Not a dying art: Political posters combine creativity, propaganda, public debate
Colorful and uniquely fascinating, AUB collection preserves symbols and causes of civil war era.

by Ramsay Short

© Ramsay Short 2003 -2021

A red bullet shoots across a yellow-black background. The steel tip has a pair of wings upon it. The wings are striped in the Palestinian colors black, green and red. It's Fatah's bullet, on its way to Israel.

 

 

 

It is a powerful image for a poster, at once a work of art, a medium of propaganda and medium of public debate.It illustrates what a political poster can be: a symbolic form of promoting a message or a defense of a cause, the fighting of occupation or the promotion of democracy. In the Arab world, from Iraq to Palestine to Lebanon, especially at times of war with communications down and access to information difficult, the political poster has become an example of a deep cultural and political commitment to – and a forum of – public debate.

Along with Cuba, the Soviet Union and the former communist bloc countries of Eastern Europe, the Arab world has witnessed highly evolved and informed political poster movements.

Iraq in particular witnessed brilliant, intellectual and provocative art as one of the first Arab countries to embrace the poster form. In the last 25 years these have involved only posters from Saddam Hussein's Arab Socialist Baath Party, the Iraq Communist Party, and the General Union of Students in the Iraqi republic. However, they are not less symbolic for it.

 

 

 

Since the 1960s the Palestinian resistance, inside and outside of Palestine, embraced the poster.Although seen by other liberation movements as a marginal, episodic resource, the Palestinian resistance transformed it into a vibrant, censorprovoking art form.

And Lebanon also has seen the evolution of political poster art as a key form of communicating messages and causes with the masses.
Hidden away in the special collections section of the American University of Beirut's Jafet Library, among old Arabic manuscripts, original 19th century photographs and ancient maps, lies a valuable historical collection of Lebanon's civil war posters.

Little explored and yet to be exhibited in their entirety, the archive of 364 political posters gathered through the 1960- 80s, depicts the causes of the PLO, other Palestinian organizations, the Lebanese left, the Progressive Socialist Party, the South and the resistance, and the Lebanese right of the period. They deal mainly with the Palestine question since the 1960s, and Lebanon and the Lebanese civil war between 1973 and 1989.

The collection can be viewed either at the library by appointment, or on the AUB website – one of the results of a joint project in 1997 with the department of informatics at Ostfold University College in Norway, which created AUB's online Digital Documentation Center.

"In the 70s and 80s we had no official poster collection," says Asma Fathallah, chief archivist and veteran of 25 years service at the library, "which struck me and others as something that should not be missed.

"We thought that the political posters displayed during the war were clearly of historical and artistic relevance. So we asked all the students to collect any of the pictures they could that were posted in the AUB over the years, and we also went as much as possible to the sources themselves to acquire the collection," she says.

Fathallah insists the importance of this archive cannot be underestimated, both as a historical resource and a tool with which to help understand the political and social situation of the times.

 

 

 

"Posters are a vital, expressive visual art which have historically been a medium of choice for presenting oppositional voices," she says.
Hence, the decision to incorporate the collection of political posters into the archive.

Raya Khawam, a graphic designer and an assistant professor of graphic design at AUB, wrote her final degree project, The Poster: In Search of an Identity, using the library's collection.

She explained the importance and imagery of the posters.
"Posters constitute a mirror for the times they are created in.Like a mirror they reflect the political and social situation but they also play a specific propaganda role," she says.

"Those who commission them expect that the effective impact of the work of art upon the viewer will allow them to get closer to their desired goal."
That goal varies depending on the circumstances: winning a war or a presidential or parliamentary election, or a struggle to alter social behavior patterns or attitudes.

In the case of the Palestinian posters housed in the archive, their struggle is the national aspirations of the Palestinians, the Zionist enemy,and resisting Israel's occupation of Palestine.

Most of the Palestinian posters sponsored by the PLO in the collection are both powerful and full of color. All are rich in symbolism.A typical one shows a head wrapped in a keffiyeh clutching a sword that is a greenleaved tree, its roots embedded deep in the ground while a redyellow sun shines down. The printed words in Arabic read "revolution until victory."

