Posters that designed a democracy
An exhibition in Cape Town is showcasing handmade posters from the 1980s and 1990s that helped promote the revolution in South Africa.
During the 1980s and 1990s, hundreds of ordinary people from all walks of life interrupted their daily roles to become makers of images that helped promote the revolution in South Africa. Sixty of these handmade posters are on display in Interruptions: Posters from the Community Arts Project Archive, an exhibition at Cape Town City Hall that is part of the Cape Town Open Design Festival taking place from August 13 to 23.
Programme director Sune Stassen says that with Design is for Change as the theme for this year's festival, "it seems fitting that these posters, which changed the course of our nation, should be displayed, and that the chosen venue be Cape Town City Hall, where Nelson Mandela gave his first public speech just hours after his release from prison in 1990".
"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,” Stassen says.
The poster project began when a small group of artists felt a moral call to start a screen-printing project at Cape Town's Community Arts Project (CAP), which launched in 1983. At CAP, anti-apartheid activists could receive training from artists in silk-screen printing, then design and anonymously print their messages on posters, T-shirts and buttons. "It addressed the desire of people who had no voice to express themselves and participate in democracy," says exhibition curator Emile Maurice.
One of the CAP project's founders was Lionel Davis, an artist who majored in printmaking and had previously served seven years on Robben Island and five years under house arrest as a political prisoner. "In the beginning, there were only about four or five of us, and we had no funding, so we had to scrounge around for equipment, even going through waste heaps behind printing factories in search of ink," says Davis. "It was several years before we had proper financing, which mostly came from overseas."
"The posters, which were put up at night in communities, were a rallying call for people to meet to discuss issues like boycotts, forced removals and demands for better education. They helped keep the flame of resistance alive," says Davis.
"We had a progressive slant, but nothing was done illegally – we were completely above board. We did not advocate violence or champion banned organisations." He speculates that this is why CAP was able to stay out of trouble with the government.
CAP was not the only place in South Africa where posters were made. Johannesburg had its Screen Training Workshop but, unlike the Cape Town operation, it experienced sabotage and intimidation. Internationally, there were movements in many other countries producing posters with messages to deliver to the world about the struggle taking place in South Africa, says Maurice.