Political Posters for the Twenty-First Century: A Spotlight on the Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative

Poster of Apartheid Wall

Apartheid Wall by Eric Drooker. Credit: Eric Drooker {link url="http://drooker.com"}(drooker.com){/link}.

In Apartheid Wall, artist Eric Drooker’s contribution to a collective political poster project called Imaging Apartheid, a determined man with a sledgehammer attacks the wall erected by the Israeli government in the West Bank.

Language matters. Drooker, a Jewish New Yorker transplanted to Berkeley, deliberately uses the controversial term “apartheid wall” preferred by many Palestinians and some Israeli critics rather than “security fence” or similar terminology preferred by the present Israeli government. Whether or not one agrees with the use of “apartheid” to describe the situation in the West Bank, one has to appreciate the provocative force of this political poster—and the important questions it raises.

Drooker’s poster invites viewers to see how the wall in effect annexes Palestinian territory without negotiations, thereby hindering serious talks regarding a peaceful settlement with a just resolution for both Israelis and Palestinians. Widely condemned by human rights organizations and the United Nations, the wall is a daily reminder of the humiliations of a seemingly endless occupation. The poster advocates the destruction of this barrier that has wreaked havoc on the daily lives and health of Palestinian women, men, and children, who are hindered from traveling freely on lands that supply their subsistence.

By creating this image, Drooker—a longtime socially conscious painter, graphic novelist, and cover artist for the New Yorker—joins a large body of progressive Jews and others who have criticized oppressive Israeli policies. His sledgehammer imagery takes part in a growing tradition of artistic opposition to the wall that includes British guerrilla artist Banksy’s critical and moving paintings on the wall itself. It’s a tradition that has gained momentum through the work of groups like the Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative, the worker-owned collective that organized the Imaging Apartheid project to which Drooker contributed this image. Imaging Apartheid brought together many prominent artists who created political posters calling attention to oppressive Israeli policies in the occupied territories. Exhibited and distributed originally in Montreal, these works are now being circulated through numerous activist distribution networks.

It is projects such as Imaging Apartheid that prove that, despite the cultural changes of this digital age, the political poster—a venerable, centuries-old medium of visual social commentary—remains a powerful part of activist culture in North America.

From the nineteenth century to the present, political posters have been effective in bringing activist messages to large audiences throughout the world. However, since they’re most often produced by lesser known or unknown artists (with the exception of Kathe Kollwitz, Pablo Picasso, Ben Shahn, and a handful of other famous artists who occasionally used this medium), political posters are usually consigned to the margins of conventional art history. That’s why, in these pages, I’d like to offer a brief recent history of this genre and introduce readers to some of the most inspiring political poster art in North America today, namely, the works of the Justseeds collective and of Canadian artist Jesse Purcell.

A Brief History of the Political Poster

In the early part of the twentieth century, aggressive posters accompanied the struggles of working men and women in organizing labor unions and resisting economic oppression in many countries around the world. Militant posters were likewise prominent in campaigns for women’s right to vote. The Soviet and Mexican revolutions generated a large body of political posters, and the Spanish Civil War catalyzed some of the finest political posters in the early twentieth century.

The politically tumultuous 1960s also generated thousands of political posters throughout the world. In Cuba, for example, the Organization of Solidarity with the People of Africa, Asia, and Latin America produced colorful political posters supporting liberation movements on multiple continents.
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