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July 28, 2011 | 12:00 a.m. CST
MU Spanish literature professor Juanamaria Cordones-Cook has never taken issue with the phrase “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Many of her favorite volumes lack covers entirely. Cordones-Cook owns an extensive collection of Cuban books known as the Ediciones Vigía; they come in all shapes, sizes and colors and double as works of art.
“I adore them, and they are beautiful,” says Cordones-Cook, who has about 60 of the publications in her personal collection.
The Vigía manuscripts were first created in Matanzas, often called the “Athens of Cuba,” during the Soviet Union’s withdrawal in the 1980s. With printing materials scarce, a group of artists began publishing invitations and small books of poetry with what was available: a borrowed typewriter, a mimeograph machine and various recycled elements such as scraps of cloth, driftwood, butcher’s paper and thread.
Eventually, Cubans’ access to more traditional printing materials improved, and the Vigía manuscripts became more of a novelty than a necessity. In recent years, the small books have shifted toward more elaborate renderings of famous literature, journals and poetry. “The people decided that they wanted to do something more beautiful,” Cordones-Cook says.
In order to maintain the books’ delicate individuality, makers have kept the production process mostly the same since they were first produced. Artists create all the books by hand, and it takes anywhere from one to six weeks to finish an entire edition of approximately 200 books.
Some of the books are bound with scraps of cloth dyed with coffee, others are stitched together with old yarn. Many in Cordones-Cook’s collection feature interactive elements such as pages that fold out into human figures or sliding paper levers like a pop-up book. In many cases, the materials used reflect the design. For example, one cover, depicting a pocket watch on a dark background, is flecked with gold bits — the ground-up remnants of watches.
Cordones-Cook was first exposed to the Vigía while working with Afro-Cuban author Nancy Morejón, whose work is often published by the collective. She immediately saw a place for the decorative literature at MU.
“I thought it would be a great idea to start a collection at MU of these books,” Cordones-Cook says. “The Ediciones Vigía are collected by some very prestigious international (institutions) like MoMA in New York, the Royal British Library, and there are a few universities that have a good collection of Vigía.”
The Museum of Modern Art, or MoMA, in New York has a collection of about 20 Vigía books. Thanks to Cordones-Cook, the Museum of Art and Archeology at MU has a collection of more than 100, and enthusiasm for the books at the museum is high.
Cordones-Cook is part of a committee, funded by a Mizzou Advantage grant, that consists of members from various other colleges in the university, that is planning an exhibition of the Vigía collection in November 2012. The exhibition will include two documentaries, produced and directed by Cordones-Cook, art activities, coordinated by art students from MU, and an appearance by Rolando Estevez Jordan, the head designer of the Vigía books. Many of the books that will be on display are rarely seen.
Today, much of the text published in the Vigía could probably be downloaded to a Kindle or iPad at half the cost, but it wouldn’t have the same creative quality. Even with technology quickly rendering most traditional print books obsolete, Cordones-Cook says she isn’t worried about the Vigía.
“In an era where everything is going digital, this is thriving because these books are art objects,” she says.