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Radical Imprints: Visual Tactics of Anti-colonial Struggle

For many groups engaged in the anti-colonial and anti-imperial campaigns of the twentieth century, printing was the medium of choice for visualising and enacting political struggles. Across the Global South, printing presses and workshops were often sites of grassroots activism, and spaces where printmaking techniques could be taught, shared and practiced in the community. Printing enabled resistance movements to reconceive art along revolutionary lines, offering a tactical alternative to the market system, bringing art into everyday life and politics through posters, pamphlets, periodicals and radical publishing projects.
This session investigates the political role of printmaking and graphic design in processes of decolonisation in the Global South. We welcome paper proposals that consider how artists and collectives working in specific sites in Africa, Asia or Latin America and their diasporas used printmaking, and print media more broadly, to articulate anti-colonial imaginaries, mobilise transnational solidarities and shape postcolonial aesthetic sensibilities. How did these practices challenge hierarchical distinctions between the ‘applied’ and ‘fine’ arts? How were political subjectivities made legible on the surface of the reproducible print? How was printmaking technology figured in the cultural ambitions of newly independent nations? And how did the medium allow the limits of modernism to be radically and creatively reconfigured?
The session invites comparative discussion foregrounding understanding of these various art and graphic design practices not as discrete historical, national or geographical manifestations, but as globally interlinked within the broader struggles for decolonisation that were fought throughout the twentieth century, and which in some cases remain unfinished today.

Session Convenors:

Zeina Maasri, University of Bristol
Polly Savage, School of Arts, SOAS

Speakers:

Richard Gray, independent scholar

Polly Savage, SOAS

Constructing Victory: Frelimo’s printmakers and the Mozambican Revolution (1974-1984)

This joint paper considers the printed output of the National Directorate of Propaganda and Publicity (DNPP) in revolutionary nation-building in Mozambique from 1974-1984. During this period, Frelimo, the ruling vanguard party, charged the DNPP to design and distribute a series of poster campaigns that exhorted the population to unite in the building of a new socialist society, and to transform their consciousness in line with the figure of the new man, or homen novo.

The paper brings together a range of perspectives on this body of work, including Richard Gray’s experiences as a cooperante internacionalista (internationalist co-worker) in Mozambique in the late 1970s, and interviews with two former artists of the DNPP and the son of its director, the artist José Freire (1930-1998). Their testimony shows the priority which Frelimo attached to visual culture in enacting its political struggle and how the DNPP’s creative team elided the line between graphic design ao serviço do povo (at the service of the people) and elitist fine art, the practitioners of which Frelimo considered bourgeois individualists.

Deirdre Pretorius, University of Johannesburg

Eternal Honour and Glory: Visualising Freedom Fighters on the covers of Dawn the Journal of Umkhonto we Sizwe from 1979-1988

Following the election into power of the National Party in 1948 the notorious era of apartheid came into being in South Africa. Opposition to apartheid was driven by a variety of organisations, including the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party (SACP). By 1961 these organisations were banned, and in 1961 the ANC moved from its official policy of non-violence to armed struggle through its military wing Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) (MK). MK was founded in conjunction with the SACP, and selected as its logo the image of a warrior poised to throw a spear. This logo appeared on the cover of the mouthpiece for MK, the monthly journal named Dawn, which was published from 1961-1990. Dawn aimed at “keep[ing] MK cadres in exile informed about the struggle against apartheid, to inspire the people of South Africa to become ‘Freedom Fighters for their country’, and to build and maintain the legend of MK and its fighters” (Longford 2022). From at least the late 1970s the Dawn covers carried images, sometimes illustrated, but mostly photographic, and some of these images, such as those of Nelson Mandela, have become iconic. These covers offer the opportunity for understanding how the image of the Freedom Fighter was visualised during a time when the response of the apartheid government to “terrorists” was swift and brutal. The proposed paper aims at presenting a contextualisation and analysis of the covers of Dawn from 1979-1988 within the specific context of protest graphics in South Africa during the 1980s, and more broadly, by linking it to struggles for liberation internationally. The lasting impact of such imaginaries in post-apartheid South Africa will be discussed with reference to the visual representation of The Economic Freedom Fighters, a Marxist-Leninist political party founded in 2013.

Zeina Maasri, University of Bristol

Book Arts as Archives of Decolonisation: Dia al-Azzawi’s Early Artist Books (1968-80)

Decolonisation is a radical project that carried hopes of human dignity and dreams of freedom, national self-determination and cultural affirmation for colonised peoples across the Global South. In the Arab world in particular, publishing was central to the decolonisation of knowledge, imagination and affect, aimed at a growing Arabic readership and at broader networks of transnational solidarity. From the 1950s through to the 1980s, Arabic books emerged as platforms for modern aesthetic experimentation and creative editorial collaborations between visual artists, writers, poets, intellectuals and activists. As key sites of creative imaginings, the visual politics and poetics of books were thus integral to Arab decolonisation struggles. Crucially, for activist artists engaged in a heady and all-encompassing cultural decolonisation process, the mass-produced book promised to democratise modern art through the circulatory power of print culture.

This paper will focus on the important early bookworks by the Iraqi artist Dia al-Azzawi (b. 1939 Baghdad). It shifts recent scholarly and curatorial attention away from Azzawi’s contemporary artist books to examine instead his earlier explorations of the printed book as a democratic artistic form and expressive political act during the 1970s. The aim is to tease out the politics of anticolonial artmaking for Arab artists of his generation and to understand how Azzawi’s experimentations paved the way for new political horizons in book arts at this critical historical juncture.

Lily Beckett, University of Bristol

Liberation in Print: Exploring the Aesthetic, Political, and Cultural Border-Crossings of Beau Geste Press and Post-Apollo Press

This paper explores how Beau Geste Press and Post-Apollo Press emerged as politically mobilised, transnationally oriented small press collectives amidst the globally interlinked liberation struggles of the long 1970s. Founded in 1971 by Mexican artist Felipe Ehrenberg, Beau Geste took root in Devon after Ehrenberg fled Mexico following the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre. Operating on communal principles, the press offered accommodation to artists in exchange for shared production responsibilities, fostering a collaborative ethos wherein “empowerment supposes control of the tools of information, production, and diffusion” (Ehrenberg, 2017). Similarly, Lebanese artist Simone Fattal established Post-Apollo in Sausalito after fleeing civil war in Beirut in 1980. Originally founded to publish her partner artist-poet Etel Adnan’s work, the press gathered collaborators and became the Bay Area’s leading feminist small-press collective. Born from displacement, both presses committed to counter-hegemonic printmaking practices and aesthetic resistance to political domination.

Examining their ‘counter-hegemonic’ practices—collaborations, non-hierarchical structures, anti-capitalist dissemination methods—I reveal how each press sustained a specifically postcolonial aesthetic by forging alignments beyond ‘borders, types, nations’ against the ‘binary thinking’ of imperial thought (Said, 1993). Illustrating my argument, I take Cecilia Vicuña’s Sabor a Mí (Beau Geste, 1973) and Etel Adnan’s The Arab Apocalypse (Post-Apollo, 1980) as case studies. Attending to the particularities of the political situations to which the works respond, I demonstrate how the verbal-visual border-crossings of the printed surface become articulatory sites for each artist’s experiences of exile, their criticisms of imperial domination, and the transnational solidarities forged through the printmaking process.

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