The Palestine Poster Project: A Virtual Memory of Struggle and the Everyday

(Designer: Ismail Shammout, PLO Unified Information, via the Palestine Poster Project Archives.)

By: Leah Caldwell

Published Tuesday, December 6, 2011

It’s been over a decade since American graduate student and activist Dan Walsh conceived the Palestine Poster Project Archives. His early, more modest efforts had Walsh exhibiting hundreds of Palestine posters online. But since 2009, his fledgling collection – which served as a component of his Master’s thesis – has become a veritable archive of 6,000 posters and counting.

The Palestine Poster Project Archives are now most likely the largest collection of Palestine posters in the world, according to Walsh.

The archive is organized through four “wellsprings” or central themes, such as Palestinian nationalism or international artists, but the site also features dozens of categories that are ideal for browsing, like El Al airlines or Leila Khaled.

It is difficult to highlight a single poster in the seemingly bottomless archive. Each poster carries its own weight and story. The US-based Walsh put it succinctly when he said, “Posters are a reflection of their moment.”

For Walsh, that initial moment was in Marrakesh in the mid 1970s when, as a Peace Corps volunteer, he began his opportune collection of Palestinian posters. A glimpse at the archive and you could even mentally reconstruct the streets of the period.

One poster from the PLO, dated 1974, is on slightly yellowed paper with tattered corners. It reads in black and red ink: “A martyr for Palestine. A martyr for Morocco. A martyr for the Arab nation and Islam.” A photo of a man's face accompanies a descriptive biography in careful calligraphy. The poster is artful enough that its preservation might seem natural, but its relative obscurity could have just as easily relegated it to a short life on a wall in Morocco.

“Five to ten years ago, a person was lucky to see a faded Palestine poster on some wall in Paris,” Walsh said. “Today, you can see it on my website before it’s printed.”

This mix of happenstance and professional graphic design has helped shape an eclectic archive.

"In Palestine, [the posters] take on a whole other purpose as you look in the archives,” said Rochelle Davis, assistant professor of anthropology at Georgetown in Washington DC and Walsh’s thesis advisor. “There are ones about wearing seat belts and puppet shows, and they're much more about everyday life, whereas the ones in Lebanon and Syria tend to be more about the struggle."

In 2003, Israeli daily Haaretz said that flipping through Walsh’s nascent archive was “like reading a diary of the Palestinian nationalist movement.”

“I thought I’d be at the top of AIPAC's list of unfriendly sites,” Walsh said. Yet the anticipated blowback from Israeli interest groups never materialized. Walsh attributes this to the unique format of the site: alongside thousands of Palestinian nationalist and international solidarity posters, there is a trove of historical Zionist and contemporary Israeli PR posters.

A key poster in the collection from 1935 encourages people to “Visit Palestine: The Land of the Bible.” The poster was made by the Tourist Office of the Jewish Agency for Palestine. After 1948, the Israeli Tourist Department encouraged people to instead “Visit Israel: The Land of the Bible.”

“This site tells the story of political Zionism as told by Zionists. I'm simply presenting the documents that Zionism has created itself to tell its own story,” Walsh said. “There are two narratives presented at my website, the Palestinian nationalist and the political Zionist, and they've never been put together like this before.”

Alongside a collection of Fatah’s first posters from the late 1960s or Hamas posters commemorating Qassam Brigade martyrs, you can find a collection of kitsch tourist posters from the pro-Israel PR firm BlueStar. “Ski Israel” one poster advertises; “With mounting pride and dignity, Hamas brings the good news to our steadfast Palestinian people of the martyrdom of our heroic leader,” reads another.

“The PPPA is a level playing field,” said Walsh.

It is notable that posters with such polar messages share the same database, but it’s this juxtaposition that makes the archive a valuable resource.

For Daniel Drennan, assistant professor of architecture and design at the American University of Beirut and member of the poster project's advisory board, a poster can be a “revolutionary artifact.”

“There's cultural expression that's resistant and against the status quo, but then you have expression that sustains the dominant discourse,” he said.

Drennan's work has examined the role of the poster as a form of political resistance. As movements transform over time, Drennan believes it would be easy to decontextualize certain posters from their original political milieu.

With the Palestinian poster though, Drennan sees opportunities for activist communities to find common ground in the Palestinian iconography of resistance, as opposed to just discussing the merits of design.

For Walsh, the aim of the archive is multi-fold, even including a curriculum designed for American high schools, but he has sought to demonstrate that “the Palestine poster was not a random and haphazard medium used sporadically, but it is a genre and has all the facets and elements that legitimate any genre.”

Comments

Wonderful article, and one agrees wholeheartedly with Daniel Drennan.

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