Revolutionary Art - Center for Contemporary Arab Studies | Georgetown University

My introduction to the Arab world took place in 1974 when, as a 25 year-old Peace Corps volunteer, I was sent to teach welding, masonry and other technical subjects at a new vocational training school established by the Moroccan government in Bab Kechich, a working class neighborhood in Marrakech’s old city. Recognizing the challenge of learning Moroccan dialectical Arabic sufficiently well enough to teach in it, the Peace Corps doubled my monthly tutoring stipend thereby allowing me to hire both a morning and evening Arabic tutor. At the suggestion of one of my tutors, I began translating Arabic language posters pasted up on public wall space as a way of practicing with my Arabic-English dictionary as well as to relieve the monotony of daily study. It was through this experience that I came across my first Palestine poster. By the time I left Morocco, in 1976, I had collected approximately 300 posters printed by, or in solidarity with, the Palestinian liberation movement. When I returned to the US in 1976 I entered Ohio State University and majored in education and minored in contemporary Middle East history and Modern Standard Arabic, graduating with a B.S. Ed., in 1979.

Thanks to a grant awarded with the support of the late Edward Said, I processed the Palestine posters I had collected in the Peace Corps into a slide show that I presented at universities and to peace groups and other interested organizations around the Washington, DC area. The response of the public to this presentation, which used poster art as the entrée point for a deeper, more nuanced discussion of contemporary Middle East politics and history, was very positive and it led me to want to learn more about the power of the poster as an alternative communication medium. In 1981, I established Liberation Graphics, a business that imported, exhibited and distributed posters from a wide variety of non-traditional, left-of-center sources, including: the government of the USSR; Nicaragua’s Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN); Cuba’s Organization for Solidarity With the Peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America (OSPAAAL); the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO); progressive Israeli artists such as David Tartakover and Yossi Lemel; the African National Congress (ANC) and a host of others. I also developed a poster design and production arm of Liberation Graphics that served a domestic clientele that included: the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC); The Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation (VVAF); The National Coalition to Ban Handguns and Amnesty International, among others.

Many of Liberation Graphics’ posters were distributed nationally via the catalogs of the Syracuse Cultural Workers and the Northland Poster Collective. To support its objective of introducing internationally published political poster art into the American mainstream Liberation Graphics received grants from: The Ruth Mott Foundation; The Funding Exchange; The Unitarian Universalist Fund for Social Responsibility; The Arca Foundation and The American-Palestine Education Fund, among others. The work of Liberation Graphics has been featured in The Wall Street Journal; The Washington Post; The New York Times; Al Sharq Al Awsat (Saudia Arabia); Ha’aretz (Israel); Al Ahram (Egypt); Utne Reader; Print Magazine; Granma (Cuba), The Forward, and Al Arabiya TV, and many others.

In 1984 the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) learned about the difficulties Liberation Graphics was encountering importing revolutionary posters from Cuba, including various Palestinian titles (see: http://liberationgraphics.com/ppp/palestine_cuba.html) and offered to file a pro bono suit on behalf of Liberation Graphics against the US Department of the Treasury. Approximately eight years later that case produced the Berman Amendment and the related Free Trade In Ideas Act which permanently curtailed the president’s power to limit the American public’s access to “informational materials” and opened the US to a vast new array of print and electronic media resources.

In 1999, with the aid of a special Community Arts Grant from the Ruth Mott Foundation, I established the Palestine Poster Project, the object of which is to preserve and promote the archives of Palestine posters I began developing in Morocco, which has now grown to more than 3,000 original titles.

Though I originally came to Georgetown University to study the role poster art plays in contemporary Palestinian and Arab cultural politics my studies here have broaden my focus and I have discovered the importance of an often overlooked source of Palestine posters, the very earliest one; that of the early, pre-1948 Zionist colonization, investment, recruitment and tourism agencies which promoted development in Mandate Palestine. I now believe it is this wellspring that provides the critical context for analyzing and comprehending the iconography, content, diversity and evolutions of the other three wellsprings of the Palestine poster: Palestinian nationalist artists and agencies; international solidarity artists and agencies; Arab and Muslim artists and agencies. It is perhaps ironic that in the time I have been a student in the MAAS program at Georgetown the single most important insight I have acquired is that a deep and solid grasp of Zionist history is indispensable to mastery of contemporary Palestinian, Arab, Islamic, and broader Middle East history as well as US foreign policy and diplomacy. This insight has led me to believe that the MAAS syllabus would be vastly enriched if courses on Zionist—not Israeli—literature, history, politics and mythos were added to the list of required courses.

I am exactly half way through my MAAS degree program and I am searching, so far unsuccessfully, for a grant or scholarship that would allow me to spend six months to a year in Tel Aviv studying and surveying the poster collection of the Central Zionist Archives (CZA), which, according to its website, contains more than 3,000 posters on the subject of Zionism. The posters in this seminal archives which are not accessible on line are crucial, I believe, to my MAAS thesis and to my knowledge they have never been evaluated for their potential as a US pedagogical resource. I consider the approximately 3,000 Palestine posters in the archives of the Palestine Poster Project, together with those in the Central Zionist Archives, to form the researchable core of material on the subject. It is my theory that by contextualizing the Palestine poster historically, politically, culturally and semiotically, via my MAAS thesis, I will finally legitimate the genre and, ultimately, convince an American textbook publisher of its potential to serve the goal of making contemporary Middle East studies more accessible and comprehensible to students, educators and the general public.

My website, which is really a draft-in-progress of my manuscript, features dozens of Palestine posters and analyses related to all four wellsprings, can be viewed on his homepage.