Curator's note: This poster was originally published by the GUPW for its delegation to the UN's conference on the Decade of Women in 1980. In 1988 the PLO office in Washington, DC retained Liberation Graphics to reprint it. This is the reprinted copy. The original may be viewed here
Extracts from a correspondence with Marc Rudin on his cooperation with Palestinian Liberation Organisations from 1979 through 1991.
Tell me something about the problems and contradictions you had to cope with doing visual artwork in the context of a war of liberation, but also about your everyday life as a commercial artist in countries of the periphery (Trikont).
To start with I'll tell you how I came about designing posters in the first place: In 1975 / 76 I was working with a group of painters in Milano. We were painting large-formated graffiti on the walls of squat-houses and on naked walls of the district Porta Ticinese. At the time I was paying visits to Palestinian comrades who were living in Italy. We talked about my work and they proposed that I should design posters for the Palestinian resistance movement. I was full of enthusiasm and by the end of September I reached the port of Saida by trawler as the airport was closed at the end of the civil war.
I was given a small room on the rooftop terrace of a building seven stories high. I had nothing more than bits of paper (sometimes just the reverse pages of old posters) and some felt pens to work with. It was shortly before the fall of Tal al Za'atar. So I was first asked to design a poster that should have the title: Tal al Za'atar, symbol of the antifascist resistance. A Kalashnikov gun was standing in a corner of my room. I picked it up, had a look at it and I knew I had a topic for my first poster. While working I had to evacuate from the building all the time because the terrace was exposed to incessant shelling. The fascinating bit of my work was that the distance between myself and the people I was working for was much smaller than it had been in Europe. I also became aware in a more direct way whether they appreciated my work or not. The feedback was rather straight and made no detours.
The lino-cutter and anti-fascist Oement Moreau, after twelve years of exile in Argentine, came under pressure by the take-over of Peron. He wrote in 1947 /48: «I was working a lot during these years. I have also learned a lot and I'm standing here like a tree bearing ripe fruit with nobody to pluck them.» You have also been working and learning a lot during the twelve years of your exile. On your tree have also grown a lot of good fruit. But I think because of your close cooperation with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) your situation in exile was easier than it has been for Moreau, who was working as a free lancer. The fruit of your work has been plucked by the Palestinian comrades. Have you been paid for?
They paid the rent of the room I was working and living in. Whenever I was ill, I was looked after as well. I never had to pay any doctor or medicine. I was also provided with material for my work. Very often there were enough good clothes that came from the collections of used clothes in Europe. On top of it I received a very small salary like all those working for the cause. It was more like a pocket-money, just enough to pay for food and transportation. We were living on very little like everyone else in the camps. We adapted our needs to those of our neighbours. Somehow we were happy to have partly escaped the western pressures of a materialistic society. We were doing well. I could do non-alienated work, I never had any money, but I also never had any financial straits.
It seems to me that this was a very beautiful and conscious sort of cooperation, full of solidarity. In Western Europe we don't know it that way. Posters are designed free of charges like any other engagement in leftist groups and movements; nothing against that of course. We are used to earn our living from other sources, which is a lot more easy over here anyway. But sometimes I think that this kind of work is not taken for being worth very much -because it is done for free. But anyway, when you were living in Bern, Paris or Bienne, you had to earn a living which meant constant interruptions, disturbances and diversions while working on a poster. In Beirut or Damascus instead you were able to fully concentrate on an idea and work it out. You were not the only graphic artist in the organisation: Who decided who would do the incoming jobs?
Usually we decided collectively at the beginning of the year for which events and anniversaries we wished to produce posters. We also discussed other ongoing projects like the designing of calendar leaves. This work was distributed among all of us. During the year there had also to be done the posters that were responding to actual events. These posters were drawn by those who had an idea on the topic at the time.
Tell me something about the productive process of a particular poster, for instance the one you've designed for Labour Day 1984), Palestinian workers - avant-garde of the revolution, which shows a working man with a wrench in his hand in front of a red flag.
