THE READER: Lerato Bereng

Born in Maseru, Lesotho, Lerato Bereng is a curator living and working in Johannesburg. In 2007 she received a Bachelor of Fine Art and in 2014 graduated with a Masters in Fine Art from Rhodes University, Grahamstown. She is currently an associate director at Stevenson gallery in Johannesburg and has been working there since 2011.  From 2007 to 2009 Bereng was selected as one of five young curators in CAPE’s Young curator’s Programme for which she curated “Thank You Driver“, an exhibition on mini-bus taxis as part of the Cape ’09 Biennale.

What are you reading at the moment?

I’m Not Your Weekend Special edited by Bongani Madondo. I’ve been meaning to read it for the whole year and stillness would not be found. Finally reading it and I wanna be Brenda Fassie.

How do you decide what to read next?

I read quite spontaneously. Either a book will be recommended by a friend or colleague, or I will be interested in a particular thing and read books around that, or see something on someone’s shelf that catches my eye. Mostly I read on flights, stillness doesn’t often avail itself in Jozi.

What book has had the greatest impact on you?

I don’t have a single favourite anything but one that is gentle and memorable is a book called The Meaning of Tingo by Adam Jacquot de Boinod, which I discovered in a book sale pile years ago. The book is a dictionary of words that only exist in certain languages. For example the word “Mukamuka” is defined as Japanese for so angry one could throw up. I liked the idea of feelings that often transcend language but are universal. I certainly have been so angry I could throw up. This actually inspired an exhibition at some point. I have a thing for language and translation and the spaces between.

Who is your favourite fictional character?

Tricky. I have many favourites for different days. An artist created one favourite of mine: Kemang Wa Lehulere has a character named The One Tall Enough to See The Morning, who features in his work – he made a drawing of him.

What’s your favourite book about art?

Oddly, I don’t have a favourite book about art. There are many that I find insightful or stimulating like Hans Ulrich Obrist’s Do It: The Compendium which is a collation of several DIY art works collected by Obrist of several years. I liked the approach of multiple versions of the same work / exhibition happening in people’s living rooms, project spaces etc. across the world.

What were your favourite books as a child?

Well we grew up hearing unwritten stories in Sesotho, and some of those like the story about “Tselane – a girl that was fooled by a sweet singing voice – are engrained in my memory. Roald Dahl’s Matilda had me captivated for a long time. Beverly Clearly’s series of books about a girl called Ramona taught me spunk at age 9.

Your favourite magazine?

I used to read Elle in my formative years, traded that for Art South Africa and Frieze when I first landed in the art world, and now I read whatever I come across. Chimurenga is still one of the gems.

What’s the last book you gave as a gift?

I bought my niece Roald Dahl’s Matilda, and gave my mom my copy of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart as a hospital read.

Which book have you never been able to finish?

Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I’ve had it for years, read it, but didn’t really read it and have had to re-read it a few times more.

What book do you turn to for advice?

My uncle Patrick Bereng wrote a book called Haboo. This tells the history of Lesotho’s royal family and its many branches. It is not really advice that I look for, but definitely a go-to-book to remember where I’m from when things get a little abstract.

Do you read mostly paper books? On your iPad? Kindle? All three?

Only paper books. A little old school of me, but weird not to turn a page or find an old receipt/note/flyer used as a book mark from 5 years ago.

Love. Sex. Death.

BY GARETH LANGDON

Art has the unique, seemingly contradictory ability of showing us the truth and transporting us away from reality. Books, especially, can serve as a window into a whole new world – a world as faraway as a different galaxy, or as inaccessible as the mind of another person long dead. In Ramita Navai’s collection of stories, City of Lies, we are given access to a world completely on its own, and one which very few take the time to see.

I call City of Lies a collection of stories, but that is a misnomer. The book traces the lives of several protagonists, each in their own chapter. These are all based on real people who lived, and in some cases died, in Tehran. We meet prostitutes, gangsters, meth addicts, porn stars, opressed women and transexuals. “Lying” begins the book’s Prologue, “is about survival”. The people documented in this book are doing nothing more than trying to survive and this involves a lot of lying – sometimes to themselves, and sometimes to others.

