Images of Defiance
by Robyn Sassen
In July Artthrob reviewed the exhibition of South African apartheid protest posters, entitled 'Images of Defiance'. Notices in the exhibition space proclaimed that the book accompanying the show would be out soon. This was a little ambiguous: the book had been published in 1991, but the exhibition was about celebrating democracy's decade, and the book was to be relaunched. The show closed without the book anywhere in sight, but December finally heralded its anticipated launch, at the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Houghton, Johannesburg.
Emilia Potenza, Marlene Powell, Charlotte Schaer, Judy Seidman and Morice Smithers put together this publication in the late 1980s, when it was not, strictly speaking, kosher, in terms of the (albeit crumbling) apartheid system. Sensitively, they have changed nothing: the book is allowed to speak plainly from an anti-apartheid, pre-democratic standpoint. The overall effect is not dated, interestingly, and is fresh but didactic: as history textbook, it could be really valuable now.
Written in a cleanly objective tone, the book is not text heavy, including nine chapters, with a foreword by Johannesburg's Mayor, Councillor Amos Masondo and a preface to the reprint, under the authorship of the Posterbook Collective and the South African History Archives, who also produced the publication. The foreword to the original is written by Nelson Mandela.
A build-up, focusing on poster making in South Africa, leads to the body of the text. Comprising succinct two-page texts on politics, labour, community, education, militarisation and, repression and culture, each chapter provides an explanation of the situation under apartheid, the demands and the issues, followed by a noisy array of posters that contributed to each issue. Concluded with a detailed timeline and an explanation of the ubiquitous acronyms, it is well-considered, timeous and complete.
The posters shout with passion and conviction, of self-belief and bravery in the face of a bigoted oligarchy. Because of cost, security and pragmatics, most were printed in three colours or less. Many are silkscreened: produced in the romantically politically illicit back rooms of activists, with inked up screens and squeegees operated clandestinely by union members, not aestheticians. Some are visually successful, some not. Some are cleanly and accurately printed, others not.
The point is not visual acuity, compositional judgement or colour harmony, but the legibility of the message. There are many reflections and renditions of angry crowds gesturing with fist and song against the rulings, the insane legislations, the detentions without trial, the killings and the grim governmental secrets.
In 1989 in an ANC cultural forum, Albie Sachs challenged artists to produce works which 'bypass, overwhelm and ignore apartheid', commenting on the one-dimensional approach of nakedly political art. Looking at the role that these images have played in our democracy and our identity, and the fact that they were celebrated in a large-scale visual exhibition, this is questioned. Curator Jillian Carman and Seidman submitted a paper to the 2004 South African Association of Art Historians Conference, teasing out the implications of this point.
Yes, the image of protesting fist and flag, and what has become the hackneyed anti-apartheid image of Hector Peterson carried tragically by his classmates on June 16, have universal one-liner meaning. But the history of South African democracy and the role that the visual language plays in having lubricated its wheels is unavoidable, in the light of postmodern dynamics and conceptual manoeuvres. Seidman and Carman astutely argue the art identity of these posters.
Their point holds water. South Africa, newly emergent into the world of international art politics, poetics and gesture, is still South Africa, with indigenous proclivities, sensitive spots and realities.
'[W]e need not be condemned to wander through a post-modern landscape,' Seidman and Carman say, 'we do not have to bemoan the death of history ... and we do not have to stand at the receiving end of the line from the 'elders' of our global village - too often, from critics, galleries, museums, collectors in New York or Paris or London ... we do not have to watch our own art being cherry-picked by these critics ... before we can recognize its value'.
That said, can any poster be art, and any squeegee wielder with strong political conviction be artist? This opens up many debates, pitting visual awareness against the realities of our country's identity. Indisputably, though, this book is important and with appropriate readership, it has the potential to attain the recognition it deserves and be put to use in an appropriate way.
Images of Defiance: South African resistance posters of the 1980s 2004. STE Publishers, Parktown, Johannesburg.