Many show a vision that is not all violence and war-orientated, presenting a romantic, poetic and lyrical interpretation of the Palestinian struggle.
Another shows Palestinian figures wrapped again in keffiyehs plowing the earth with the phrase, "The land belongs to those who liberate it." Their picks double as Kalashnikovs.

They are as historically important as they are successful in showing the Palestinian struggle in very human terms, a rare voice shying away from the stereotype depicting Palestinians as terrorists.

"One of the most important aspects of the posters in artistic terms is that they took identifiable Arab images and created symbols specific to the Middle East, especially in the case of resistance to Israel and sometimes America," Khawam said.

The most visible and popular of these were the Kalashnikov or machine gun symbolizing armed struggle and resistance, the keffiyeh symbolizing the Palestinian identity and primarily associated with Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, and the stone symbolizing the land.

"The keffiyeh is a major symbol – in many of the posters it evolved into just a patch of black and white, by which time you knew the symbol meant Palestine," said Khawam.

"These symbols, together with an extensive use of Arabic calligraphy, differentiate the Arab posters from other political and liberation movement posters around the world."

"In the Arab world, the traditional hammer and sickle of Russian communist posters became the Kalashnikov, yet the breaking of the chains was a universal symbol for all poster movements," she added.

The Lebanese political posters include a theme of resistance against Israel, but also reflect the ideals of each cause,be it left or right, their self-promotion, fighting each other and promoting the nation.

They also depict in photograph and pictorial form the leaders of the movements at the time, with Egypt's Gamal Abdel- Nasser and the PSP's Kamal Jumblatt showing up most frequently. Also popular were the shaheed or martyr posters, showing photographs of party or militia members killed in the struggle. Others are more cartoonish in style.

Some show the violent killing of enemies that took place during the civil war in caricature and photograph, and include symbolic battles; a number from the Lebanese left of the period show the infamous gunfights and massacres that took place at the monolithic Holiday Inn Hotel in Beirut.

Khawam argues that the Palestinian posters are more artistic than the Lebanese political party ones, and as such make them more powerful in their message.

"The stronger the cause the stronger the poster. The Palestinian cause is more important as a poster theme because it attracted professional artists to paint posters," Khawam says.

 

 

Many local artists as well as foreign artists took part in creating the posters – inspired by the hugely popular theme of resistance against an occupying force.
Marc Rudin was a Swiss painter who worked for 12 years in Palestinian refugee camps in Syria and Lebanon as an artist for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. One of his most famous posters, though not in the AUB collection,shows a Palestinian woman wearing a keffiyeh and breaking the chains that bind her wrists. The wording reads "General Union for Palestinian Women."

A number of those responsible for the posters were either party members or militants from armed groups and, as such, impossible to locate today, often dead or long gone.

Viewing the Jafet Library's collection creates a sense of the power of the poster, a knowledge of the language of images, a basic understanding of the historical uses of political poster art in the region, and an understanding of how such posters create solidarity among peoples, specific groups and nations – and legitimacy for them, too.

These images of political leaders and the symbols of struggle, and the skill with which many are rendered, display not only a national language of images depicted in a non-typical form of mass media, but a sense that this type of international communication has a unique power in mobilizing human interest and emotion.

And as witnessed from the anti-war posters so visible in recent months, the infamous personality posters glorifying Saddam Hussein, and the numerous propaganda posters dropped by NATO planes over Serbia during the Kosovan conflict and more recently over Afghanistan and Iraq, the power and use of the political poster is likely to continue in the years to come.

The Political Poster collection at the AUB Jafet Library archive can be viewed at the university or on the internet at:
ddc.aub.edu.lb/projects/jafet/posters/english.html

 

Ramsay Short is a writer and journalist of British/Lebanese heritage. He has been writing for The Daily Star English language newspaper in Beirut for the last two years, and has been published previously in The Guardian and The Independent on Sunday broadsheets in the UK, and The International Herald Tribune internationally, as well as Aishti magazine in Lebanon. He writes primarily on the contemporary arts, culture, music and political and social trends in Lebanon and the Middle East. Ramsay is currently researching a historical novel on the life of a man born between two worlds - the West and East in a time of confusion and upheaval.

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