Navai’s background in journalism comes through strongly in her debut book. The stories are told in the detached, matter-of-fact way you may find in a newspaper article. But this doesn’t detract from the power of the stories she is telling. The facts speak for themselves. The fiction in this book serves only to protect the real people behind these stories – little lies to protect the big liars.

The book wrestles with truth throughout. Each narrative pivots around a significant lie, often tied to a deep religious conflict, a political belief or a romantic betrayal. The Tehran presented to us is one of contradictions where the lies serve to protect and maintain the status quo but end up revealing it as a farce. Navai is ruthless in her dissection of the city, searching every nook and cranny for the darkest secrets buried there. As a native Tehrani raised in England, Navai provides a unique perspective on the city and its inhabitants, at once participant and observer. She never holds back in her criticism and remains detached – you may say, journalistic – about her subjects. But the book is not without a hint of sadness. One gets the impression that Navai is not only criticising but also mourning her home. At times she is nostalgic and at others purely pessimistic. The Prologue and Epilogue allow the author’s voice to come through clearly, bookending the otherwise foreign and intimidating Tehrani underworld.

The prose is tight and punchy, but for those unfamiliar with Navai’s work, may come off as brief and harsh. She dispenses with the artful and graceful prose of a novel and lets the facts speak for themselves delivering them to us unobscured. Put simply, she tries to tell us the truth.

City of Lies is an eye-opening read and a challenging journey through the darkest corners of Tehran. It will transport you to another world, but be warned, this world is not a pretty one.

City of Lies is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

PERIODICAL: Jop van Bennekom

BY ALEXANDER MATTHEWS

This year, Fantastic Man celebrates 10 years of being in print. The biannual men’s magazine has received global acclaim for its crisp design, wryly elegant take on men’s fashion and in-depth interviews with, well, fantastic men – from fashion designer Raf Simons to director Spike Jonze.

On a recent visit to London, I popped into its offices for a chat with Jop van Bennekom, who co-founded the magazine with editor Gert Jonkers. Van Bennekom, who studied at a Bauhaus-inspired academy in Arnhem says his “background is very pure, typographical-based design” – his undergraduate education interrogated “formalities – abstraction, working with typography, shapes of form – not with photography at all.”

This has meant his magazine designs have tended to be “very typographically led – how the grid works with textual elements and often times you think of images also as almost textual elements.”

The typographic expert Karel Martens was a “very influential” lecturer, teaching him the importance of a “human touch” – design “needs to have a character… a voice. For me it was never enough that the voice you speak in design is just an abstract one. I want to speak to people more directly.”

“Once you create the content, you don’t want too much design going on, because you already make a statement with the content,” he says. “The design has so much to do with the content and my design is almost nothing: it’s just a very classic typeface with a bunch of rule lines; it’s more how it sounds with the paper – it’s how the whole thing comes together.”

After completing a master’s in Maastricht, van Bennekom launched his first title – Re-Magazine – in 1997. I ask him what has been the biggest change since then.

“I think communication around commissioning and asking people to do things has stayed the same. The process, in a way, stays the same,” he replies. The biggest difference now is that the process is on a much larger scale: it’s become professionalised. In 2005, when Fantastic Man launched, he was the sole designer; now he leads a team that works on four magazines and three websites.

As creative director, his “role is an overlapping one” – he provides input on text, steers the design of each issue and develops visual stories with photographers. During production, he’s constantly “aware where we are in the design process, where we are in the editorial process, how do those two things come together? I do a lot of the bigger things, like the sequencing of images and see how the whole thing comes together.”

His speciality, he says, is being able to grasp “everything from the little detail, to what the magazine represents in a broader cultural sense” – and being able to link those two.

“If you get a good team, that’s half the work. You need to really trust people,” he says. “I do like people to have a go at existing aesthetics and do them a little bit differently, if it’s the right move.”

For the past nine years, he’s worked closely with Veronica Ditting who joined the company as a design assistant; today she’s art director of The Gentlewoman (Fantastic Man’s sister title which launched in 2010). “Our language is very similar; and we’ve also now really grown up with each other,” he says. Van Bennekom was very involved with The Gentlewoman’s design initially, and still occasionally works on the cover or other aspects of the magazine – such as spreads – but otherwise the title is “mainly her design”.

