24 October 2013

Images of defiance: celebrating the heritage of the collective

- This story appeared in The New Age on 24 September 2013

Over 25 years ago, a small group of activists began quietly collecting and cataloguing as many South African struggle posters as they could lay their hands on. This was no easy task - in the context of state repression at the time, many of these posters were banned so this work had be carried out in secret, with the growing collection of posters kept in hiding, being moved from one activist's home to another.

On the surface, these low technology posters had no material value - usually produced using cheap materials and basic techniques by unknown artists with little or no training. So what was driving these activists to collect these posters? What prompted this archival instinct?

Cover of publication: Images of Defiance


In a book Images of defiance: South African resistance posters of the 1980s, written by the Posterbook Collective in 1991 and drawing on this body of posters, they explain:

"The story of political posters in the 1980s is the story of the people and organisations that produced them ... not produced by an artistic elite, but by the people of South Africa. They reflect a grassroots vision of the struggle of the present and hopes for the future. They were produced in the face of enormous odds, ranging from a basic lack of skills and resources to outright banning, detentions and sometimes death"

In 1991, the Posterbook Collective chose to donate these posters to the South African History Archive (SAHA), an independent human rights organization with its roots in the United Democratic Front (UDF), now based at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg.

Today these posters today come together as a striking visual representation of the historic attempts of South African communities to assert their right to be heard, to challenge and demonstrate their defiance of injustice and to claim public space to assert and defend human rights in the country.


But arguably, the real significance of these posters today is the story they tell about the power of the collective spirit. Often produced by groups of unnamed volunteers as part of their contribution to the struggle, the creative process was defined by negotiation and collaboration, as veteran poster-maker Judy Seidman describes:

"In the poster movement, this interaction between collective and individual found concrete form in the processes used to generate graphics. Groups debated what images might be used, and suggested changes to each person's attempts to draw them. The group discussed how the intended audience might interpret each image in turn, the individual art makers would respect and invite these inputs"

Indeed poster makers have argued that these posters were made anonymously not only because of the very real risks poster-makers were taking in making these posters. It was also a conscious recognition that the posters being created represented and interpreted the ideas, inputs and creativity of a broader collective, rather than individual creators.

A 1982 statement from Medu Art Ensemble, an anti-apartheid arts collective based in Gaborone who created many protest posters which were smuggled into South Africa in the 1980s, echoes this:

"...artists must learn to break out of the bourgeois trap of individualism, and must discipline themselves to place their talents and their perceptions at the disposal of their communities ... any tendency towards elitism among cultural workers must be countered vigorously, not only by other cultural workers, but also by the community at large"

Silkscreened poster produced by trainees at a Screen Training Project (STP) workshop in 1985. Archived in SAHA collection AL2446


Now incorporated into various educational programmes and publications, exhibitions and heritage events, these visual symbols of resistance continue to summon the language of the Freedom Charter, echoed in the rights and responsibilities now enshrined in our Constitution, and, in doing so, tellingly highlight resonances between past and present struggles for justice in South Africa

As we celebrate Heritage Day this year, these posters serve as a powerful and timely reminder of how far we still have to go as a country and the contribution we can all make in strengthening democracy in South Africa today through the power of collective action.

The Posterbook Collective was Emilia Potenza, Marlene Powell, Charlotte Schaer, Judy Seidman and Maurice Smithers.

Learn more about SAHA's collection of struggle posters

Learn more about SAHA's exhibition kits, featuring the struggle posters