Poster Art, Painted With A Palestinian Perspective
December 3, 2003
Dan Walsh, a graphic arts collector and political consultant from Silver Spring, is at his most intense when the subject is Palestine. He has poured his life, time and money into promoting understanding of this most troubled piece of real estate on planet Earth. He has studied, and is fluent in, Arabic, he has visited the West Bank and worked with the PLO. Even though he conducts business at home in a T-shirt and shorts, when he talks about Israel and Zionism, he is unmasked as a type-A politics junkie who speaks and thinks at a supersonic clip.
"Have you read Herzl?" he asks, barely pausing for an answer before he begins quoting chapter and verse from Theodor Herzl's "The Jewish State," one of the seminal documents of the back-to-Palestine Zionist movement. The 1896 text laid out, in detail, how European Jews would acquire property in what eventually became Israel; how they would organize their communities, cultivate the land, raise their standard of living and escape the toxic anti-Semitism rampant throughout Europe. But it also passed rather blithely over the question of what would become of people who were already living in the Promised Land. And from that core problem -- two peoples, one land -- comes the subject matter of Walsh's most fascinating obsession: the political posters of Palestine.
He has more than 3,500 of them. They come from Israel and the occupied territories, and from every corner of the Earth. He has posters from Ireland, Cuba, Wales, Spain, Italy, Greece, the former Yugoslavia, Portugal, Finland and Denmark. There are a handful of posters from before Palestine was carved up, against the vigorous objections of the Arab world, into Jewish and Arab lands. There are posters from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which has tended to the needs of millions of Palestinian refugees over the course of four generations. If the poster has the word Palestine on it, Walsh probably has it.
If he doesn't have it, he is searching it out. He says he doesn't sell his posters, but he is engaged in an active trade and barter business with his large stock of duplicate posters. He is currently negotiating for, and very excited about, a poster by an Israeli artist that shows Yasser Arafat standing against a dark background, his head lowered pensively, his hands clasped in front of him. If you haven't read Herzl -- and Walsh is nonplused that most Americans haven't -- you read this image as meditative, thoughtful, a study in calm leadership. But if you know the shadow Herzl casts over the subject of Zionism, and if you know in particular a famous photograph of Herzl in Basel, Switzerland, in exactly this same pose, another more provocative reading comes to the fore: Arafat equals Herzl.
That this provocative message comes from within Israel, Walsh says, is a sign that the conversation about Zionism and the Palestinian people is in many ways more sophisticated, more blunt, less self-conscious, in Israel than it is in the United States.
Taken together, it is an impressive and dogged bit of collecting, a comprehensive catalogue of the iconography of Mideast politics, and a compendium of political art, some of it mediocre, some of it brilliant. Frustrated by his inability to interest a major museum or university in mounting an exhibition of his collection, Walsh is now posting them on his Web site, Liberation Graphics. Saturday marked the official cyber-unveiling of his one-man visual think tank on the controversial subject of Zionism.
The posters tell any number of stories, but one is very familiar: A great catastrophe came to the people, who were forced from their land into exile, where they wait, and remember, and romanticize the longed-for homecoming. If you look at posters from Palestine from the 1920s-1940s (Walsh has only a few of these extraordinarily valuable pieces), the writing is often Hebrew, the homeland is Palestine, the people are Jews, the catastrophe two millenniums of oppression. If you look at posters from recent decades, the writing is Arabic, the homeland is Palestine, the people are Palestinians, the tragedy is the nakba ("catastrophe") and the war against the state of Israel that left hundreds of thousands of Palestinians dispossessed of their homes. Walsh's collection makes stark both the contrasts and the similarities of the imagery used to express two different nationalist aspirations.
Walsh has digitized more than 3,000 of the posters he began acquiring as a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco in 1974, and at least 65 are already on the Web site. He is also writing a book on the subject of Palestinian poster art, which he defines as any poster with the world "Palestine" in it. He is putting the book up on his Internet site, as well.
Taken together, Walsh's posters tell history in a way that is bracing, without the pretension of objectivity, without "the other side," without the formal play of equivocation or the "context" that is often a pretext for weighting the scales so subtly that no one notices. Whether pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian, the language of poster art is ultimately about what people want rather than who is right. And it bypasses all the contortions and convolutions of political discourse about Israel, Zionism and the Palestinians. Poster art takes for granted the moral position of the people who make it -- that what they stand for is just -- and goes straight to the heart of their hopes and anger.
Despite the anger and bluntness of the images and text, Walsh argues that his pro-Palestinian posters are not anti-Semitic. The bulk of them, as shown to a reporter, are more interested in graphic expression than cheap demonization. They are often anti-Israel (and it is Israeli artists who produce some of the most sharply critical imagery of their country) and anti-Zionist. But, Walsh argues, anti-Zionist is not necessarily anti-Semitic.
Some Jews would dispute this point, and strenuously. Zionism is so essential to Jewish identity, some feel, that it can't be separated out and criticized without doing violence to fundamental Jewish aspirations. For Walsh, that argument shuts down the conversation about Palestinian aspirations before it even begins.
"I wouldn't call it anti-Semitic," says Ken Jacobson, associate national director of the Anti-Defamation League, of Walsh's Web site. But he warns that just as not all criticism of Israel is by definition anti-Semitic, plenty of it is, and there is a danger in Walsh's enterprise of losing sight of this latter fact.