“I have to ask myself all the time: how involved and hands-on am I going to be in certain projects. Every day starts with making priorities,” he says. Even if he were to work 14-hour days he knows he won’t get it all done. So, to keep his head clear, “I’m closing the door much more on my time,” he says: he gets to work at 10 in the morning after training, and goes home at seven.

In 2009, he opened the London office; he spends about 80% of his time here, and it now employs more staff than the Amsterdam one. The shift has made sense – aside from London being “more fun”, a lot of the photographers he works with are based here; many of advertisers are too.

A magazine world of alternative or “left-field” magazines, “hardly exists in the Netherlands” despite a plethora of consumer titles. It’s arguably this which inspired him to start making his own.

“If I’d had my education at Central Saint Martins, maybe I would not have started a magazine… or maybe I would’ve have but would have done it in a very different way – just because there is already an industry here; there is already magazines out where people could have a career.”

Jop van Bennekom

The first magazine van Bennekom and Jonkers founded together was BUTT – “a fantastic magazine for homosexuals” that they launched in 2001. Smutty and smart, its matt pink pages had none of the primped and Photoshopped polish of mainstream gay mags like Attitude and Out.

It was “very explicit in its nature, very direct – it’s not like a luxury environment for someone to sell their bags, or something.” And yet, while “the official gay world – if there is such a thing – found us a little bit intimidating… the fashion world loved it,” he recalls.

When they ran out of money to print the magazine, they wrote to Tom Ford (who they knew was a fan), asking him to advertise. He agreed: Gucci took the back page. Other fashion brands were quick to follow: Helmut Lang, then Dior Homme and American Apparel.

“With a lot of things, a certain kind of success creates more success,” he says. They were able to build on Butt’s success when they launched Fantastic Man. Advertising support from fashion brands right the start was crucial – it helped that this industry “is wide open for change and very welcoming for new things, because that’s also what fashion is about, I guess.”

Van Bennekom believes editorial quality is key to achieving commercial success. While it’s important to have a focus, and a point-of-view, it’s also essential to work with good photographers and writers – to have “a clear language”. “It’s really easy to publish something that’s rubbish. We put the bar very high for everything we do.”

“We make magazines for ourselves and for our contemporaries,” he says. “Our contemporaries could be a girl of 18, but also can be an old man of 79. I wouldn’t say we make magazines for everybody, but I think our own filters are very defined.”

“We only want to feature people that we like,” he says. They avoid promotional stories – articles explicitly tied to the launch of a film or fragrance, for example. “It’s always more interesting to talk to people at the moment who have nothing to sell rather than you getting the same interview that everybody has.”

Unlike some magazines whose content is significantly influenced by business considerations, van Bennekom and Jonkers are “very editorial driven”, featuring the things they want to feature. Sometimes this means doing stories “that don’t link in with the season” or in which it can be difficult to feature advertisers. This builds credibility: Fantastic Man readers don’t want to see a handbag from an advert being “promoted” a few pages later in editorial, he believes. It also gives the content a very personal and curated feel.

“[Fantastic Man] is, in a way, quite a different voice in the media landscape – a voice that doesn’t talk to you as a consumer but as a contemporary,” he says.

What are lessons he’s learnt over the past decade?

“You need to work with good people.” He pauses. “Everything I want to say sounds really clichéd – like you just really need to trust your instinct… you need to be in touch with the times. You need to consume quite a bit of media yourself.”

“I’m more a newspaper person,” he admits – he loves reading the New York Times’s international edition, and devours “an awful lot of the New Yorker”. He gets Apartamento occasionally, likes independent foodie mag The Gourmand and frequently buys Pin-Up (which is edited by one of his former interns).

Despite naysayers whining that print is dead, the past few years have seen dozens of new independent titles land on newsstands. I ask him if he thinks it will reach saturation point.

“I think there’ll be more and more. And probably a lot of them will be short-lived – just because people need to find out a business model.”

