15 August 2014
In the 1980s and early 1990s, during a particularly intense phase of the struggle against apartheid, something extraordinary happened in South Africa as hundreds of “ordinary” people interrupted their everyday lives to become artists.
Mostly supporters of the anti-apartheid United Democratic Front, these amateur artists of the resistance left behind a plethora of handmade posters, produced anonymously so as to stave off persecution by the security police, and disseminated underground by those who wanted to see change.
A collection of these liberation posters, from the Community Arts Project Archive at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), is currently on show as part of the 2014 Open Design Festival at Cape Town City Hall, where Nelson Mandela made his first public speech just hours after his release from prison on 11 February 1990.
Curated by Emile Maurice on behalf of the Centre for Humanities Research at UWC, the exhibition celebrates a remarkable grass-roots challenge to the dictates of apartheid, and in particular to the authorities’ attempt to control what could be said, and who could say it, in society under apartheid.
According to the centre, these posters, besides their obvious political message, “altered the rhythms and flavour of life in the everyday by bringing colour, vibrancy, texture and beauty to environments of deprivation and sites of political organisation, particularly in working-class areas.
“If the strategy of political organisation was to create liberated zones in working-class communities by arresting the control of apartheid authority, what we also effectively now had were spaces of aesthetic liberation.”
What the makers of these posters – and other paraphernalia such as banners, buttons and T-shirts – in effect managed to create was “a new class of aesthetic subjects, and a nascent form of ‘visual citizenship’ along the road to political liberation”.
The exhibition runs until 23 August at Cape Town City Hall, on the 2nd floor. Entrance is free.