Like television, posters engage a wide audience: through a combination of words, slogans and images, they are a powerful tool of communication, reaching out across social strata. Relatively cheap, and mass produced, the poster as a communication medium gained mass prominence and effect during WWI, and served then as a prominent tool of morale lifting, safety warnings, as well as motivating and sustaining efforts at rationing and mobilisation during the War. For a long time, posters were the tool of choice of communication for political parties, the entertainment industry (especially cinema), and also for advertisement. Plastered around cities, on roundabouts, under bridges, on highways, on electrical posts, in narrow alleys across cities, remnants of these long gone messages from the 70s and 80s can still sometimes be guessed or peaked at under chipped layers of paint, or more recent layers of newer posters around various Arab cities. Hard to control or monopolize by the state, posters would keep citizens informed, entertained, or simply chained to the marketing industries. Most ubiquitous were enormous cinema posters, sometimes the size of a two-story building, or political posters with slogans of a political party, images of “the leader”, martyrs, or a timely social or political message. They are remnants and testimonies of bygone gentler eras of mass communication, when the immersive messages of the digital media that we witness nowadays, from the staging on TV of a self-burning in utmost despair and protest, or the cruel mass killings staged by some parties their staging and mediation calculated for maximum fear and control, or the daily bombardments of social media were unthinkable possibilities.
What struck us as we were going through the posters collection held at the Archives and Special collections at Jafet Library was the numerous parallels, messages, iconographies and connections that crossed fields and mediums: sometimes the title of a cinema film poster would be echoed in a political one in a verbatim manner, and vice-versa. Sometimes, the gender or political message would be echoed across mediums (political and art poster) or fields (entertainment or political industries). The message would thus become amplified, deepened or enriched across layers of time and fields, across geographic locations, images, symbols, graphics, colors, and methods of printing. Many of the posters we currently hold in our Library collections were once plastered on the walls of some of the major Arab cities in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, from Damascus to Beirut, to Baghdad and Cairo: they then created a rich dialogue and a discourse across time and geographic locations, one which can be guessed in the small traces they have sometimes left on the walls.
In this exhibit, we decided to take these posters out of their drawers, hoping that they would speak to us, fueling a dialogue, a new way of looking and thinking about the Middle East, now that this medium seems to be coming to us from a bygone era, when digital media is the language of the day, and when “unmediated media”, immersive and relentless, seems to be swallowing our everyday. May this step aside, or backward, promise us a gentler mediation, when the pain of others still hurts, and encourages us to do something, to be active agents of change, rather than mere spectators? We invite you to take a look here at a number of these posters, and delve into the worlds of meanings, insinuations, tongue in cheek messages that they embody, propagate and reinforce. They indeed constitute a very apt entry point onto our modern Arab societies’ “fields of vision and mediation”. We hope they can also serve as an entry point into rethinking mediating and representing our region in more accurate, heartfelt and constructive ways than what we have witnessed in the past few years.
Exhibit Curators: Kaoukab Chebaro, Abeer Medawar and Yasmine Younes.
Acknowledgments: Many thanks go to Dalya Nouh, Shaden Dada and Samar Mikati for their support in background research and content development, and to Sara Jawad for her design and technical support.