When Gunifort Uwanbaga came to the Netherlands together with his family as refugees from the Rwandan genocide of 1994, one of the first things his mother did was take him to the local library. By exposing him to books, she believed, he would quickly pick up the language. She was right of course, like all mothers are. Not only did he quickly learn Dutch but the numerous trips resulted in a deep-seated love for books.
Many years later Gunifort went on to study International Business Administration while working a side job at MENDO – Amsterdam’s epicentre for aesthetically pleasing books. He obtained his degree and shortly after became a promising private banker trainee. Over time it proved difficult to part ways with the bookstore and soon he started to combine working at the bank with weekend shifts at MENDO. It was the place where he truly felt at home. Realising that doing both jobs was a bit demanding, he decided to go and speak to the store’s founders about his vision for the future of the business. The rest is history; Gunifort quit his job and became a partner of MENDO alongside Joost Albronda and Roy Rietstap.
Over the last three years MENDO has self-published over forty books. According to Gunifort, visual appeal is one of the key factors it takes into consideration when selecting new printed titles. He believes that the unbeatable feeling of browsing a beautiful book is one of the reasons the store will survive the digital era. Here, he shares his ideas on the future of publishing and explains what it is like to be the only publisher of African descent in Europe.
What is the most special book you have in your possession?
Four years ago I received a very special gift from my father. It is a book in which he has basically gathered photographs and stories from my life prior to fleeing Rwanda, which is incredible seeing the fact that we barely have any possessions from that time. It has special meaning for me because when me, my little brother and my mother left our home country, my father wasn’t able to come with us directly. My father ultimately joined us many years later and the time spent away from each other initially caused a bit of a rift between us. Nowadays our relationship is a completely restored one, and this gift plays a special part in it. The book is like a legitimation of my past: a reminder that I existed and who we ‘were’.
It’s as if you indirectly inherited the gift from your father. What is it that draws you to art and culture books so much?
To me one of the most important aspects of books is their tangibility. You can love photography and save images in a designated map on your phone or desktop, but ultimately you experience things with all your five senses. You need to touch. Books to me have always been shrouded in an aura of mysticism because so much craftsmanship, resources and time goes into making them. In that light, ending up in a book – or being ‘framed’ by a book – almost grants the work of artists a right to exist.
“Part of the series ‘Street Still Life’ is a very recognisable scene from my younger years in Africa. And I’m positive I won’t be the only one to have that nostalgic sentiment. I especially like the cropping of this particular image; you cannot see the subject’s face, making it more of a still - life than a portrait. For me, this image is an evangelistic reflection of a resource-rich but underdeveloped land full of youth, hope, and longing. The resourcefulness of Africa in one image!”
What’s it like rolling into the publishing world without having any background in it?
Apart from the sporadic museum visits, my exposure to art and photography prior to working at MENDO was pretty limited. Everything I’ve learnt about it is from the last three years. But it’s been a really interesting couple of years, particularly since we have seen so many Black artists coming to the fore. If you look around our store now, you’ll come across titles like The New Black Vanguard, Iconic Black Women Who Revolutionized Fashion, and many more. It’s like this migration has taken place from celebrating the cisgendered, white narrative to celebrating the voices of the marginalised – which is something I really champion. It does, however, pose a bit of challenge for me as a publisher. How do we make a selection? On the basis of what criteria do we decide to publish a book about it?
We always try to go with artists and photographers whose intentions are sound. But also photographers that go out there, and capture stuff that hasn’t really been done before – photographers who are pioneers. We have an entire table displaying Dana Lixenberg’s books at MENDO for instance, who over a long period of time spent time in LA’s housing projects to document its communities. While you do have to always ask the question who has the right to capture what, to me Dana’s books are special because she really invested time in her subjects.
You’ve been hailed as the only publisher of African descent in Western Europe. What’s it like to carry that title?
It is something that I do like to emphasise as I hope that by ‘spreading the word’ fellow publishers of colour will reach out to me. I tried to find them myself but they are scarce.
In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests I wrote a statement on our website which stated that as a publisher of African descent, I recognise the essential role I play in supporting positive change led by Black communities, as well as the other racialised or marginalised people and communities. As a result of that post, countless pitches of people of colour flooded in, something quite unique. While it in turn meant I had to be critical and selective – which was extra hard seeing the fact it is sensitive subject matter – it is providing us with the opportunity to tell the stories of those that have been largely ignored.
txt: Rolien Zonneveld