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Posters that Designed a Democracy

 Posters that Designed a Democracy

During the 1980’s and 1990’s, hundreds of ordinary people from all walks of life interrupted their daily roles to become makers of images that eventually helped revolutioniseSouth Africa. Sixty of these powerful hand-made posters will be 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, from 13-23 August. The exhibition is curated by Emile Maurice on behalf of the Centre for Humanities Research (CHR) at the University of the Western Cape.

“With ‘Design is for Change’ 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,” said Open Design Cape Town Festival Programme Director Sune Stassen. “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.”

The poster project began when after attending an arts conference in Botswana, 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-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 Maurice.

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The selection for this exhibition is drawn from the CAP Collection, housed at the UWC-Robben Island Mayibuye Archives, based at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), and consists of posters made by both ‘ordinary’ people and trained artists. Most of the posters were made in South Africa; several come out of the Dutch and British anti-apartheid movements.

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.”

According to Davis, CAP put out an extended call to the anti-apartheid community that it offered the facility to assist in getting the word out. At first, the artists at CAP were doing all the printing and design, but they quickly realised they needed to create a training programme that would allow people to do their own designing and printing. Once that was in place, the staff of artists were there to assist with putting the designs together in a meaningful way and demonstrating how to silk-print.

“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.

Rather than aligning with one particular organisation, CAP saw itself as part of the Mass Democratic Movement (MDM), and attracted image makers from all walks of life: unions, churches, youth — essentially activists of all kinds. According to 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 own Screen Training Workshop (STP), 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.

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As for Davis, he left the CAP project in 1990. A few years later, he began working at the Robben Island Museum until he retired in 2007. The former prisoner still creates prints and collages using primarily found materials, and shares his experiences from the apartheid years as a public speaker.

Interruptions: Posters from the Community Arts Project Archive can be viewed daily at the Open Design Cape Town Festival, 10h00-17h00, at the City Hall (2nd floor) from Wednesday 13 until Saturday 23 August.

The Open Design Cape Town Festival programme is a mix of 86 ticketed and free events, and the Open Design festival is open to everyone. Open Design Cape Town is a collaboration between the City of Cape Town, the Cape Craft and Design Institute and the Cape Town Design Network.

Find out more about these and other events on the Open Design Cape Town website: – you can also like Open Design Cape Town on facebook and follow @opendesignct on Twitter.

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