Faiz Art Prize, 2011

Popular Socialist Imagery

By Rumana Husain

The idea behind poster art is mass communication; and throughout the history of modern poster, which dates back to 1870, symbolism has been in use, whether to convey religious diktats, advertising for commerce, or for travel, entertainment and events, propaganda and politics. Some symbols became nationally or internationally popular, and they have permanently affixed themselves in people’s memory. 

The world over, socialist imagery, e.g. the Swastika, the Hammer and Sickle, or the spade; laborers, peasants, factory workers, the raised hand or fist, the Red Book or the color red itself, all came to symbolize a revolution for basic rights and equality. Some of those ideas and imagery filtered through and also came to Pakistan.

“Dignity of Labor”, “We Can Do it!”, “New Rights, New Duties” and “Hope” were the slogans of the posters that we were assigned to create as students of graphic design in the late sixties and early seventies. Much later, in March 2006 at The World Social Forum (WSF), held in Karachi, which I attended together with my colleagues at the Children’s Museum for Peace and Human Rights (CMPHR) the slogan had changed, it now was “Another World is Possible”. The slogans and imagery painted by the young students at WSF against imperialism, slavery, poverty and other oppressions and also about dignity of labor, were a personal reminder of heady days when Che Guevara's portrait was transformed into an international symbol for romantic rebellion, and a smiling Chairman Mao’s image remained a constant reminder of Socialism in China. 

Socialism and Pakistan

In Pakistan’s art world, if there is one Pakistani contemporary artist who comes to mind for his socialist symbolism, it is Ijaz ul Hassan. His famous painting, Thah, showing a popular film star of the Punjabi cinema of the seventies, the voluptuous Firdaus in a provocative pose, shared the canvas with a Vietnamese freedom fighter holding her baby close to her breast. With the same hand she held the Red Book, and her other hand held a gun. This was painted in 1974, and as a young student I had seen it hanging in an exhibition at the Arts Council in Karachi. Although at the time this particular painting had only resonated with the risqué words of a popular Punjabi film song “Seenay naal lag ja thah ker kay”, it was much later that I understood the socialist/political and subversive meaning of Ijaz ul Hassan’s art. 

“In 1977 during General Zia ul Haq's Martial Law, Ijaz ul Hassan was one of the first activists to be arrested and put in solitary confinement at the infamous Lahore Fort. During this period, when every form of dissent was crushed, Ijaz tried to have his thoughts and feelings known to the viewers with images and symbols; many derived from nature,” is an appropriate summation of the artist’s later works when censorship was clamped on his art. (http://www.ijazulhassan.com/Profile.html)

One can also attribute socialist symbolism to paintings of the late A. R. Nagori, depicting poverty and deprivation, and raising human rights issues, in particular for the underdeveloped Thar region of Sindh. Well known in Pakistan as a political painter, Prof. Nagori consistently presented socio-political issues that polarized the nation.

The Jeay Sind movement (a Sindhi nationalist movement) founded by G. M. Syed in 1972 (later renamed Jeay Sindh Tehreek by militant groups), used as its identity a red flag with a black axe painted onto a pure white sphere. 

When the pro-Mao and China’s close ally, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto prepared the manifesto of his Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) in October 1966, it read: "Islam is our Faith, Democracy is our Policy, Socialism is our Economy, All Power to the People". With Bhutto’s rise to power in the country, the PPP became the first left-leaning political party in Pakistan, and attracted the urban working classes and the rural peasantry with its socialist agenda. The charismatic Bhutto used to don the Mao cap and suit, which later gave way to the ‘Awami suit’ (shalwar kameez) and his ‘Roti, Kapda aur Makaan’ (literally meaning ‘bread, cloth and house’) became a popular slogan. In 1967 the PPP introduced Pakistan’s version of Islamic Socialism. The attempt failed on a cultural level as the religious leaders were obsessed with orthodox Islam that favoured the veiling of women, and discouraging cinema and music. 

The subject of socialist propaganda strategies can be seen throughout world art and literature. 

Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poetry addressed his poems to his "beloved", which is central to Urdu ghazal, but Faiz’s beloved were often the people and the revolution he envisioned. 

Writing in Pakistan’s daily, Dawn, the Indian columnist Jawed Naqvi had written in May 2010 that writer Arundhati Roy presented a recording of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s Hum Dekhenge sung by the legendary Iqbal Bano, and a book of Pablo Neruda’s poems to a group of Maoist rebels she visited in the forests of Chhattisgarh in India. She had later wondered whether sharing music constituted to “offering intellectual and material support” to the banned organization. According to India’s home ministry it was an act of national betrayal. 

