Palestinian posters from the time of revolution

The collection of Ezzedin Kalak

7 Nov 2008
21 Dec 2008

Within the framework of MASARAT Palestine
Exhibition sponsored by the Commissariat Général aux Relations Internationales (CGRI) and the Palestinian General Delegation at the European Union, Belgium and Luxembourg.
Exhibition curated by Rasha Salti

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MASARAT Palestine, an artistic and cultural season in the French Community of Wallonie-Bruxelles, is an initiative of the Commissariat général aux Relations internationales and of the Palestinian General Delegation at the European Union, Belgium and Luxembourg, under the high patronage of the International Relations Ministry in the French Community, Mahmoud Darwich, and with suport from the Ministry of Culture. Conception and Execution: Les Halles. www.masarat.be

The Exhibition

The posters included in this exhibition were all produced between the second half of the 1960s until the early 1980s. They coincide with the time bracket when the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was based in Beirut. Some were produced in Europe, mostly under the patronage of the General Union of Palestine Students (GUPS). The GUPS was one of the most active organizations in university campuses in Europe, the US and the Arab world, founded in 1952, it was also where several of the PLO cadres forged their political experience. There PLO comprised all the political parties and movements that emerged amongst the Palestinian population in the diaspora. They covered the spectrum from right to left, however there were two prevailing trends, an Arab nationalist liberal trend and a Marxist trend. The largest political organization was the Palestine Liberation Movement (PLM), best known under its Arab acronym, Fat’h, founded in 1959, it contained trends that ranged from centrist, Marxist and Maoïst. There were also two other radical leftist groups, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).

Palestinian political movements, formations and organizations as well as the more institutionalized and official Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), produced posters from the 1960s until the middle of the 1980s. Their production was prolific. To a large extent it coincided with the historical bracket when the PLO was chiefly based in Beirut (Lebanon) where it had set-up a myriad institutions, and where civil associations and organizations connected to Palestinians thrived. The historical bracket was also a moment when broadcast television was just breaking into the mass market. The PLO did not own a television station, its information bureau focused instead on the production of films, photographs, reportages, pamphlets, publications, touring exhibitions, and posters. Posters were a foremost tool for the manufacture of image and narrative, on the one hand, they were lightweight, relatively cheap and quick to produce, and they could reach across classes.

The story of Palestinian posters and poster art has several remarkable and distinct dimensions. Firstly, while there may have been international press coverage on the Palestinian Nakba (Catastrophe) in 1948, but it was short-lived and biased. The expulsion of 800,000 refugees was quickly forgotten by the world, and so was the transformation of an entire population into refugees. Until the formal establishment (and recognition) of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Palestinians were without effective “representation” (politically, discursively, culturally, visually). The world remained beholden to the Zionist adage about Palestine being “a land without a people.” The production of posters was one of the most important means for Palestinians to reclaim a human face and narrative, and for their cause to find an articulation, shaped on their own terms, in other words, to become visible.

As the emergence of self-styled, sovereign Palestinian political organizations was the result of a mobilization that rose upward from the grass-roots, the political class it created was also culled from communities of refugees and the diaspora. Its discursive universe as well as aspirations were as much informed from the lived experience of humiliation as it was from the liberationist revolutionary fervor that swept the region (Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, etc.) and the world (Cuba, Chile, Vietnam). The visual and rhetorical vocabulary as well as imaginary of Palestinian posters is visible of these affiliations, kinships and alliances.

From the middle of the 1960s until about the early 1980s (in 1982 the PLO relocated its headquarters from Lebanon to Tunisia), the question of Palestine as well as the struggle for liberation were enounced as revolutionary projects that intended to defeat the settler-colonial Israeli state and up haul comprador Arab regimes complacent to the prevailing order. Thus was the Palestinian revolution perceived and experienced as a profoundly transformative project that sought to restore justice, dignity, equality and sovereignty in the Arab world. In other words, Palestine became a metaphor crystallizing aspirations for a life with dignity for young militants in the Arab world. Soon the PLO attracted a nebula of dissident, gifted and innovative artists and intellectuals to Beirut. Artists and poets contributed to the production of posters (the roster is impressive and comprises some of the most well-known names of modern artists and poets). In their turn artists found the institutional realm as well as resources to innovate and experiment. The “red lines” were remarkably loose (to the contrary of several other revolutions) and there was a world/mass audience to conquer. As such array of experimentation, the diversity and creativity of Palestinian posters is bewildering. It remains until now unprecedented in the Arab world, and remarkable on a worldwide scale.