On the left we can see his face in profile as well as the Kuffiya; the poster itself is almost filled with bis «strong arm» (all the wheels have stopped turning) and its extension through the wrench. The point of it is the shadow of the wrench on the red flag in the form of a Kalashnikov barrel. This slight friction of natural laws intends to remind watchers that the armed struggle has to be linked inseparably to the struggle of the proletarian masses, if it should not end in defeat. How did you stumble on this topic and how did you work it out?
In the peripheral countries (Trikont) the industrial working class has not been developped to such an extent as for example in the newly emerging economies. Therefore Labour Day is not yet playing such an important role for the masses. Marxist avantgardes have got to propagate it as a link between the national struggle for liberation and proletarian internationalism. Because I was raised in an industrialized country this was my job to do. I was also showing more interest in the topic than the others did (perhaps out of old memories or sentimentality, who knows?). Most of the time the idea for a poster crossed my mind while I was walking through town or sitting in cab. Visual impressions may have played a role in it as well. I remember that for this particular poster I was relying on a speech of Habash wherein he was condemning the division of labour and also bureaucratization. With regard to Palestinians he was also speaking against the division of labour between the people, fighters and intellectuals i.e. Not only in times of general mobilization, like in 1982, people working in offices were sent to serve in the army. It was called revolutionary service. This aspect of the lifting of the division of labour became the topic I started working on. With regard to Labour Day I wished to have lots of red colours. The deep green in the background should stand for fertile Palestine. The Kuffiya as a symbol had to be there as well because I was not designing a poster for Labour Day in Bern. In the centre we see the arm of the working man, the wrench as part of the point.
How did you carry on?
Even before I put a pencil on the paper I developped the idea of doing the poster in two colours in order to save costs. In 1976 I had done sketches of landscapes with different felt pens in Italy. Mixing three colours on the paper I was able to create new shades and casts. That's how I came about drawing the poster simply with a red and a green felt pen without the special material of a graphic illustrator. When I had it all together I started drawing lots of rough drafts, sometimes even more than fifty, most of them with a ballpoint pen in the format of postcards or even smaller. I tried to outline the composition: how can I express all the things I wish to say, so that it becomes perfectly clear and nothing is lost. The small format of the draft is very important, because a poster very often is watched from the distance. You are forced to concentrate on essential parts. With this particular poster a horizontal format became imminent as it was supporting the forward movement. When the rough copies were done I started drawing sketches in colour in the format of 35cm x 25cm, which was a quarter of the size of the poster.
Did you show these sketches to the others to make sure they were seeing the same things as you did?
I gave them the coloured drafts. The people I was working with gave me a free hand. They were open to new things. That's why I had little problems carrying my points through. The Labour Day poster was accepted on the spot. On the basis of the coloured draft I also discussed technical aspects with the reprographic photographer who saw no problems emerging with the material he had at hand. Then I finished the poster in the original format of 70cm x 50cm.
At this stage you essentially changed the initial composition: On the coloured draft, the working man steps into sight from the right holding a hammer. The position of the arm is some what clumsier...
A driver of the office was posing for the «strong arm». He had been a fighter for a long time and years later he would still point at the poster in the office saying, «my arm». An anatomic model only helps you not to go to far astray. I let him pose only for a quarter of an hour maybe. Then I had to concentrate again on the realization of the main subject. For other compositions I used mirrors to check on anatomic details. This happend mostly at home in a quiet athmosphere. When the poster was ready I went to the person in charge of the information unit. He would think of a suitable text that had to be translated into English as well. Very often it was quite a hustle to get these texts.
Pardon? You didn't design a poster according to a given text but exactly the other way round?
Sometimes I would have liked to have a slogan first, it would have been much easier. I could also have prevented a certain routine and repetitions. The problem was that we had to be creative every year for the same anniversaries without being repetitive. There were only a few occasions when I was able to work according to a given text. For the poster, we are talking about, I thought that only a handwritten lettering would do, which I did myself (even in the arabic alphabet).
