Drawing power

Posters that spread the news of freedom to the people of Mozambique form a new exhibition as part of the Bloomsbury Festival. Dan Carrier talks to one of its curators

Friday, 8th October 2021

Mozambique posters 1

Above left: Week of Soviet Cinema INC Maputo 1985. Right: José Freire 25th June 1975 Mozambique Independence Maputo 1975

IN 1975, from the smallest villages to the biggest cities in Mozambique, “People’s Newspapers” – public noticeboards on which news was pasted for all to see – carried word of the country’s liberation from the Portuguese. And as a new government took control, these People’s Newspapers gained an important role – helping citizens be inspired by their freedom and shape their own future. This was done by a small team of artists who created a wave of poster art to spread a message of freedom.

This month, as part of the Bloomsbury Festival, the Brunei Gallery at SOAS is hosting an exhibition that offers an insight into how in the aftermath of independence used graphic design to help forge a new nation.


Co-curator Dr Polly Savage

Curators Dr Polly Savage and Richard Gray – a tutor and PhD student at SOAS – have put together a collection of 25 posters never exhibited outside Mozambique that were placed on boards across the country. They offer an insight into how graphic design helped create a new common identity, following a tradition linked to the Russian Revolution – the use of Modernist poster art to deliver a simple and inspiring message.

The project stemmed from Richard’s PhD thesis under Polly’s tutelage. Her academic studies, focusing on the history of art, include the revolutionary period in Mozambique and its relationships with Socialist bloc countries and non-aligned nations.

“Countries such as Mozambique were looking for new ways to create art that rejected colonialism and Euro-centric practices,” says Polly.

Above left: Let’s Pick all the Cashew Nuts – To Pick the Nuts is to Develop Mozambique Maputo late 1970s. Right: Mozambican heroes day, 3 February 1979

A specialised government unit called Propaganda and Publicity department was established. Overseen by Mozambique artists José Freire, João Craveirinha Jr and Manuel Ruas, they drew on a range of influences.

“They looked to Cuba and the Soviet Union for iconography and content,” she says. “There is a long tradition of political and didactic posters they could draw on. What they sought to do was think about the creation of a new people, to show how the revolution brought an idea of a new kind of consciousness.”

Richard has first-hand experience of the period – he worked in Mozambique in the 1970s and some of the posters are originals he collected at the time. Others have come from the artists or their estate.

The art used murals, journals and posters, and the exhibition charts the early aims of the country, post-revolution, bringing together four key themes the artists focused on.

“The first selection features how the posters celebrated key dates in the liberation movement and commemorated the heroes of the revolution,” says Polly.
This includes honouring people like Eduardo Mandlane, a liberation leader who was murdered by a parcel bomb in 1969, believed have been planted by the Portuguese secret police, but never proven.

The second theme is solidarity – how Mozambique wanted to spread a message to other liberation struggles and use the posters as tokens of friendship. They included works that celebrated international events such as May Day.

“The third key theme was based on building a new society,” says Polly. “It was about promoting the idea of a society for all, about creating a new cultural movement, building up the economy, developing agriculture.”

Above left: The End of Hunger is in Our Hands 16th October, World Food Day Maputo 1983. Right: João Craveirinha Jr May 1st Day of the Worker DNPP Maputo 1979

The last tranche of posters was about developing a new role for women in Mozambique. “Patriachy was considered part of the colonial complex, and it was something that needed to be countered.”

While drawing on established techniques such as screen printing, the artists also discussed what role tradition should have in the modern Mozambique.
“Mozambique enjoyed 82 different languages – a hugely diverse country culturally and linguistically,” she adds. “The government sought to unify people and move past tribalism and ethnicity. Their message was we are all workers together. Over coming differences was a vital message of solidarity.”

It also meant using ethnic traditions as a tool for understanding. “They saw it as a tool to bring people together. For example, they would hold dance festivals where people from the north would learn dances traditionally associated with people from the south, and vice versa.

“It was a way to move past ethnicity and help people learn more about the history of the country. Racism was seen as part of a colonial culture and these posters were an important part of helping create this new, shared vision of a forward looking country based on equal rights for all.”

The New Man is a Process: Socialist Poster Art in Mozambique is at the Brunei Gallery, SOAS, Thornhaugh Street, Russell Square, WC1H 0XG from October 15-23. See www.soas.ac.uk/gallery/

• The exhibition is accompanied by a 48-page colour catalogue, featuring interviews with the surviving artists. A day-long seminar to discuss the themes raised by the exhibition takes place at the SOAS School of Arts in December 2021.

• Bloomsbury Festival runs from October 14-24. For full listings, see bloomsburyfestival.org.uk/

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