Emma Vandermerwe was born in South Africa but grew up in Switzerland and France, studying fine art at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, before completing a master’s in art management at City University, also in London. She worked in that city’s arts scene for more than a decade, and in 1999 was appointed as assistant curator and registrar of the Cranford Collection with Andrew Renton. In 2011 she joined the SMAC Art Gallery when its Cape Town space opened.
What are you reading at the moment?
The latest Artforum. A practical manual on beekeeping in South Africa — my partner has given me a beekeeping course for my birthday. Celebrating Love by H. H Sri Sri Ravi Shankar the founder of the The Art of Living. And a recent Monocle magazine reviewing the top global cities. (Monocle also has an amazing radio station.)
What book has had the greatest impact on you?
Toni Morrison’s haunting Beloved. A powerful, dense novel. Here the spirit of a murdered child in the shape of a mysterious young woman haunts the Ohio home of a former slave Sethe. Dazzling and raw, the poetic narrative builds to its unstoppable painful conclusion and I feel it is arguably her best work to date.
What is your favourite novel of all-time?
Pride and Prejudice — I am a romantic and a closet Jane Austen reader. Combining wit, truthful social commentary in the nineteenth century and observations of a young women as she searches for her self, there is sharp humour, scathing social judgement and unsavoury gentry.
What were your favourite books as a child?
Closest to my childhood heart is my mother’s recipe book for baking, full of chocolate stains and hand amended notes.
Also Le petit prince by the French aristocrat, writer and poet Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. With simple and yet beautifully profound conversations between a little prince and various satirical characters, it still retains so much more each time I read it.
What’s the last book you gave as a gift?
At the end of last year I gave Willem (Boshoff) my first edition copy of Fragments of a Poetics of Fire by Gaston Bachelard. Having spent time together and spoken for weeks at the gallery I felt he would enjoy it thoroughly. His smile suggested he would.
Which book have you never been able to finish?
I have started Emotional Intelligence by Dan Goleman’s a few times, but ……
What book do you turn to for advice?
Since the age of sixteen it has always been Julia Child’s The Way to Cook — it is a lifeline and a fountain of knowledge.
The most influential art book?
For myself as a young art student studying in London in the late 1990s, there was Art in Theory 1900 – 1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. It is a comprehensive and exhaustive collection of writings by artists, critics, philosophers, politicians, and literary figures from Lenin to Julie Kristeva and Richard Serra. The newer edition extends all the way from 1900 to 2000.
Your favourite book illustrator?
Although not a “book illustrator” per se, I have found Raymond Pettibon’s drawings impressive. Reflecting on the highest through to the lowest culture, his comic like, ambiguous and often sexually-charged imagery is complied in numerous monographs, animations, LP covers and billboards.
What is the best inscription anyone has written in a book for you?
My mother has always been my favourite inscriber. On my twelfth birthday she referred in a copy of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet about raising children. A few decades later, I feel blessed to understand what she meant.
If you could have dinner with a dead writer, who would you dine with and where?
It would be John Keats the poet in the gardens of Le Jardin du quay Restaurant, in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, France. He suffered terrible tuberculosis, and I think the warm Provençal night air would help, while we enjoyed the lovely seasonal set menu.
If you could be one fictional character, who would it be?
I think Virginia Woolf’s Orlando — a reincarnating romantic character who lives 400 years as various men and women throughout the ages of English history and literature… need I say more?