Posters Designed Under Apartheid at Warren Siebrits Modern and Contemporary Art
by Michael Smith
Every white South African of my age has his or her own 'growing up in the 80s' story. For many it involves hair gel abuse and wearing out the grooves on new wave vinyls. For others the stories are darker, often involving the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) in some way. In the small Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal) town of Ladysmith where I grew up, the shadow of the army and all it represented loomed large in our collective consciousness. I lived in Barrack Road, one of five parallel streets named Camp, Parade, Barrack, Beacon and Battery. Down the road, waiting for the school bus on the perimeter of one of the most infamous infantry camps in the country, 5SAI (Fifth South African Infantry) training camp, I would watch as the troepies were put through their paces. Stories would circulate between the boys in my school about the worst form of group punishment the soldiers were subjected to, the appropriately-named opvok ('fucking up'), during which soldiers were made to carry all weapons and webbing and run for ridiculous distances. Some puked, some passed out, some probably even died, but the opvok carried on until the officer in charge decided it was finished.
The older I grew the more I felt the inevitability of my entering the army. The way white society functioned at that point of apartheid was to insist on the importance of institutions like the army for our continued collective survival. To even begin to question the function, relevance or ethics of the army was social and political heresy. Worse still, it felt useless to even consider resisting the mechanisms that would ultimately result in one 'klaar-ing in'. Unless you were willing to stomach the six-year prison sentence that the likes of David Bruce and other conscientious objectors faced, you were headed for the forces.
Then, when I was about 14, my sister went away to the University of Natal Durban (UND). Her return after the first term was accompanied by suitably radical student literature, especially pamphlets and ads in student newspapers for the End Conscription Campaign (ECC). One could imagine the profile of the average ECC member: a bit alternative, definitely quite trendy in their taste for Emithini clothes and brown leather shoes. Inevitably they possessed the much-vaunted underground compilation Forces' Favourites, an ECC-endorsed collection of tracks critical of the SANDF, including James Phillips' razorsharp Hou My Vas Korporaal. Either way, they were like nothing I had encountered before. Suddenly, a different kind of consciousness became accessible to me, in no small part due to the aesthetics of struggle culture.
It was with a reawakened sense of this heady period that I wandered around Warren Siebrits Modern and Contemporary Art's show 'Posters Designed Under Apartheid'. Siebrits' acumen as a curator sensitive to the pivotal trends in SA visual culture is frequently referred to in my writing; this show cements his position as a curator of immense power and importance. The show spans the last three decades of apartheid, and considers the visual, conceptual and political import of posters for dismantling apartheid, or at very least resisting its powerful stream of misinformation. It also broadens its scope to include anti-apartheid posters made overseas (most notably by New Yorker Keith Haring), and even some pro-apartheid posters.
The poster is a hugely symbolic format for any political or social struggle. The appeal of the poster for resistance groups, at least until the advent of the Internet, was that it provided a means of mass communication that could potentially elude government control and censorship. Under apartheid this was especially true: draconian censorshiping of the press, broadcasting and even art meant that the sanctioned spaces and forums for communication with a public were denied to dissenters. The poster, by contrast, could be easily and cheaply mass-produced, and if it was removed (as these so often were) its multiple nature meant that it could be easily replaced. Posters represented one of the last possible ways to re-politicise public space for the purposes of conscientising and ultimately mobilising a mass of people which the state was alternately trying to brutalise and anaesthetise.
This is especially true of the numerous posters developed by the Community Arts Project (CAP), which took on the role of visual statement producer for the United Democratic Front (UDF). Siebrits has sourced six A1 format silkscreen posters which call for workers 'in the mines, on the land, on the streets, in the factories' to acknowledge May Day. Aesthetically the images are quite remarkable, representative of a very particular subgenre of printmaking that swept through South Africa in the closing years of apartheid. Using flattened picture planes and emotive gestures, the works are unavoidably agit-prop, yet they retain a stylistic power that makes their messages all the more compelling.
Across the room from this, Siebrits has placed a classic South African political poster: the wide horizontal format of the UDF's One Year of United Action silkscreen opens out to reveal workers engaged in a march, their factory in the distance like the smoking Bastille in Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People. The reduction of the image to two colours (red and yellow) and two neutrals (black and white) makes it visually captivating; one can imagine how much more so it would have been to a generation of white South Africans raised on fear of 'die rooi gevaar' ('the red peril').
As if to make a point about the real importance of culture as a conduit for the struggle, Siebrits has placed a number of images from the right wing in close proximity to the UDF posters. One is an orange-white-and-blue concoction issued by the National Party (NP) quite soon after the death by assassination of H.F. Verwoerd. The image, which ironically recalls the stylistic traits of high Soviet propaganda images of Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin, establishes a lineage from the early apartheid leaders J.B.M. Hertzog and D.F. Malan through to Verwoerd's successor B.J. Vorster. Its text, set awkwardly across the top of the horizontal format, proclaims 'Getrou op dieselfde pad' ('Steadfast on the same path'), as if to reassure an electorate shaken by Verwoerd's dramatic demise. The work is visually clumsy, and its uneven arrangement of heads from left to right evokes precisely the kind of unease it was intended to allay.
Another image, from 1974, reveals both through its overt message and its aesthetics, the extent of the inglorious desperation of sectors of the white population. This is a poster for an independent candidate in the Pretoria municipal by-elections, by the name of Mrs. M.M. Viljoen. The amateur nature of the poster is evident in its shaky typography, its uneven colour quality and compositional ineptitude. Mrs. Viljoen boldly offers her constituency 'Blanke parke' (whites-only parks), 'Laer lewenskoste' (lower living costs), 'Blanke Kerkplein' (whites-only Church Square) and 'Blanke sport' (whites-only sport). Yet the visual uncertainty of this poster serves as a document of the instability felt by many of apartheid's beneficiaries.
The image from this show that stayed with me, possibly because of the history alluded to in the beginning of this review, is a large poster issued by the ECC. With their trademark chain splitting into separate links which spell 'ecc' along the bottom of the format, the poster lifts Picasso's famous monochromatic painting i>Guernica. Above and below this, in bold red type, is the statement 'A civil war is not very relaxing'. I couldn't help thinking that even in 1986 the ECC knew that a highly militarised culture had us headed towards an opvok that would overshadow all that came before it.
Opens: September 13
Closes: October 5