Posters have been used for political purposes in South Africa for more than a hundred years – usually to introduce a candidate for election.
But in the 1980s in South Africa, people increasingly used posters as a way to express their feelings or opinions. The poster became a powerful tool of communication and a visible expression of anger against the oppression of apartheid.
How were these posters made?
Protest posters from this period had to be made in secret – often in garages or community halls. Cheap and accessible reproduction techniques were needed, low-technology but efficient. Silkscreening was an ideal technique for this, as it made it possible to print hundreds of identical posters, in several colours if need be. Simple and quick, it didn’t require electricity or expensive equipment.
Silkscreening involves using a woven mesh attached to a frame to support a stencil. A rubber squeegee is pulled across the surface of the mesh screen, to force ink through the woven mesh. The ink penetrates through the open areas of the stencil, while the closed areas of the stencil block the ink from going through. This ink is then pressed onto the paper or cloth beneath the mesh screen to form an image. This can be repeated many times.
There were no computers with printers then, as we know them now: now we can just print out any numbers of pages, with any kind of design on it, in minutes. Instead, under these conditions, each typeface would be hand-designed, and each letter or image laboriously and individually cut out of the stencil, with a hand-held blade.
Several activist groups produced political protest posters. The posters varied from very simple designs to highly sophisticated ones. In 1977, several South African artists living in exile in Botswana formed the “Medu” group, “Medu” meaning “roots” in Sepedi. Their mission was to create art that would help to speed up radical change in South Africa. They preferred to call themselves “cultural workers” rather than artists, because they felt that they were doing important work for society. Medu’s posters were smuggled from Botswana into South Africa, and secretly put up on lamp posts and public walls at night. Other groups in different parts of South Africa also set up silk-screening workshops – such as the Screen Training Project in Johannesburg, and the Community Arts Project in Cape Town, among many others.
Because the posters were quickly ripped down by the police, it was essential that their images and messages were very immediate and easy to understand. Popular symbols – such as a raised fist – could be easily recognized, and viewers could quickly identify with the imagery.
Photographs of Nelson Mandela were banned while he was in prison. As a result the only photographs of him that existed had been taken before he went into prison in 1963. Cosatu therefore created this “Release Mandela” poster
based on descriptions provided by people who had visited
him in prison.
Talk About This
Look at the posters carefully and try to answer the following questions.
What is the first thing that catches your attention when you look at the poster?
What effect does this poster have on you? How does it make you feel? Do you feel it would change the way you think about the issues it raises? If so, how?
What words appear on the poster? How have the designers made sure that you can read these words easily?
What colours are used in the poster? Why has the designer chosen these colours?