spring 2014, Volume 49 Number 3.
Top l-r: The Incomplete Thombu by T. Shanaathanan (2011); The Speech Writer by Bani Abidi (2011); Name, Class, Subject by Aisha Khalid (2009).

‘The impulse to set up a publishing initiative grew from a fascination with production and how an appreciation of materials and design working in unison with content could result in works that had an inevitability about them as books … Raking Leaves was born out of the simple assumption that everyone was familiar with a book.’

Cover for Imprint spring 2014 Vol. 49 No.3 featuring Ciara Phillips’s A lot of things put together (detail), 2013, screenprint on cotton, 400 x 500 cm.

The following conversation between Trent Walter of Negative Press and Sharmini Pereira of Raking Leaves was published in the spring 2014 issue of Imprint Vol. 49 No. 3.

Raking Leaves is an independent, not-for-profit commissioner and publisher of art projects, founded by Sharmini Pereira. Taking the form of book projects and special editions, Raking Leaves’ publications are marked by a conceptual rigour in both form and content. I corresponded with Pereira, a renowned curator and publisher, about Raking Leaves’ initiation, projects and expanded activity via email while she travelled between Toronto, London and Colombo from late June to early July.

What was the impetus to start Raking Leaves?

Firstly, it was a desire to work with interesting artists without the constraints of an exhibition. As a curator this involved teaching myself how to be a publisher, which I was motivated to do because as an independent curator you are constrained by many factors that I felt shackled by. The impulse to set up a publishing initiative didn’t actually come from a love of books either. It grew from a fascination with production and how an appreciation of materials and design working in unison with content could result in works that had an inevitability about them as books. I liked the exclusivity of something being a book and not an exhibition in order for it to be engaged with in the world. Raking Leaves was born out of the simple assumption that everyone was familiar with a book. Books hold no kind of exclusive membership yet the work contained within Raking Leaves’ book projects is, in most cases, exclusively made to be a book and I’d add, behave as a book.

Is this the kind of conversation you would have with an artist in anticipation of working with them on a publication with Raking Leaves? In so much as the book form can provide a space for a contemporary art project, rather than being a document of it. Can you talk about the various ways that artists have responded to this?

Conversations with artists begin in all kinds of ways but they do tend initially to go in the direction of discussing the merits of a book versus an exhibition. Or the reasons why a book lends itself to presenting a certain kind of work. In the case of Aisha Khalid, for example, her idea for a book project was clear from the start. She wanted to work with the old-fashioned copybooks that were used in school to teach handwriting. We got together lots of samples and studied how they were made: usually poorly printed on flimsy paper and with recycled covers taken from food packaging. At least that’s what the ones we sourced from Lahore were like. By contrast, T. Shanaathanan wanted to create a book project that would make the reader feel like they were ‘holding’ a series of documents or an official file, like the ones you get in south Asia that are produced from buff, recycled paper that fade in the sunlight. Form following function is most clearly displayed in Bani Abidi’s book project The Speech Writer, which consists of 10 flip books. The flip book predates moving film and led to silent cinema. It was obviously a wonderful form to work with for someone that works with video and photography without any dialogue.

What I find impressive about Raking Leaves publications is their conceptual and formal rigour: how the book form emulates the artist’s practise rather than being a sideline to it. These are thoughtful projects and I imagine that their development is an involved one. Can you elaborate on the process of developing Bani Abidi‘s project?

Bani’s project began in 2010, was printed at the end of 2011 and launched in early 2012. We started working with Astrid Stavro early on. She was chosen as the designer because she has produced several interesting books in serial format and became instrumental in the discussions and production process. This was the first time she had designed a flip book but once she knew what it was, she began doing research on the ways in which 10 books could be housed together. Bani wanted to present the books flat so that the first page of each book was shown, as opposed to a series of book spines. Monotype was used on the cover where you find the fictional interview about the character of the speech writer featured in the book project. Again this was something that took several discussions and involved various design options. Creating the box was also involved. Finding a printer that could produce something this intricate that was not over engineered took several months of dummies and print buying in Europe and in Asia.

As a publisher, how involved do you become in the form of the book? Is the artist given carte blanche or are there practical limitations imposed on the artist from the outset of the project? 

I am involved in the book from conception through to delivery. The role begins curatorially and evolves into that of a publisher. I’d like to think that the artist is given full freedom in that the book projects are not based on templates or part of a series. From experience most artists enjoy being given parameters of a kind. As an idea for a book project develops practical limitations do arise. Rather than see them as restrictions, I tend to see them as questions that require solutions. Costs are obviously a big factor, too, but like anything else if the idea necessitates a certain level of investment, and it’s a good idea, then this is what I will work to ensure is produced.

Do you consider Raking Leaves publications within the canon of artists’ books?

They might influence the canon but I don’t know if they sit that comfortably within it. I prefer to view them as belonging to the fields of critical publishing and public art for example, in terms of the etymological relationship between ‘public’ and ‘publish’, which often gets forgotten. The audience for artists’ books is fairly small and of the art world, largely based in Europe and the US. Raking Leaves’ books have a much broader appeal. A number of anthropologists and legal theorists, for example, have been writing about and referencing The Incomplete Thombu in relation to displacement and legal debates around land rights in Sri Lanka.

I imagine, though I may be mistaken, that these are difficult conversations to have given the current political climate in Sri Lanka. Was there any trepidation in deciding to publish T.Shanaathanan’s The Incomplete Thombu? And if so, what was the nature of these thoughts or conversations?

Prior to publication, trepidation arose more out of wanting to be respectful to those that contributed to the project and being careful not to sensationalise the subject matter, but not from any fear of censorship. Since publication the situation has been different. Whichever way I think I choose to speak about the situation it will be interpreted as a form of self-censorship. The reality is more a case of understanding that in Sri Lanka anything can be construed to be something that it is not in the hands of someone ready to jump to conclusions when they see the words ‘Tamil’ or ‘Jaffna’. If this was an artwork in a gallery I doubt it would court any kind of interest from the authorities. By being a book it circulates more readily and freely. It’s accessible to everyone who can interpret it as they want. I don’t think I, or the artist, would want it any other way, in spite of the risks this may or may not involve.

There are a lot of conversations in Australia about the centre and the periphery with regard to the global art world. What influence does being based in Colombo have on Raking Leaves?

Being on the periphery of south Asia informs the situation in Sri Lanka more closely than the relationship with the global art world in terms of the centre/periphery debate.  For Raking Leaves Sri Lanka provides a base and therefore a centre from which its activities are generated and distributed, irrespective of any geo-political centre. There are not any comparable initiatives in the region that are doing similar work which means we exist in a vacuum at times. Being off the radar has its advantages too, however. I don’t think what we do is particularly cutting edge or fashionable in that sense. I think this ensures some kind of engagement and sustainability for when audiences do come into contact with Raking Leaves.

Does having no comparable initiatives in the region mean that Raking Leaves’ activities have expanded beyond publishing?

I established the Sri Lanka Archive of Contemporary Art, Architecture and Design in 2013 as part of a collaboration with Asia Art Archive and their Open Edit: Mobile Library initiative. Interest and support towards the archive was overwhelming and Raking Leaves was approached to establish it as a permanent physical archive in Jaffna. It has a staff of four people and has staged seven talks and five screenings attracting a total of just under 1000 people in it’s first six months. Collecting materials connected to the development of Sri Lankan art, architecture and design remains our primary focus while the talks and screenings act as a way of bringing people to the material. Working with the Asia Art Archive and having the archive in Jaffna have certainly provided Raking Leaves with opportunities to work beyond its publishing activities in a related but broader engagement with printed matter.

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