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How a creative director’s passion project became The Book About Nothing

Inspired by the wit and imagination of his children, what started out as a side project for Toufic Beyhum turned into a timely opportunity to amplify the work of 10 illustrators from across the globe. At a difficult moment for freelance creatives, The Book About Nothing is a testament to how creativity for creativity’s sake is sometimes just what’s needed to inject a little colour back into the world.

Toufic Beyhum is a father of three. He is also a creative director at Y&R Namibia, a photographer and an impassioned advocate for side projects. He’s wary, he says, of any creative, that doesn’t have something else going on.

“Advertising can get to you after a while because you’re always doing creative stuff for somebody else, so it’s good to get the creative juices flowing.”

When two of Beyhum’s children, Bilal and Laith, came to him one rainy afternoon then, to show him a creative project of their own, he was intrigued (if a little sceptical).

“If you have kids then you know that they bombard you with stuff all the time. But when they gave me this book they’d just stapled together, I could tell it wasn’t just one of their usual, slightly crappy pictures. And then when I read it, I found myself just laughing and laughing.“

Titled The Book About Nothing, it is full of keen observations such as ’trees are just sticks’ and that ’cement is just sticky sand’.

“I knew it was my youngest’s idea because he has always had such a dry sense of humour, but he couldn’t write at the time so had been dictating to my eldest who had written it up and drawn the pictures. Now the pictures were terrible, even by their standards, and they hadn’t put any effort in at all. But I could see that the ideas were fantastic. It was profound and hilarious.”

Beyhum saw an opportunity to develop his sons’ work and so took to social media with the aim of compiling a catalogue of artists and illustrators that he admired with the idea of approaching them to help flesh out the ideas.

Soon he had lined up a wishlist of illustrators and convinced them to each take on one of the book’s 10 statements, but there were no directions and no deadlines. “I just told them, this is the idea and you can do whatever you want.“

Tyrone Le Roux-Atterbury, Ben Giles, Kyle Platts, Jungho Lee, Chrigel Farner, Tishk Barzanji, Joey Rex, Linn Fritz, Petrus Amuthenu and Nanna Prieler all agreed to get involved. And, gradually, Beyhum had artwork coming in from all over the world, from the UK to the USA to Germany, Austria, Korea, Kurdistan, Sweden, South Africa and Namibia.

Artists in place, Beyhum’s next challenge was to find a way to bring their artwork and Bilal and Laith’s ideas together into a book. He approached a few publishing companies close to him in Namibia, but they weren’t overly interested in publishing a children’s book – or an art book for that matter.

The subsequent decision to search for an independent bookbinder to work with lead Beyhum to Heléne van Aswegen, an independent art, and bookbinding technician who teaches at The University of Stellenbosch in South Africa.

Due to the nature of Van Aswegen’s work, she only takes on a small number of projects each year, binding each book by hand as well as advising on the look and design of the project.

In their collaboration, Van Aswegen and Beyhum both agreed to keep the spirit of Bilal and Laith’s original book alive in the bound version and have preserved their handwriting both inside and on the cover.

“I didn’t want to lose the essence of what they had written all those years ago.“ After all, says Beyhum, the book really is for them to have and keep when they are older. “It’s for them, as much as it has also been a passion project for me.”

Beyhum feels that the process has had a timely resonance. Although his home base of Namibia has been largely unaffected by the coronavirus, he knows that’s not the case for many of the artists he worked with.

As the process of researching and commissioning the illustrators was done entirely remotely, the journey of bringing The Book About Nothing to life has provided Beyhum an insight as to how creative collaboration might continue to take place digitally in the future.

He also stresses that the onset of coronavirus has signalled a difficult time for many creatives, with freelancers being hit particularly hard by the crisis in light of tighter budgets and postponed projects.

“I know it has been a tough time for many of them as most of them don’t work for agencies and are mostly freelance. That’s why I wanted to push this for them now, so they might have a platform to showcase their new material.”

Beyhum says having the book to work on over the last few years has been ”such a breath of fresh air” and emphasises that he hopes it inspires up-and-coming creatives to flex their own creative muscles in their free time.

“In fact, I hope that my juniors at Y&R Namibia see me doing this and that it inspires them to pursue their own passion projects. I hope they see that it doesn’t have to be for the benefit of anyone else and that it can just be for you.”

What started out as a personal project between a father and his children transpired to be an international labour of love for everyone involved.

“It was never for profit. I just wanted to platform these artists. But I think it turned out to be a passion project for them too and not just me.”

Not bad for a book about nothing.