Graphing the ever-mutable image of Lebanon’s Civil War

April 19th, 2008 | Posted in Beirut, Lebanon, Politics, Repression, Resistance, Solidarity

    Jim Quilty. Daily Star. Saturday, April 19, 2008


    Photo: Nadim Asfar. Beirut.

BEIRUT: In the wake of the summer 2006 war, Beirutis were witness to a curious contest. All over town red-and-white billboards, in Arabic, French or English announced “I Love Life.”

Appearing early in the political wrangle that has riven Lebanon’s citizens into two camps, the ad campaign seemed apolitical. Yet, as it implied the Other are more interested in killing and martyrdom than enjoying life, the ad was explicitly partisan.

A slew of other designs mocked this effort to depict half the country’s citizenry as life-hating zombies – “I Love Capitalism,” “I Love Sectarianism,” etc. The first response of the political Other, though, was simply to reiterate the motto of its attackers: “I Love Life.”

These twin campaigns represented an interesting conflation of dueling foreign-policy agendas, international ad capital and parochial political interests.

Zeina Maasri’s current exhibition,”Signs of Conflict: Political Posters of Lebanon’s Civil War (1975-1990),” ignores this late-model political advertising.

The plethora of styles practiced during the war years – paintings and sketches whose styles range from the work of local artists to newspaper-style caricature to pop-art psychedelia; photo portraiture and collage – and the ideological content they express, seem exotic compared to today’s drearily bi-polar options.

A judicious reading of the impressive research project this exhibition samples, though, will provide some insights into the multifaceted origins of Lebanon’s present political-advertising discourse.

The 35-year-old Maasri says she started this project in 2003 when she found the American University of Beirut, where she teaches graphic design, has a collection of Civil War political posters. She was drawn into the collection by her interest in noncommercial graphic design and out of a desire to understand something about the Civil War in which she grew up.

“I asked myself,” Maasri says, “‘To what extent do these posters tell the history of the civil war as much as they do the history of graphic design?’

“I’m interested in the iconic aspects of the posters … as a form of popular art, they tell you much more about people’s social and political fears and anxieties than the political speeches and treaties do.”

Maasri’s exhibition is comprised of some 300 political posters issued by 30-odd political factions during the Civil War.

Its first leg is graphic chronology of the war, supported with basic information on the major warring factions. Its horizontal axis is a year-by-year graph of the war’s benchmark events; the vertical axis samples the poster output of the various parties over this period.

The second leg – “Themes, Icons and signs” – is analytically structured. It takes up four major themes Maasri uses to characterize the different political factions’ posters in various phases: Belonging, Commemoration, Leadership and Martyrdom.

These four sections examine the significance of these themes in the discourses of the Civil War’s contending parties and how the various groups represented these themes.

In addition to the hung exhibition, “Signs of Conflict” is equipped with an archive room to access Maasri’s complete database of 700 posters. Complementing the computer database is a print archive.

The curio value of these images makes a casual stroll through the exhibition inherently interesting. Listening to Maasri distinguish the posters’ various stylistic influences and depict the changes in their production, trebles the exhibition’s meaning.

One of the first stylistic elements to strike you is the influence of pop-art models upon the posters from the 1970s, particularly those generated from the political left.

“This is not by chance,” Maasri says. “The work of the Arab and secular left was influenced by the Palestinian resistance posters, which in turn was influenced by the aesthetics of the Cuban Revolution. By adopting these icons of revolutionary struggle and international solidarity, the Lebanese left of the 1960s brought the pop psychedelic into the political sphere.

“Another theme evident in this work is the use of caricature – utilizing the relationship between art and politics that already existed in the political cartoons of the Arab world.

“Another is that of the politically engaged artist. Artists whose works are now being sold for tens of thousands of dollars used to volunteer to make posters for various parties on the left. They weren’t commissioned as professionals. This phenomena was common worldwide.

“The work of artists like Rafic Charaf, Helmi El Touni and Paul Guiragossian isn’t pop art. It’s in the style of artists who tried to create a modern Arab identity through their work.”

The stories underlying the political posters of the other parties, though different, are equally interesting.

“The role of political posters among the parties of the Christian right – the parties we used to call the Christian Right – was quite different. There are several reasons for this. The left had a political relationship with the Palestinian resistance groups and so had assistance and access to their resources that the others didn’t.

“Also, the tradition of political engagement was a leftist one. The major exception to this on the Christian right was Pierre Sadek, a great artist wedded to Kataeb ideals … Generally, parties like the Kataeb and Lebanese Forces put more weight on magazines and newspapers rather than relying on posters.”

She gestures to the sample of wartime periodicals, official political documents, published treaties and newspaper clippings arrayed along one wall of the exhibition’s archive room. “This room has been included to reflect that the posters were part of a broader media activity on the part of the party.”

As they were latecomers in the conflict, it’s no surprise that Hizbullah’s means of political-poster production was somewhat different again.

“Among the parties only Hizbullah had a permanent staff of artists. Hizbullah posters are eclectic,” Maasri says. “You don’t see them composed in a single style. Their artists were trained by Iranian artists – who had their own experience with the revolutionary poster, which was itself eclectic because they mingled revolutionary themes with Islamic motifs.”

The Lebanese Civil War was a mutable conflict. What began as an ideological struggle between the pro-Palestinian Arabists and secular leftists on one hand and the right-wing parties who dominated government on the other, became an increasingly sectarian affair. In the course of these changes Lebanese shifted their political loyalties, sometimes multiple times. New political groups were born. Older ones became moribund.

One of the more interesting aspects of Maasri’s exhibition is that these changes are reflected in the political posters.

“There are a few cases of artists migrating to other political parties,” she says. “Rafic Charaf first worked with the Palestinian groups before moving to the Communist party. He did his best work for Amal.

“The posters in the 1960s and 1970s are very different from those of the 1980s,” she says. “In the 1980s [when the war assumed a sectarian-criminal aspect] many artists withdrew from political activity. The exception was the resistance to the Israeli occupation in the South.

“The rhetoric also changes. One party founder grew to become an iconic leader of the secular-Arab left. By the time his son replaced him, the struggle had changed to one of ensuring the continued existence of the tribe. The political struggle constructed these identities.

“The iconography changes from one that represents the leader as of the national and socialist left movement,” she gestures to one poster, “to one that spoke to one sect alone.”

You follow her gesture to an image of a young boy holding a Kalashnikov. The slogan reads, “Son of the Mountain.”

Zeina Maasri’s Signs of Conflict: Political Posters of Lebanon’s Civil War (1975-1990) is up at the Planet Discovery exhibition space until May 1. Maasri’s book of the same title is slated to be published by IB Tauris. For more information ring +961 980 650, extensions 2649-2650.

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