The poster is from the time when the PFLP and the DFLP formed the «Democratic Alliance» and tried to unite the marxist forces amongst the Palestinians. They also tried to bring together information work which manifests itself through the signature of the poster. The «Demo-cratic Alliance» got frozen later on by the DFLP unilaterally because it wished to come closer to the bourgeois tendencies in the PLO around Arafat.
How long did it take from the idea of the poster's topic to it's final composition?
The posters had to be printed at least two weeks in advance, because they often had to be shipped to Europe, Asia, Africa or Latin-America. As the printing shops were not always reliable enough I tried to deliver the composition as early as possible. Once I was working on a poster over the period of three months, always making pauses in between. But sometimes it became a nervous pushing and shoving when we had to react to actual events. The longer I was there, the longer it took me to design posters. This was due to the fact that I became more critical towards the problems and had to go further and further searching for new outlooks. I can remember that I designed the Labour Day poster during one week towards the end of March. The production itself was less efficient than in Europe. In the camp I lived were hardly any phones. So if I had to arrange a detail with the printer, or something like it, I had to run around a lot, be it only to get an offer. But I got used to this rhythm and I got to like it as well.
The poster reminds me strikingly of how close it still stands to our common outset. Its completely stripped of any pathos, bare of any overloaden symbolism. You used simple signs taken from everyday life and the worker isn't just a posing body-builder but a simple worker. He seems self-confident enough to be in the streets with a red flag on Labour Day. Whether he realizes the shadow he is throwing remains unclear: The shadow can be seen as standing for the function of the worker as a historical subject, or as a human being, who must not explicitly have realized yet, what he could be able to achieve. Perhaps your comrades would have liked better to see other compositions, as for example the worker in the middle of the poster looking straight forward and filling the whole size of the format, thus symbolizing the dynamics of the masses instead of the hidden entanglements of the individual? It is obvious that people from different cultures have different points of view.
Of course I had to learn a lot of things, as the symbols or even the symbolic aspects of colours for instance differ from one culture to another. In 1980 I designed a poster for Labour Day with dominant green colours. I was harshly criticized by a young fighter that green was the colour of Islam and that we were no fundamentalists. In his opinion the colour of green had therefore nothing to do on a Labour Day poster, a fact I had not taken into account with my cultural background.
You had in mind the «fertile Palestine» when you chose green, as you have mentioned before. Were there other instances with similar communication problems.
One problem was that the posters had to be designed to be posted in the camps, in its narrow alleys, in Palestinian homes. But they were also to be used for information campaigns abroad. You had to compromise with regard to using symbols as well as with regard to the text. Lets have a look at the symbols: on one of the posters I have drawn a wall with a whole in it in the form of Palestine. My non-palestinian comrades didn't understand the hint at first sight, but when I asked a fifty year old Palestinian (he later was murdered in the massacre of Sabra and Shatila), who couldn't read or write and was guarding the office, he immediately said with pride, «Falestin».
On the other hand some of the Palestinians had difficulties to understand wide angled perspectives. For my work the use of perspectives provided me with the possibility to cope with the manifold demands I had to put up with. I tried to match this problem with a closer realism. I believe the difficulty to perceive strong perspectives has got something to do with the absence of three-dimensional representations in Islamic culture and by this with a stronger development of two-dimensional ornamental representations and writing. Especially calligraphy plays a very important role and even nowadays most of the titles and leads of newspapers are not set in type but written by a calligrapher. This lettering is of course of a much better quality than the often clumsy printing types. For my posters I was working closely with a calligrapher who was working for the «AI Hadaf» newspaper. I learned a lot from him. Some of the lettering I did myself. But it took me ten times as long as when he would have done it.
Did you yourself bring the original to the printer and was the printing done as a routine more or less as you wished, or did you have the possibility to be present during the printing process?
