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African Section Poster Collection: A Closer Look

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(The following is a post by Talia Lieber, Junior Fellow 2021, African Section, African and Middle Eastern Division.)

Our previous blog post presented an overview of the African Poster Collection amassed since the 1960s and now held in the African and Middle Eastern Division. The 700 plus posters from the African continent address a wide variety of subject matter, including political campaigns, voter education, and liberation movements and public health. Many of such posters are printed by governmental organizations or NGOs to promote healthy habits and disease prevention. Other posters promote the cultural heritage and natural landscapes of African nations. For example, a poster endorsing Namibian Heritage Week sponsored by the Millennium Development Goals Achievement Fund contains photographs of Namibia’s food, landscape, wildlife, and culture, as well as the slogan “Remember Your Heritage” that is overlaid on top of an image of the national flag. Another poster produced by the Blantyre Branch of the Wildlife and Environmental Society of Malawi features a topographical map of Malawi with arrows and labels pointing to the country’s national parks, wildlife reserves, and nature sanctuaries. In addition, the poster serves as a calendar with the months of the year 2010 printed on its left-hand side, their combined length mirroring that of the enlarged map at center.

A poster with images of a man, food, natural scenes, and an elephant.,
Remember your heritage. Millennium Development Goals Achievement Fund. Photography: Casper Erichsen and N.C. Prinsloo Namibia. Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.
A poster with the map of Malawi.
Malawi’s National Parks, produced by the Wildlife and Environmental Society of Malawi Blantyre Branch Malawi, 2010. Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

Despite their subject range, the posters in the African Poster Collection share several key features as products that were printed and distributed with the intent to be seen by a public for a specific, time-bound purpose. The material qualities of the posters are light-weight and easily transportable, but are more fragile than they are durable. Although many of the posters are laminated on malleable paper, they remain brittle with tattered edges, creases, folds and stains that mark their use and circulation.

In their introduction to “Posters in Action: Visuality in the Making of an African Nation,” authors Giorgio Miescher, Lorena Rizzo and Jeremy Silvester suggest that posters act through their ability to evoke reactions and memories. They add that “as ephemeral documents, posters question the hierarchies of documentation, collections and, in the last resort, epistemologies of knowledge production.” (p. 10) The posters in the collection are artifacts that also document historic events, adding context to a period of time through their visual metaphors and direct messages. Although a poster might grab the attention of its audience, it does not necessarily speak for itself. By continuing to preserve and study these posters, we can better understand the settings in which they were produced. Below is a brief bibliography of scholarly sources related to African poster production that points to the larger body of rich literature examining posters as a mode of African visual culture tied to histories of modernism and protest.

For reference assistance, contact the African and Middle Eastern Reading Room via Ask a Librarian or (202)707-4188.

Learn More

Behrend, Heike and Tobias Wendl, eds. “9/11 and its Remediations in Popular Culture and Arts in Africa.” Berlin: LIT Verlag, 2015.

Henrichsen, Dag, Giorgio Miescher, Lorena Rizzo, and Jeremy Sylvester. “Posters Act: Namibian Poster Action and the Photographic Poster Archive.” Kronos, no. 35 (2009): 160-74.

Miescher, Giorgio, Lorena Rizzo and Jeremy Silvester eds. “Posters in Action: Visuality in the Making of an African Nation.” Basel: Basler Afrika Bibliographies, 2009.

The Posterbook Collective/South African History Archive, “Images of Defiance: South African Resistance Posters of the 1980s.” Johannesburg: Real African Publishers, 1991.

Prins-Solani, Dierdre. “Struggle Ink: The Poster as a South African Cultural Weapon, 1982-1994.” Cape Town: Robben Island Museum, 2004.

Seidman, Judy. “Red on Black: The Story of the South African Poster Movement.” Johannesburg, Real African Publishers, 2007.

Wolfe, Ernie. “Extreme Canvas: Handpainted Movie Posters from Ghana.” Los Angeles: Kesho Press, 2000.

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