Others point out that even if a distinction between anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist can be maintained, the climate of hostility in the region is so charged that strongly propagandistic posters could be considered incitement. Mark Regev, spokesman for the Embassy of Israel, who hasn't seen Walsh's collection, points out that images depicting suicide bombers are often posted after their deaths, and that these posters are open invitations to further violence.
Walsh doesn't collect those images, he says, because they don't belong to the same graphic tradition of poster art. Does this amount to a careful sanitization of his collection? He says no, that those cheaply produced images, which arise out of the ongoing cycle of violence, have no place in his exhibition because he wants "a new departure point."
A trip to the Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs Division suggests that, in general, Walsh has a point about the higher level of discourse going on within the poster tradition. In the dozens of posters made to promote the cause of the Palestinian people, there is little evidence of the cheap tricks of ethnic or religious hatred, equations of the swastika and Star of David, or gross parodies of physiognomy. Like Walsh's posters, they are by no means evenhanded -- photographs of dead Palestinian children use the standard sucker punch of propaganda -- but, unlike the visual language of political cartoons one finds in the Arabic press, they don't seem to cross the line into blind hatred.
"Most of the time, when [the Palestinians] get a chance to speak to history, they want to speak to history about their own people," says Walsh. He would argue that the poster tradition is free of anti-Semitic imagery not because it's being hidden, or masked, for public consumption, but because the posters are about Palestinians, not Israelis.
And so many posters use a repertoire of images that are a visual shorthand for the moments of shared history, responses to landscape and collective dreams with which the Palestinians define themselves. Keys, which symbolize the homes they've left and wish to reclaim, are a recurring icon. The Dome of the Rock, in Jerusalem, symbolizes their hope that Jerusalem, holy for Jews, Muslims and Christians alike, will not be absorbed entirely into Israel. Barbed wire, prison bars and the kaffiyeh headdress pattern are recurring visual motifs. Red, green, black and white -- the colors of the Palestinian flag -- are prominent.
The posters also suggest a calendar of days sacred to the Palestinians. March 30, for instance, is Land Day, celebrated annually with a profusion of posters that memorialize the killing of six Arabs in 1976. The massacre of civilians by a Lebanese Christian group (for which current Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was held indirectly responsible by an Israeli investigative commission) at Sabra and Shatila in 1982 is marked every year, as is the battle of Karameh, a March 21, 1968, encounter between pro-Palestinian fighters and the Israeli army, held up by the Palestinians as a symbolic (though costly) victory in their war against Israel. Given the warm embrace the Palestinian cause has received from leftist and communist organizations around the world, May 1 is also a regular occasion for memorial posters. And the anniversary of the founding of Israel is celebrated inversely, as an anniversary of the nakba, the catastrophe, that led to the refugee crisis.
The alliance among activist, reformist and revolutionary groups creates some of the farthest flung and oddest posters. There are posters supporting the Palestinians from the Viet Cong, African National Congress and a Welsh student group. International Answer, a group that has sponsored peace rallies in Washington, has also contributed to the genera, producing posters linking the Palestinian cause to anger over the U.S. Navy's test-bombing on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques. There's even a poster, also produced by International Answer, noting the support of a gay group.
When Israeli imagery is used, it is often used in appeal to liberal Israeli sentiments. A Palestinian flag intertwined with an Israeli flag is one of the more striking calls for sympathy, cooperation and peace.
All of this suggests what, for many Americans, may be a dizzyingly new perspective, a view of the Palestinian people that isn't qualified by the obligatory references to extremist elements, terrorist groups and suicide bombers. It is a view of Palestinians entirely from within the pro-Palestinian sensibility. Walsh feels it offers an understanding of their cause, and the reasons for their anger, that is not often heard in this country.
"I don't purport to have an NPOV," he says, meaning a neutral point of view. "I'm trying to develop an alternative point of view. If you don't like it, you're not happy, that's fine. The key thing that shouldn't happen is that [it] should be proscribed."
But there's a reason that Walsh's collection is appearing, now, on the Internet. He is frustrated, and feels that a collection of this depth and reach deserves a major academic or museum showing. He is also unwilling to relinquish control to curators who he feels have an agenda.
And everyone has an agenda, it seems. An exhibition of his posters at the United Nations was shut down in 1983, when Israeli representatives complained it amounted to a "relentless campaign of vilification." Walsh also shows a reporter a copy of a letter he received from the Israeli Embassy, asking to see, and possibly borrow, his posters. But not just any posters.
"We are interested in the most pernicious posters in your collection," says the letter, dated Jan. 25, 1985, specifically requesting material that demonstrates "the terrorist character of the PLO."
Walsh refused, and requests like that one have left him feeling that his job isn't to find some middle ground palatable to all, but to let his collection speak in its own voices, regardless of whom it may anger.
Dan Walsh's collection of Palestinian poster art can be seen at www.liberationgraphics.com.
Iris Dishon's 1988 poster of Yasser Arafat is a takeoff on an iconic image of Zionism's founder, Theodor Herzl. The Hebrew text says "Israel." Dan Walsh argues that his pro-Palestinian posters may be anti-Israel and anti-Zionist, but they are not anti-Semitic. At left, a 1984 poster by Abdel Rahman Muzain dedicated to Land Day. At right, Adnan Zubeidey's "Enough Silence," whose message is "The repression has become intolerable. No to violence from now on."
Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning art and architecture critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at The Post since 1999, first as classical music critic, then as culture critic.