After issue five, “it becomes really tricky” – you’ve got to decide whether this is going to be part time or fulltime, and whether it’s viable. “It’s difficult to make money when you’re a plant journal, for instance,” he says.

He believes that labour is much more flexible than even a decade ago: a lot of people who have established small journals also freelance or run other small businesses on the side, making the creating of magazines more feasible than before. Crowd-funding sites like Kickstarter have also helped. “People are more business aware, I guess,” he says.

When Fantastic Man launched, they used some of the earnings from Butt to finance the print run. They looked around for investors and someone to publish it (they believed they didn’t have the know-how to do so themselves) but no one would commit. This meant that van Bennekom learnt a lot about the business of publishing – learning by doing. “I still sort of like it – a bit of spreadsheets,” he says. “I grew up with the logic that if something’s not right in the finances, then that reflects in the whole of the company.”

In addition to Fantastic Man and The Gentlewoman, Jonkers and van Bennekom also produce the magazine of high street fashion brand Cos, as well as Penguin Books’ The Happy Reader. The latter is the first time Penguin has published a magazine. The brief? “To get classic literature out of the dusty library and into the real world and inspire people again,” he says.

“In a way it’s a book club,” he says. Every season, there’s an essay about a book from Penguin Classics; and alongside this, there’s a long interview with a notable reader; this quarter it’s the turn of comedian Aziz Ansari; the issue before that had a conversation with muso Kim Gordon. Using humble newsprint and with book-sized pages, “it’s a zine for literature,” he says.

The aim is to create “something to dip into – an offline moment; a magazine that invites you to start reading books.” That’s an aim that at AERODROME, we can only but salute.

The Fantastic Man #21 The Gentlewoman 11 The Happy Reader

WORK/LIFE: Adam Stower

Adam Stower studied Illustration at the Norwich School of Art and Narrative Illustration at the University of Brighton. Ever since then, he’s been illustrating professionally, collaborating with authors such as Timothy Knapman on books, or writing his own.

Which book changed your life?

The Hobbit by J R R Tolkein. Although it’s not so much that the book itself changed my life, but more the experience of reading it. It was read to me by my mother as a bedtime story when I was a little boy. When I am making picture books and writing for children, that memory is a touchstone for me. It reminds me of how precious, important and wonderful the experience of sharing a story can be. It’s a memory I return to often when I write for children. It helps me see my stories from the child’s point-of-view.

What are you working on at the moment?

My latest book picture book, Grumbug!, has just been published so I am busy promoting that. Next, I am about to begin work writing and illustrating the first chapter book of my own for older readers. As a picture book maker, I am used to only having 700 words at my disposal to tell my story, so I am excited by the prospect of what I can do with a few thousand. The details are under wraps just now, but watch this space.

Describe your workspace.

Cluttered. I am slowly becoming hemmed in by piles of books. The shelves filled up long ago. I crave more space, but I think deep down I find the clutter comforting. I love being surrounded by gorgeous books and bits and pieces I have collected. I find it inspiring. I share my space with two other illustrators. We have a room in a large ugly building, which is filled with a wonderful collection of people doing all sorts of things from ceramicists to bakers, fashion designers to carpenters. It’s an interesting building to be a part of. My window looks out over Brighton, and when the conditions are right, I watch the thick sea mist roll in and slowly engulf the city. It is very beautiful.

The key ingredients for a great picture book?

I think the most important element to a picture book is the main character(s). It is so important that the reader connects with your characters from the outset, as it is through the characters that you will tell your story. I often have more than one main character as I enjoy exploring the relationship between them. I like my books to be greater than the sum of their parts if at all possible. For example, in my book Silly Doggy!, Lily finds a bear in her back garden but she thinks it is a dog – something she has always wanted. There is no mention of a bear anywhere in the text. The reader can see it’s a bear, but Lily is oblivious. I like using pantomime like this in my books. It empowers the reader to know something the character, and seemingly the narrator, does not. It is in this tension between the words and the pictures where the humour and drama resides.

In Troll and the Oliver, again it is the relationship between Troll and Oliver that is at the heart of the book. The traditional pecking order is turned on it’s head. As the story unfolds it becomes apparent that Oliver is very much in control of their situation and the reader’s sympathy swings to the Troll…

If you can manage to get originality, longevity and a twist in there too, then you’re onto a winner.