The Palestinian poster was a medium not only intended to win over local, regional and western audiences and to its cause, it was also an interpellative platform for the revolution’s constituency. Posters were used to popularize a national narrative, a history, chronology, symbols, landmarks and rituals. Important battles and uprisings were recorded in posters and commemorated year after year. So were massacres documented and denounced, heroes identified consecrated, martyrs remembered. So for instance, Jaffa oranges widely identified in the world as an “Israeli” product were reclaimed as a symbol of Palestine; so were the Galilee’s olive groves. The Palestinian traditional folk dress was styled as a national symbol hallmark of Palestinian identity.

The audience was diverse, so were the creators and producers, as Arab and European. The motifs driving a revolution, such as world made anew, a new dawn or a rebirth fueled creativity in artistic expression as well as communication strategy and planning. The involvement of artists, poets, writers, photographers and cinematographers was remarkable. They experimented with a new visual vocabulary, specifically regarding to their own practice. Palestinian posters moved very quickly from the conventions of a “politburo” production, didactism and dogmatism, to foregrounding the poetic dimension of Palestine as a metaphor for a better world.

Palestinian poster art has had a salient influence in the region, it has been foundational in coining visual symbols and logotypes. Political movements –wether transformative or not– borrowed a great deal from the legacy of Palestinians.

Ezzeddin Kalak

One of the PLO’s brightest cadres, early on, Ezzeddin Kalak understood that waging the struggle for legitimacy and recognition in the realm of culture was as important as waging the political battle. Kalak’s genial feat is to have regarded representation and agency as cornerstones of political and artistic practice at once. He mobilized artists and intellectuals to shape a representation and narrative of Palestinians that crystallized their aspirations and image of themselves. He also inspired European artists to see in Palestine a mirror of the world’s injustice. He had realized that the most effective means to counter the traumatic dispersal of Palestinians in safeguarding their sense of peoplehood was also through culture and the arts. If homes were lost, the poetic record of having had a home would remain alive; if the land was too far removed from sight, its visual imagining would remain visible and in myriad forms; if citizenship were denied, then being in the world as Palestinian would thrive.

If one were to deconstruct the legacy of Palestinian poster art as a propaganda machine, its most astonishing feature is the extent to which its production was unshackled from dogma and its articulations close to the everyday lived experience of refugees as well as to collective memory. One of the reasons being that party cadres, artists and propagandists were themselves children of refugee camps (not an elite socially disconnected from “the people”), just like Ezzeddin Kalak, who came from the camps of Syria.

One of the tragedies of statelessness is the impossibility of establishing and administering archives. Ezzeddin Kalak had the visionary foresight to collect the posters produced in Beirut, Damascus and Europe. He may be gone, but he still breathes life into and challenges our imaginary with this vibrant record of how we, Palestinians, once saw ourselves, dignified, sovereign and beautiful, men and women in color and in verse defying a world that denied the simplest fact of our existence. Who could believe that from the grey squalor of mud-drenched, tin-roofed refugee camps, so much iridescence, lyricism, valor and inventiveness could rise to reverse the course of history? For generations ahead we have this gallery/archive to look back on, this astonishing ledger to ground ourselves in time and imagine our being in the world into the future, confident and proud, guarded against the possibility that history might very well malign our destiny again. Ezzeddin Kalak is forever after the guardian of that legacy, tirelessly ingenious, daring our imaginary to find more color, more verse, more metaphors, more allegories to inscribe our being Palestinian in this world anew.

Exhibition Themes

Posters as a visual representation of Palestine and Palestinians. The emergence of sovereign and grass roots Palestinian political organizations in the middle of the 1960s led almost immediately to the establishment of bodies dedicated to the representation and dissemination of their cause. First was asserting the existence of Palestinians to counter the murderous claim made by Israeli premier Golda Meir that “they did not exist”. Second was affirming the humanity and restoring the agency of Palestinians whose representation worldwide had been shaped by international and regional humanitarian organizations mandated with providing relief to refugees and for which purpose had focused strictly on the hapless victimhood of refugee status. Third, was resurrecting and emphasizing the specificity of Palestinians’ national character from the larger affiliation to Arabness to reject international pressure for Palestinians to simply “melt” in fellow Arab countries. The array of posters here, some designed by well-known Arab artists, depict Palestinians in the panoply of national symbols: the Palestinian flag, the kuffiyyah (traditional rural head-dress) the embroidered dress, Jaffa oranges, the Dome of the Rock.

