In the 1980s and early 1990s, during a particularly intense phase of the struggle against apartheid, something quite remarkable and extraordinary happened in South Africa. Literally hundreds of ‘ordinary’ people, all belonging to one anti-apartheid organisation or another, interrupted their usual roles in everyday life – as workers, shop stewards, students and representatives of youth, community, church, labour and civic organisations. In so doing, they become something else – ‘artists’, makers of images. And in so becoming, they at once subverted the centuries-old notion that it was the Artist (with a capital A), trained in the methods, ideologies and formulations of the academy – the disciplinary ‘expert’ – who was the sole authoritative voice of cultural ‘truth’.
What these people, most of whom were aligned to the United Democratic Front (UDF), left behind was a plethora of hand-made posters. These were mostly made by using screenprinting as a means of mass production and communication. In making these posters, they were assisted by a small group of trained artists who believed in the idea of ‘art into life’, who saw their role as one of championing solidarity with the oppressed under apartheid, and who sought to reconfigure the idea of the artist as an individual author in favour of an ethos of collaboration. What the UDF and other organisations aligned to what was called the Mass Democratic Movement (MDM) required was the visual messaging of the anti-apartheid in public life. What artists offered was a strategy of enablement, a do-it-yourself (DIY) means of aesthetically messaging the anti-apartheid, and a co-operative pedagogy of doing, based on the ethics of ‘each one, teach one’. It was this synergy between the need for anti-apartheid messaging and the will of a small group of artists to facilitate collective and subversive political desire that nurtured the counter-culture poster movement of the 1980s and early 1990s.
Many of the posters were also made by this small band of artists. What all of them represent is a challenge to apartheid dictates, in particular what could be said and communicated, and who could say it, within a system of apartheid prescription, proscription, control and restriction through repressive law. What the posters represent therefore is not only a quest to be heard and acknowledged within a system of exclusion along racial, class and gender lines, but also a record of transgression of what may be thought and said. And, in challenging the norms of apartheid, they articulate a visual aesthetic of creative and political interruption and the avowal of an egalitarian future. Ironically, if it weren’t for apartheid, we wouldn’t have had the grand flowering of visuality by ‘ordinary’ and mainly working class people that constitutes the posters, as all of them are responses to, and evocations of, the burden of oppression.
In the South Africa of the 1980s and early ‘90s, resistance posters as subversions of apartheid prescribed thought by ‘ordinary’ people and some trained artists were produced mainly at the Screen Training Project (STP) in Johannesburg and at the Community Arts Project (CAP) in Cape Town, an organisation established to amplify and grow the cultural voice of the disempowered and the unheard under apartheid. Resistance posters were also produced elsewhere in South Africa – by Graphic Equaliser studio in Johannesburg, by small silkscreen units in communities, and by commercial presses allied to the liberation movement. In addition, they were produced by the MEDU Arts Ensemble in Botswana and by various international anti-apartheid movements in Europe, America and elsewhere.
‘Interruptions: Posters from the Community Arts Project Archive’ consisted of mainly South African resistance posters, made by both ‘ordinary’ people and trained artists. The exhibition, however, was supplemented by a selection of international anti-apartheid posters. While the South African posters were all produced anonymously, so as to avoid persecution by apartheid’s security police, where possible the artists who made them were identified by name.
‘Interruptions: Posters from the Community Arts Project Archive’ was curated by Emile Maurice on behalf of the CHR.
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