Oh, and don’t forget a punchy cover. These days it needs to work at the size of a postage stamp, as many customers buy their books online.

The most important instrument you use?

A sketchbook. Not an instrument as such, but it is where all my ideas begin. It is also where I draw purely for the pleasure of it, from my imagination and also from life. I am rarely without one. I even have a sketchbook that can be used underwater. I can’t wait to try that one out while snorkling this summer.

What’s your most productive time of day?

It depends on what I am doing. If I am painting, or inking up a bunch of illustrations for a large fiction job, then I am most productive late at night. This is largely because the phone stops ringing and the email stops pinging. I plug myself into an audio book and I can work right through till dawn.

What do you do when you’re stuck, or not feeling creative?

I try to do something else. I’ll take a walk, go for a swim, or sit and sketch at a café. It’s like trying to remember something that is on the tip of your tongue. As soon as you stop trying to remember it, it will pop into your mind.

How do you relax?

I do what most people do – exercise, see friends, go to the pub, watch a movie. When I have time I like to walk on the South Downs or swim in the sea, but that is a rare treat. I tend to keep very busy hours. Often, I will just play the guitar (badly) or doodle in my sketchbook.

Who and what has influenced your work?

My mum worked as a librarian for most of her career. She instilled in me a love of books. My grandfathers were both accomplished artists too so I grew up in very inspiring and supportive surroundings. The illustrators who inspire me are too many to mention them all. They span from the likes of Heinrich Kley, Ronald Searle, Arthur Rackham and Heath Robinson, to illustrators of today like Chris Riddell, Quentin Blake, Shaun Tan and Oliver Jeffers. And that’s just illustration. I love fine art too – John Singer Sargent and David Hockney spring to mind. And I have to mention animation – The Illusionist, The Incredibles or any early Walt Disney movie. Inspirational material is abundant. It can even become overwhelming looking at all the talent out there through websites like Pinterest.

What were your favourite books when you were a child?

I liked strange stories like In the Night Kitchen by Sendak, or Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor by Mervyn Peake. I was a huge fan of Tintin books too, and Asterix & Obelix – I grew up in Switzerland and my dad would bring home the latest book from the airport each time he returned from a business trip. My brother and I would fight as to who’d get to read them first. My brother won, mostly.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

When I was a first year student at the Norwich School of Art, a third year student looked me square in the eye and said very earnestly: “While you’re here, learn to draw” It seems so obvious, but it can be easy to go through college without taking full advantage of your situation. I worked hard at it and I still practice every day. It is the fundamental foundation of all my work.

Your favourite ritual?

I don’t really have rituals, unless you can count aimless procrastination as one?

What’s the hardest thing about illustrating/making a children’s picture book?

The most difficult thing for me is choosing what to leave out. There is never enough space in a picture book format to include everything you want to. You can’t afford to be precious. You often need to cut out scenes that you are very fond of for the sake of the whole. This distilation process is the only way to end up with the purest and most efficient narrative, but you have to make sacrifices along the way. That can be tough.

What do you dislike most about yourself?

Easy. My bad eyesight.

What are you afraid of?

Bad things happening to people I love.

What advice would you give to people starting out in a career that involves creating kids’ books/illustrating?

The harsh part of my advice is to be honest with yourself from the outset. Are you good enough? It is a competitive and difficult industry. You need passion, tenacity and a thick skin to make a go of it. But, if you are ready for it, then go for it! It is a wonderful way to spend your time and it is hugely rewarding. Find your own voice, be true to yourself, and most importantly for illustrators…learn to draw.  It is easy to let technology take the strain with the digital equipment available today, but computers are just another tool. If you base all your work on a strong ability to draw, then that will shine through no matter what your medium. Good luck!

What’s the thing you’re proudest of doing?

(Cheesy answer alert.) Being a dad to my daughter Mary. But from a work point of view I would have to say having had books of my own published. I never lose sight of what an honour, thrill and pleasure it is to have your own work published. Long may it continue.

Grumbug! is published by Templar.