It was not done just having finished a nice drawing and then placing some sort of a text somewhere on the paper which then got printed somehow. The poster had to be good as a print not only as a rough draught. I put very much stress on the cooperation with the printers. At the beginning this was difficult because of communication problems. My Arabic was not that good at first and the workers in the printing shops or the repro-photographers didn't speak any foreign languages. Very often their shops were also in the «hot» districts close to the «Green Line», which divided East from West Beirut. The chiefs didn't like to let me go there alone. It took me some time to find out how to handle these difficulties.
I always felt happy working with the printers or the repro-photographers. When we printed colour by colour, instead of four-colour printing in one go, I was always there and helped mixing the colours. Often I painted or glued proof sheets directly on the films at the reprographers. It was of course a lot cheaper when I did it myself. As well as not doing four-colour printing, because we were in constant lack of money. For example we might have a look at the poster representing the Palestinian friendship with Cuba: the Cuban man waving his hat.
You were not tied to your office then, to a world of functionaries, who were only responsible for a small segment of the common cause but screened off from the rest of the world, screened off as well from the entanglements but also from the soberness of the «common» people. They usually feel less and less responsible for the progress of the cause.
Shutting out the division of labour was perhaps the most fascinating thing:
being in control of the whole process of production. The technical result, reached by simple means, always gave me great satisfaction. (Printing technology in countries of the periphery (Trikont) can not by any means be compared to the one in the centres). This challenge was very tedious in the beginning. But later on I got to like it all the more. I liked working best being in my own room where I had a drawing board and good lights. Very often there were blackouts. So I loved to work during daytime, especially in the early morning hours. Whenever I had to work during the night I had a kerosene lamp which gave quite good light in case of blackouts. In winter this was of no problem, the more so in summer when it was hot already and the lamp added to the heat.
Have you also been helping with the distribution of the posters?
The posters were posted by the Palestinian Youth Organisation called «Shabiba». In the Shabiba the young people of the camps met to discuss or to educate themselves further. They organized football games, chess or ping-pong tournaments. They also had a musical and a singing group, as well as a Dabka dancing group and a brass band. All activities were meant to cherish the cultural heritage of the Palestinians. Many fighters and cadres of the Palestinian resistance were recruited from the Shabiba. And I almost forgot to mention it: the Shabiba also organized painting and drawing courses, and exhibitions. This was always done in close cooperation with the graphic artists. A lot of the feedback to my posters, which was very important to me, came through people organized in the Shabiba.
In our correspondence you have been using the male gender of the german term for artist. You have done quite many posters for organizations of women, which would be rather out of the question in Western European centres. Are there no female graphic artists ?
There was no woman designing posters. There were only a few men anyhow. This might have been the result of the absence of figurative representation in Islamic culture lasting for ages.
One of the most beautiful posters of this kind is the one you did for the second congress of the Union of Palestinian Women. We can see the back of a woman carrying a basket on her head which is filled with stones instead of fruit. She is standing in front of the silhouette of Jerusalem. The traditional role of the woman as the beast of burden and the bread winner of the fighters is subversively turned around - but it is still her who is providing fresh supplies. Also the beauty of the details on her clothes are very impressive. Couldn't this as well consolidate traditional gender roles: women are represented through their appearance, men as being fighters (Kuffiya)?
I didn't have in mind the provision of supplies but I wished to show a Palestinian woman collecting stones as ammunition for herself. The embroidery on the clothing is a very important symbol for Palestinian women, which in graphic terms fulfills the need of simple representation. The Kuffiya is in fact not a representative symbol of the women, but only women under arms carry it. Embroidered clothing is common among the women of the camps. The Women's Union itself was always asking me to use it as a symbol. Besides, the poster was especially designed for Palestinian women who should recognize themselves. Adversecriticism shows a too narrow point of view of the European centres.
I wish to know your opinion on the discussion going on in Europe about «leftist anti-semitism». It sais that the Star of David is not just the symbol of the state of Israel, of Zionism, but it is also the symbol of the holocaust during World War II.