Socialist Imagey in Socialist Countries 

Swastika can trace its origin to the Sanskrit words ‘su’ and ‘asti’ which in translation means ‘to be good’ and was used as a Hindu Aryan symbol since ancient times. It was used for 3000 years to represent life, sun, power, strength and good luck (Wikipedia). It had also been a symbol for the military and socialists in the USA and in the USSR before the National Socialist German Workers Party took it up. Fascism in Italy, Nazism in Germany, and Communism in Russia were all well-developed radical forms of socialism, the outgrowth of the socialist philosophy popular in the 1800s in Europe.

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, when for the first time in history a nation was governed by a communist system, and artists used the poster as a medium to reach out to the masses. The posters designed initially showed a revolutionary fervour. By 1930, when Stalin was in full control, propaganda focused on political discipline and ambitious programs of agriculture, heavy industry, etc. The posters of his era show a powerful and dynamic Russia. But soon this style was considered to be too individualistic and only ‘Socialist Realism’ got a nod. A smiling Stalin became the subject, together with his ‘happy and healthy’ people. The Soviet-era propaganda imagery was bold and striking, simple in its style yet effective in its message. Socialist Realism also became an international literary movement with writers such as Tolstoy, Neruda and others gaining universal popularity.

A communist system of government and a Soviet system of values was imposed on Poland at the end of the Second World War. It also meant that painters were expected to paint in a monumental and realistic style designed to glorify workers and the socialist state. When Khrushchev denounced Stalin's atrocities, Socialist Realism was abandoned in the fifties. 

Due to its controversial nature, Socialist Realism was rejected by the West. This was highlighted in a debate, as recently as 2007 in USA, when the building of a national monument was termed ‘made in China’ when the Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin, was selected as the lead sculptor for the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial. His selection was opposed on the grounds that his earlier works celebrated Mao Zedong. Lei Yixin was later dropped from the project. 

Even after Mao’s death and the end of the Cultural Revolution, in China Socialist Realism in Art may have weakened but it hasn’t died altogether. The style can still be seen in government sponsored posters, and in the old posters (mostly reproductions of the originals) available in many Chinese antique markets. These posters focus on building the new country - the Great Leap Forward, aimed at boosting China's industrial production. Some of these are blended with elements of traditional Chinese painting, specially seen in the use of colors which are applied in soft gradations or combinations of heavy black contours with bright flat colors. Red is the dominant color on almost every poster. The roots of the Chinese posters can be traced to two main styles: (1) The New Woodcut Movement of the 1930s and 1940s, in which “the stark black-and-white woodcuts depicting human deprivation and an urgent need for popular resistance are radically different from traditional woodblock print culture in pre-20th century China” 1.  and (2) the Socialist Realism imagery of the Soviet Union. 

Many Chinese artists who participated in the Long March in 1934, a year-long 8,000-mile military venture of the Red Army against the Nationalists, established the Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts at Yan’an where artists studied both woodcut and other techniques. 2.  Some years later they traveled to study under folk artists for the same purpose: to create artistic propaganda for the improvement of the nation. During this period Art was seen as a service, hence there was no ‘art for art’s sake’. 

It is relevant to mention here that similar rules had been laid down in the early 1920s by the Bolshevik Institute of Artistic Culture to glorify the Bolshevik Revolution. Later, a direct propaganda approach was the need of the day for Stalin’s rapid industrial growth; the Socialist Realism style became the only approved style for paintings, sculpture and posters. The power of the Red Army was central to these artworks, and so were the successes of collective farms and steel mills. Until the later Brezhnev era of the late 1980s, this art was practiced in the entire Soviet bloc, including Poland, East Germany, Rumania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and the Baltic States. 

Chinese posters, which differed slightly from the Soviet style, had brighter colors. Compared to this, Cuban revolution posters were understated. The Cuban poster developed after Fidel Castro seized power at the end of 1958, and tried to take an independent line from Russia. The Socialist Realist posters of Cuba from the early years attest to this influence, but more interesting are those that came about after 1965 when relations between the two became strained. But by the 1970s the liveliness of the Cuban posters diminished and this unique chapter in the history of the political poster there came to an end. 

However, the common factor between the Chinese, the Soviet and the Cuban poster is the negation of the individual graphic artist and his/her personal style, to prioritize communication with the mass audience. The style that runs like a thread throughout is the dominant palette of flatly laid out red and black colors. The stylized lettering evokes the times when it was either free-hand calligraphy or done by the graphic artist, or letterset was used manually by the printer. 

My earlier mention of the nostalgia surrounding Che Guevara's portrait is from the period when cultural organizations within Cuba, such as OSPAAAL - the organization for solidarity with the people of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, distributed its posters worldwide. Those were the pre-television (and of course pre-Internet) times in Pakistan, but the universal Che Guevara posters found their way into the country after crossing the proverbial seven seas.

