Ediciones Vigia: Handmade Cuban Books

Books that are handmade generally connote the precious — objects made for the lucky few who can afford them. But handmade books can also function as strategic items of survival, fabricated in order to preserve one’s culture when under threat.

In 1985, at La Casa del Escritor (The Writer’s House) in Matanzas, Cuba, two young poets, Alfredo Zaldivar and Rolando Estévez, co-founded Ediciones Vigía, a publishing house for handmade books and journals. The two worked with a small collective of artists, writers, designers and helpers, none of whom were paid. The only equipment the group had was a typewriter, an aged mimeograph machine and whatever supplies they could muster.

“Our intention was, from the beginning, to produce books that were works of art,” Zaldivar, the director, said in a 1995 interview. “Vigía emerged out of aesthetic necessities.”

At first Vigía focused on works by mostly unknown and unpublished Cuban writers. Gradually international authors and writers as famous as Gabriel Garcia Marquez became contributors. The books sold for approximately one dollar at publishing time, and after that cost from $10 to $25.

One of Vigía’s helpers was Dr. Jeanne Drewes, a manuscript preservationist who worked with Vigía numerous times on their “assembly line,” often bringing needed materials to the collective from the States. Drewes also bought over 100 Vigia books and journals, which she gave to the LaBudde Special Collections at UMKC Libraries.

Ten years before Ediciones Vigía was founded, all cultural organizations in Cuba were institutionalized under MINCUT, the ministry of culture. Ediciones Vigía was able to avoid the radar of the authorities, however, because Estévez, as the graphic designer, decided to make artworks from nothing. The Vigía motto became “Hay que resolver,” Spanish for “we make do.”

There was no paper, so the group fabricated “bagasse,” a brownish stock made from sugarcane that has been called “eco-friendly by default.”  Because of their fibrosity, pages could not be folded perfectly, which created a slightly irregular, but charming quality in all the books and journals. The first publications were fairly simple and pocket-sized. Over time, sophisticated stenciling techniques were developed for images and lettering, and everything was hand-colored. Materials from botanicals to sand to yarn were recycled and collaged onto the handmade pages.

The extraordinary inventiveness of the Vigía members has resulted in some of the most unique, inspiring and delicate hand-made books of the last half century.

Elaborate constructions became the norm, and attachments such as foldouts, inside pockets with puzzle pieces, and beaded necklaces were painstakingly fashioned for books usually made in editions of 200. One of Drewes’ most amazing donations is La Ronda, a poetry book by Mae Roque from 2005. In this work the figure of a bare-breasted, gun-toting woman is revealed only when the cover flap is lifted. She has a wound on her neck that is covered with hand-painted gauze, and her belt has hand-cut and colored letters individually added onto each copy of the book.

In a number of instances, Drewes has donated more than one copy of the same book. “I want people to realize that even though there are multiple printings of the same text, each book is actually singular and unique. At Vigía, everybody had to do everything, and nobody was more important than anyone else. You may have written the book, but at some point you were on the assembly line gluing away.”

Elisabeth Kirsch

Elisabeth Kirsch is an art historian, curator and writer who has curated over 100 exhibitions of contemporary art, American Indian art and photography, locally and across the country. She writes frequently for national and local arts publications.

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