The Star of David was put by Zionists on the flag of their colonialist state. For Palestinians it's the flag of land robbers who drove them out of their homeland. Somehow you've got to name things, why not through the symbol your enemy uses himself. For instance we've never used the «menorah» (seven-armed candelabrum) which Palestinians take as a symbol for Judaism, in contrast to the Star of David which was made the symbol of Zionism by the Zionists themselves.
Palestinians have always made a very clear distinction between Judaism and Zionism because they have been moulded in a somewhat peaceful way into an islamic-christian-jewish community living on the same spot of land by the British mandate. Anti-semitism - like Zionism - is a typical European ideology.
Which policy of the Palestinian resistance was the background of your work as graphic artist during the seventies and the eighties?
Most of the Palestinian refugees live in Arab countries. Because most of them didn't have the means to travel far, they live in states with a common border to occupied Palestine, mainly in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. The relations of the Palestinian resistance movement to the governments of these three countries and to Arab governments in general is a long story of mutual mistrust. On the one hand the movement has got to be present where the Palestinian masses live. On the other hand Arab governments have always tried to instrumentalize the Palestinian resistance movement for their own goals. Over all these years a large section of the movement has learned to work in this field offerees. Of course this has not always been that easy. The civil war in 1970 (Black September) that has been started by the regime of Hussein under guidance of US imperialism led to an open breach with Jordan. Only through the radical democratic power of the masses towards the end of the eighties the movement became again present (over 50% of the population in Jordan are Palestinians).
In Syria there was a complete split from 1973 through 1977 between the regime and the Palestinian organizations who rejected the planned Middle East conference in Geneva. The Syrian government had intervened in the Lebanese civil war on demand of the US administration and took sides with the Falange movement. Tal al Za'atar became only possible when the Syrians sealed off the camp from supplies. The Palestinian resistance movement hasn't got its own printing shops because they can be so easily closed down and siezed.
Syria had hoped that the US would honour the service it did in Lebanon between 1973 and 1978 with pressure on Israel. But the Camp-David agreement with Egypt was due to be signed. Syria had to realize that it had been decieved. This resulted in a certain radicalization of the Syrian regime after 1978 which led to friendly and military agreements with the USSR. The Palestinian movement had to profit from this new situation without having any illusions on the nature of the regime. A «front of firmness» was built against US and Israeli plans in which apart from Syria, the PLO and other Arab states were taking part. As a consequence the Palestinian resistance became very active in Syria when it was driven out of Lebanon by the Israeli invasion.
You were forced to leave bombed out Beirut as well and had to retreat to Damascus. How did this change influence your work?
The Syrian regime continued the attempts to instrumentalize the movement according to the political situation with more or less pressure. The Syrian secret services managed to split the Fatah movement and supported Fatah dissident Abu Mussa (1983). In 1986 they managed to instrumentalize the Shiite Amal movement in Lebanon which resulted in the war the Amal forces led against the Palestinian refugee camps of Beirut and Saida.
At this period several offices of the Palestinians were closed by the Syrian secret service. It became very difficult to produce printed matters in Syria. Every activity needed a permission which very often was not granted. Often drafts and layouts were seized by the censors and kept back, so nothing could be printed abroad as well.
In order to avoid confiscation I had to go downtown Damascus with my posters. There were the photographers who did snapshots of the tourists with polaroid cameras. 1 fixed the poster on a wall and let it take by one of these photographers. Then I sent the pola to the censors. People on street probably thought I was mad, but what the heck, 1 was in a hurry most of the time anyway.
The printers as well would not print without a permission. Only few repro-photographers could be found who would still make films (not plates) without permission if we promised that the printing would be done abroad. Usually we ordered two sets of films. One was smuggled into Lebanon where the posters for Lebanon and Syria were printed. The other one went to a Western country where the posters for the international campaigns of information and solidarity were printed.