“The fact that many of Cuba’s graphic artists have been, and still are, painters and sculptors, is evidence that the new society has bridged the gap between fine arts and graphic arts (an artificial gap at best), created with the advent of high speed printing presses and the mythology surrounding the nature of art as being somehow unintelligible to the masses,” writes Dugald Stermer 3.  

Stermer further explains that all Cuban propaganda posters were unsigned. The ego and imagination of the artist, assumed to be individualistic, became subservient to the larger cause of the revolutionary culture. 

Fidel Castro, in his Words to the Intellectuals, laid down the ground rules for artists and writers in his statements “Within the Revolution, everything. Without it, nothing,” and “the Revolution does not ask sacrifices from its artists; rather, it says, put your creative spirit to work for the new Cuba without fear that the quality of your art will be curtailed. And if someday you feel that it has been, say to yourself that it was worthwhile to make this new life.” 4. 

In the introductory essay in Dugald Stermer’s book, Susan Sontag compares the Pop Art style of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Tom Wesselman, calling it ‘parasitic on commercial poster aesthetics’. She reaffirms that the Cuban poster artists “remain very conscious that the poster art is a public art, which addresses an undifferentiated mass of people on behalf of something public (whether a political idea or a cultural spectacle).”5. It is interesting to note Sontag’s other comparison between a graphic artist and a poet. She says that the graphic artist in a revolutionary society does not have the problem the poet has, “when the poet uses the singular voice, the lyrical “I”: the problem of who is speaking and being spoken for.” 6 

More recently, Maoist posters in Nepal, calling people for action protests on May Day, the imagery used by the All Nepal Federation Trade Union can be linked to Soviet expression of the past. Missing Maoist members shown on the top right of these posters reinforce the message of sacrifice and martyrdom, and flags showing different manual labor tools (the Hammer and Sickle) are displayed prominently in the middle, with smaller flags framing the lower half of the layout. 


It is interesting to study the deconstruction of socialist imagery in China by contemporary Chinese artists; for example, the jaw-breaking grins painted by one of the most important artists of the Chinese avant-garde, Yue Minjun, who has achieved international stardom by making parodies of symbolic smiles in his self portraits. He uses a similar technique to that in advertising and propaganda posters: sharp outlines with even color which gives a 'Pop art' effect. During the Cultural Revolution period, there were Soviet-style posters showing happy people laughing, which Yue Minjun now uses in his paintings as a comment: ‘normally what you see in those posters is the opposite of reality.’

In the works called the ‘Great Criticism series’ of another Chinese artist, Wang Guangyi, who grew up in China during the Mao era, images of the Cultural Revolution are juxtaposed with mass-produced images from Western advertisements. This style of art combines political propaganda with Western pop art. Wang Guangyi’s ‘Great Criticism: Coca-Cola’ is a prime example of the Political Pop art of the 1980s and 1990s. In it the artist uses three figures (in the past it was common to depict one soldier, one laborer and one farmer, the latter often a female figure shown between two men), as it is a familiar concept for the Chinese people: strong revolutionaries standing with their left arms outstretched, in this case holding an oversized ink pen.  Below the pen is the familiar Coca-Cola logo in bright white on a red background. The Coca-Cola logo in white stands out boldly against a red color, which has its own significance (the red of the western Coca-Cola Company and Mao's ‘Red China’).

As recent as February 2011, posters appeared in the Tahrir Square in the mass protest in Cairo, Egypt, when the Egyptian people demanded the end of President Hosni Mubarak’s 30 years of dictatorship. The imagery on these posters varied from swastikas and the Star of David as well as equating Mubarak with Hitler or the Egyptian pharaohs.

Attitude and interest may have shifted and changed, but the reality of poverty, oppression and marginalization that inspired the socialist ideals of yesteryear have not disappeared. In fact, they are the cause of a totally new set of crises and problems that face the world's thinkers today, and may continue to do for some time.

End Notes:

1. Ref. Appreciation Woodcuts, ‘China Institute’ – an online journal founded in 1926 by a group of American and Chinese educators. 

2. Ref. History of the Modern Chinese Woodblock Print by Yan Shancun

3. The Art of Revolution by Dugald Stermer published by Pall Mall Press Limited, London, 1970

4. Castro’s Cuba, Cuba’s Fidel by Lee Lockwood, published by Macmillan, 1968

5. Introductory essay by Susan Sontag, The Art of Revolution, Pall Mall Press Limited, London, 1970. An author of seventeen books, a human rights activist and a social critic, the late Susan Sontag who died in December 2004, was one of the most powerful thinkers of her generation. 

6. Arts editor David Walsh talk October last year on Socialism and Cinema, at the University of Salford in the UK, in which he referred to yet another talk given by him sometime back in Toronto.