Posters for cultural and artistic events. In no time, the calling of the Palestinian revolution captivated the imaginary of the progressive militant intelligentsia in the Arab world. Palestine became a metaphor for a just, democratic, free, sovereign and thriving Arab world. As regimes became more and more autocratic and intolerant of dissent, artists and intellectuals found haven in their engagement with the Palestinian revolution. At the same time, key figures in the Palestinian intelligentsia and political élite understood all too well that their struggle had to be waged in the realm of culture as well as in the realm of politics. The result was an astounding flourishing of cultural production, often under dire circumstances, that included international art exhibitions, films, publications, concerts and events.

The creation of a history, national chronology, calendar and symbols. Homeland and home-making are as much about geography-making as they are about history-making, in other words, the foundations of national discourse. In their virtue as widely popular and accessible tools of communication, posters became the site for the dissemination of national history, furnished with a chronology, landmarks, stations and symbols. The point was as much to affirm the continuity of the existence of Palestine throughout history up to the birth of the modern state, as it was to bridge between moments of traumatic rupture, after the 1948 Catastrophe and the defeat in 1967. This history was crucial for Palestinian refugees whose lived experience of being Palestinian had not found an outlet for acknowledgement or recording until the emergence of sovereign political institutions. The chronology was not manufactured from top down, it was grounded in the lived quotidian of the struggle.

Denunciatory posters and commemorations of massacres. Posters were the obvious tools for documenting and denouncing attacks and massacres (war crimes) against the Palestinian population. The mere fact that these acts of violence were recorded and identified as crimes was a novelty as the world media was at best indifferent, at worst staunchly unsympathetic to Palestinians. The disparity in capacity and firepower between the fedayyin, a guerilla army that maneuvered in small brigades with commando missions, and the Israeli military, a full-fledged technologically advanced army attached to a society itself structured like an army, was tremendous. Moreover, as the Palestinian struggle become gradually involved in conflicts internal to the region and to host countries, there were also battles and massacres that took place at the hands of local actors. These were also acknowledged in posters.

Posters produced to mobilize public opinion outside the Arab world. Perhaps the most daunting challenge to the Palestinian political organizations was correcting the record on the prevailing perception of Palestinians in the west as either helpless and backwards or aggressive with an unquenchable appetite for violence, far and wide across classes and political leanings. Gradually, between anti-colonial liberation movements and anti-imperialist struggles, the question of Palestine found a terrain of solidarity. Most instrumental in affirming the humanity of Palestinians and significance of the cause was the General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS) that had organizations on campuses all over Europe.
Representing the fedayyin. Revolutions make the world anew, in the case of Palestinians, they transformed from being non-existent, Arabs seeking relocation, silent and submissive victims and terrorists, to being Palestinians in the flesh or a real people with a national home and fearless fighters arisen from the ruins of their tragedy who were fighting back. Brigades of fedayyin were culled from the population and the Palestinian struggle was very much a people’s war. The feda‘i was at once an everyday anonymous Palestinian as well as an epic fighter. His head wrapped in a kuffiyyah, the traditional rural (male) headdress, he was faceless, thus able to infiltrate enemy lines. Posters celebrating his unbreakable will, steadfastness and courage were intended to counter negative associations with “terrorism” as well as to mobilize the youth to join the call for arms.

Posters of martyrs. The Palestinian fighter, self-identified as a “feda‘i” (plural is feda‘iyyeen, or fedayyeen), is the one who has volunteered his life to defend his people and his land, to recover from the humiliation of passive victimhood, and to reverse the historic injustice that he has endured. In terms of semiology, the attribute feda‘i was historically attributed to the Christ, the epitome of martyrs. The modern association to Palestinian fighters was consecrated in a poem in 1936, during the Palestinian popular uprising against the British colonial mandate rule. Every revolution has its heroes, in the discursive 'public' realm that the posters constituted, these heroes were fallen fighters, leaders of commando operations, intellectuals as well as assassinated political leaders. They were acknowledged and recorded in popular history, iconisized but almost never idolized. Posters of martyrs constituted a sub-genre that evolved from the simple format of a portrait, slogan and notable date to expressionist and abstract compositions with poetic verse in lieu of slogans.