Giorgio Miescher, Dag Henrichsen. African Posters: A Catalogue of the Poster Collection in the Basler Afrika Bibliographien. Basel: Basler Afrika Bibliographien, 2004. 301 pp. No price listed (cloth), ISBN 978-3-905141-82-5.
Reviewed by Rachidi Molapo (History Department, University of Venda, South Africa)
Published on H-SAfrica (March, 2005)
History writing and its representation are aided by the use of evidence or sources. In contemporary society, there is ample evidence that historians can use them in their interpretation of society; however, one source that historians (and politicians) have not utilized extensively is the "poster." Giorgio Miescher and Dag Henrichsen define a poster as an "established fixture of modernity and a part of everyday life" or as a medium of communication to sell "ideologies and products" (p. 8). In other words, the poster is a feature of contemporary society used to promote a political or an industrial product. Posters fall within the category of visual history but are differentiated from other visual images such as film, sculpture, photography, painting, and so on. Posters are, therefore, part of the historical representation of important historical events.
The African Poster is a product of the Basler Archival Collection, which initially focused on South West Africa (Namibia), and then on Southern Africa more broadly defined and some other parts of Africa. The book is divided into the following chapters: introduction, solidarity movements and exile, solidarity and anti-apartheid, elections, nation-building, awareness and health, economy, knowledge, information, belief, and leisure and pleasure.
The posters in this book vary in terms of the themes being covered. For example, posters acted as mobilizing agents to promote collective memory against oppression. Among the images reproduced in the book are some that depict events that received wide national and international coverage at the time, for example, the killing of about 1,000 unarmed Namibians by the South African forces at the Kassinga massacre in 1978 (pp. 26-27); the Soweto uprising of 1976; and, the death of Hector Peterson, one of the first victims, being carried by Mbuyiswa Makhubo (pp. 64, 66, 77). Some of the posters also depict the ideological conflicts that characterized oppressive regimes opposing the liberation movements. The use of "Black Danger" or "Rooi Gevaar" ("Red Danger") as an election strategy to win the "hearts and minds" of the white electorate was very clear. SWAPO of Namibia was depicted as a "hyena" or a "snake" (p. 91).
The politics in South Africa and Namibia shaped the way in which this book is organized. The banning of the liberation movements in the 1960s saw some leaders going into exile to establish offices to rally support against apartheid domination in both countries. These offices employed posters in their work. The chapters on solidarity/exile and anti-apartheid are a case in point. By the late 1980s, the political situation in both countries and in the Soviet Union was changing, creating the possibility for exiles to return and contribute to free elections and nation-building themes. In the new states, the challenges of rebuilding the economy and the health system were acute. Health and hygiene were promoted to make people aware of killer diseases such as TB and the AIDS pandemic, and again posters were one medium used. Through these campaigns, the state became responsible for the creation of a "modern" lifestyle and "responsible" citizens (p. 163). Other initiatives, such as the saving of water resources, were also undertaken. Through the posters on these subjects, one is able to see the different themes that were used as part of the nation-building project.
The chapter on knowledge, information, and belief deals with the "politics of knowledge." Institutions of higher learning and other information centers were places for the production and transfer of knowledge. Overseas scholars in ex-colonial capitals and elsewhere have dominated the interpretation of Africa's past; however, this situation is changing, as African scholars have found platforms to produce knowledge.
The last part of the book deals with leisure and pleasure. The codes are varied, and include soccer, boxing, music, wrestling, karate, etc. Such leisure activities were highly contested under apartheid. In the mining sector, the compound system and sporting activities were meant to control the "leisure" of the migrant workers. As the authors argue, in "African townships, leisure activities played key roles in constructing sociability among the many strangers and migrants arriving and settling in them" (p. 263). With industrialization and urbanization, many Africans saw sport as a medium through which they could improve their social and economic circumstances. The posters from Pace, a Johannesburg-based magazine, are a reflection of the achievements of these sports heroes, who have become role models in a number of social circles in South Africa.
African Posters is a valuable collection for understanding ideologies in contemporary Southern African societies. The chapters have been made more readable by theoretical or introductory comments on what each particular chapter is about. The good quality of color reproductions and the paper have improved the appeal of visual images. It is not, of course, the last word on the subject, as posters from various other African countries, such as Nigeria and Tanzania, as well as from other countries where posters on the region were produced, such as the United States, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Cuba, China, Australia, and Japan, are not included in this collection.
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Rachidi Molapo. Review of Miescher, Giorgio; Henrichsen, Dag, African Posters: A Catalogue of the Poster Collection in the Basler Afrika Bibliographien.
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