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Rigid? Printing rooted in advocacy

Very few of us go even a day without typing on a keyboard. Unless you are still in high school, just about every word written in today’s society comes from a keyboard.

But there was a time in recent history before the age of mass computing, in which you had to sit at a typewriter to write anything. Newspaper and magazines, phonebooks, menus, just about everything came from a typewriter; the same way everything now comes from a computer. But how then did the written word get mass-produced before the age of ICT?

We have become so accustomed to accessing entire books and every document imaginable or available on soft copy on the internet, that we have forgotten the days before every office had a fleet of printers and scanners.

In ages past, the only way for the written word to be disseminated among the public was through the use of the printing press which was invented in Germany around 1436 by a German goldsmith named Johannes Gutenberg.

Before Gutenberg’s invention, only a minority of Europe’s population could read and write, and that minority was made up of the clergy, members of the church, and the ruling aristocracy.

Religion, for example, was administered by these elites to the illiterate populations of Europe. As nobody could read, the Bible was taught to them in pictures and through the words of priests, hence stained-glass church windows and sermons.

Gutenberg’s invention completely changed the world, as it enabled information to be spread far and wide to all and sundry, regardless of class or sophistication. Before this invention, the only written works available were hand-written manuscripts written by scribes, often under the patronage of elites.

However, you did not need scribes to produce a book, as you could simply etch out the pages onto a metal plate and reproduce them as much as you would like, word for word.

The first Bible ever printed used Gutenberg’s press, American writer David Roos writes that ‘it took three years to print around 200 copies, a miraculously speedy achievement in the day of hand-copied manuscripts.’

The printing press has been used for centuries to mass produce the written word since it was invented in 1463, and large-scale automated presses are still used today to print the very newspaper that you are reading.

However, printing presses were also used to make art, art that could now be copied originally many times over and disseminated far and wide.

Printmaking works the same way a digital printer produces an image. To make a print, a printmaker takes a flat wooden surface and carves an image onto it. Once the artiste has carved their image onto the wooden surface, they then layer it over with thick ink and press the inked plate firmly onto a sheet of paper.

The lines, which the artiste carved out of the 2d surface do not show on the paper, whereas the inked parts of the wooden surface that were not carved out print the ink onto the paper, resulting in an inverted reproduction of the image carved. One image carved into a 2d wooden surface can therefore be reproduced countless times.

Printmaking as an art form is very attractive because of the rugged nature of the printing process. 

Kenya has a rich tradition of printmaking and some of the best printmakers in Africa. Dennis Muraguri’s prints (pictured) are renowned all over Africa, for example, for their vibrant depiction of urban life in Nairobi. Muraguri’s muse is the matatu, which he prints extravagantly with a variety of different hues of inks.

Muraguri’s work does not just depict the matatu as is but is a metaphor for the vibrant hustle and bustle of Nairobi, and the culture of tenacity and hunger that makes Nairobi what it is.

It is no wonder global music platforms like Spotify and Apple Music use Muraguri’s pieces as cover art for their compilations and playlists of East African music.

Only printmaking as a medium could achieve such an effect, as the hard lines combined with the bright and opaque vibrancy of printmaking ink create an image, which is as vibrant as Muraguri’s subjects.

Another Kenyan printmaker who has conquered the global art world is Peterson Kamwathi, whose work is featured in galleries and collections all over Africa and the globe.

In his own words, “My work is an attempt at depicting the different issues that impact on my society and me and, at times, issues that affect the world as a whole. These issues are social, political, or environmental, depending on the specific concerns at the given time.”

His work is deeply conceptual and focuses on his individual grappling with these issues.

Despite the rich aesthetics of printmaking, it is possibly an endangered genre of art. As the digital metaverse expands rapidly, there is more pressure on artistes to digitise their artistic practice.