I can imagine that you had the idea of producing coloured woodcuts because of these difficulties. You were able to avoid censure, which had put the printers and photographers under pressure.
In 1988 the information unit of the PLO in Tunis ordered a series of posters from the various artists of the Palestinian resistance movement that should support the Intifada. I was asked as well. As mentioned above it was very difficult to bring the originals out of Syria. The risk to loose them was always there. If this happened to the repro-film you could make a fresh one. But the information unit wanted to have the original, as repro and print would be done in Tunis. So I had the idea of trying a three-coloured woodcut. If one pattern should get lost I could easily make another one. If you are making woodcuts in Europe you go to a specialized retailer and buy the material and the tools you need. In Damascus I had to go to the merchants who sell wood to the carpenters. I had to run around for quite some time untill I found a good plank of walnut. A carpenter prepared it for me with a worn-out plane. The next question was: how do I get proper knives?
In Damascus still live some joiners who sell entire sleeping room furniture with carvings, mostly done in walnut. So I asked one of the joiners where he used to buy his tools. He gave me the address of a downtown retailer. But this one didn't sell them any more, because they were made in Germany and therefore much too expensive. At the end I went to the district with the toolmakers. There I found a little workshop which still had a remaining stock of these German knives. But the tools I bought didn't have a handle. So I had to go to a district at the other end of town where the turners had their workshops.
In a printing shop I found a worn-out cylinder that once belonged to a discarded offset printing machine. I also found there printing colours and paper. The printer would not let me pay for it, but he wished to have the first good print instead. After one week I had together all I needed to start woodcutting (topic: hand with stone, Jerusalem). Because the Syrian government had closed down several offices of the movement it had become quite crowded at my working place with too many people rushing in and out. It v^as almost impossible to concentrate on your work. So I decided to work in my small flat. The printing of 40 through 50 prints in the format of 50cm x 70cm in one go was not that easy. We hung wires across the whole room to dry the prints. Also all the furniture was covered with prints finished already. So we had to sort of wind ourselves through the place. When you do printing by hand you can't avoid using a lot of colour. Because the colour we had was offset printing colour, which is adapted to the paper by the machine in a thin film, it took quite a long time to dry out with our method. We had to stay up late till this had happened.
Would there have been the possibility to produce small editions with the technique of woodcutting if the connection to the printers would have been interrupted?
It's a pity that this was not possible because we did the posters in three colours with the same block. I first did the carving for the bright colours which we printed. Then, on the same original, I cut the holes for the second somewhat darker colour. We printed this on the first print in glazing technique and so on. Through this technique we achieved different shades of colours on top of one another. On the original finally remain only the cuts for the last and darkest colour. That's why this technique is also called «lost block»-printing.
The whole thing was also a question of costs: you only had one block instead of three. I also made careful black prints of each colour in order to make plates for the usual printing of the posters. They were done in colour by colour printing. Only the poster done in Tunis was printed in four-colour technique.
But you kept on producing conventional posters?
Yes, in summer 1991 for example I was asked to design a poster against the suppression and expulsion of the Palestinians from Kuwait. Because the Syrian government had taken side with the US and its allies in the Gulf war, no Syrian printer could be found to do the poster. The repro-photographers as well were very afraid to cooperate. After running around for some time I found this kind of an eccentric amateur who was working alone and had no employees. He was ready to do it for a small extra price. It was two o'clock in the afternoon with everybody in Damascus at Siesta. He had accepted under the condition that I would fetch the films at four o'clock and pay cash. He didn't want to have «hot stuff» in his shop for long. Usually he would have worked on it for two or three days.
Now I had the problem to collect the money at this time of the day with all the shops and offices closed. But everything went allright in the end and the poster was printed in Lebanon. This was the last poster designed for the movement in Syria. Or was it the one for the second congress of the Palestinian Youth Organization? I'm not quite sure any more. It's the poster with the sling drawn in such an audacious perspective that you have the impression of beeing sucked into the poster.