News Column

Designs on peace

August 13, 2014

A STENCIL of Madiba with the simple words Release |Mandela became an iconic image during the struggle. Before digital |revolution and social media, posters, pamphlets and T-shirts were the visual language of resistance.

Interruptions: Posters from the Community Arts Project Archive is an exhibition of 60 handmade posters from the 1980s and 90s that played a role in revolutionising South Africa. The exhibition is part of the Cape Town Open Design |Festival, which runs until August 23.

The festival theme is Design for Change and it takes place at the City Hall, where Nelson Mandela gave his first public speech hours after his release from prison in 1990.

Programme director Sune Stassen says the venue is apt to convey the message of using design to positively affect people's lives. "After his speech, Mandela took on one of the biggest and most renowned design projects to date - designing a democracy - and through his success, proved that design can indeed pave the way to change in many important areas of life."

The poster exhibition, curated by Emile Maurice on behalf of the |Centre for Humanities, is drawn from the Community Arts Project (CAP) Collection, housed at the UWC-Robben Island Mayibuye Archives. It was sparked by the Art Towards Social Development and Change conference in Botswana in 1982. Artist Lionel Davis, 78, says people were urged to go back to uplift their communities and impart their skills.

He and many others went to CAP as a springboard for screenprinting. While there were commercial printers, they served the interest of the apartheid regime, says Davis. They started with old bathtubs and discarded screens which they cleaned.

"It was our humble beginning," says Davis. Soon after, with the formation of the United Democratic Front in 1983, and Cosatu in 1985, the rise of civic groups and the intensification of resistance, they became very busy.

Davis says they were printing posters and pamphlets for public meetings, banners, as well as T-shirts. "We didn't do them too far in advance because you didn't want the security police seeing them. The posters would go up moments before the meetings, in the dead of night. They helped keep the flame of resistance alive," he says.

Established artists and amateurs got involved. Groups of people were eventually trained in the art of screenprinting and poster design, and there were collaborations.

Among the artists who created posters are cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro, Trish de Villiers, Simon Dunkley and Clive Helfet. But many of the works are anonymous.

"Most of them don't have names. At that moment it was not about the individual, it was about working towards a goal together. There was no individual glory," says Davis.

They also didn't want police harassing the artists.

The exhibition displays various campaigns and themes - including June 16 commemorations, End Conscription Campaign, rates boycotts, labour issues - and eventually climaxes with the general elections of 1994.

After political parties were unbanned and Mandela freed in 1990, people had access to commercial printers, and this is where the printing project started dying out. Davis left and later began working at the Robben Island Museum. He now works as a freelance artist. But the poster project remains a dear part of his history.

Maurice says the old posters are all the imaginings of a different future. "The question is, what kind of future were they imagining? Where are we in relation to that?"

Maurice says this period produced a cultured citizenry, and the exhibition demonstrates the |contribution of ordinary people. "It addressed the desire of people who had no voice to express themselves and participate in democracy."

Stassen says the poster exhibition, along with several others, proves that design is not all about being "fancy schmancy". Instead, it's about using it to lead change and addressing basic human needs.

"Allow us (designers) to be part of the process from the start. We're trained to look at things from a different angle. We can come up with better, more sustainable solutions."

Talks have been carefully selected to show how design skills can be applied to other sectors. It's about finding ways to bring together the formal and informal, and putting ordinary people and experts on the same platform, says Stassen.


Cape Argus

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Source: Cape Argus (South Africa)

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