Zeina Maasri, Off the Wall: Political Posters of the Lebanese Civil War (London: I. B. Tauris, 2009).
During the civil strife that plagued Lebanon from 1975-1990, a slew of parties and militias, from the Maronite Christian Phalange to the Shi‘i Islamist Amal and Hizballah to the Communists, papered Beirut and other towns with posters, claiming territory in a war that splintered the cityscape along political and sectarian lines. A collection of these posters is housed at the American University of Beirut. In Off the Wall, graphic design professor Zeina Maasri examines the ways in which these posters articulated — and produced — the collective identities of the warring factions.
In her introduction, Maasri contends that the standard paradigm of visual culture studies — one that proposes a polarity between propaganda and activism — fails in the Lebanese case. There was no grasping state apparatus to carry out the propaganda, and because each of the 20 factions in Maasri’s study promoted a distinct ideal of the Lebanese nation, there was no dominant ideology. And the various militias cannot be equated with popular resistance or grassroots activism. Instead, Maasri builds on models offered by Noam Chomsky, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Stuart Hall and Roland Barthes to understand the posters as “symbolic sites of hegemonic struggle.” Hers is a critical argument: The poster does not record a fixed identity but rather is a medium through which the identity is created and strives for supremacy. More importantly, it is the struggle itself, rather than purportedly natural differences between factions, that accounts for the antagonisms among them.
Subsequent chapters are less theoretical. There is a useful catalogue of the factions’ posters — one from each year of the war — that chronicles the responses to major events. This chapter also includes a chronology of the war and brief histories of the 20 factions.
Maasri goes on to detail the process by which posters were commissioned, showing the close involvement of well-known artists such as Rafic Charaf, who put brush to paper for Amal; Paul Guiragossian and Seta Manoukian, who both made posters for the Communists; and Ismail Shammout, who worked for the PLO. She traces the political and aesthetic alliances between the Palestinian and Cuban resistance movements and Hizballah and the revolutionary state in Iran. In documenting these networks of exchange, Maasri suggests that modern aesthetics in the Middle East are hardly derivative of Western models, as is often assumed in scholarship, and are instead intimately rooted in the local. This section is most insightful for the burgeoning discourse on modern and contemporary Arab art in that it refutes conventional notions of the Lebanese civil war as a tabula rasa for visual practices.
Through a series of comparisons between factions, Maasri makes two observations consequential for those who study the relationship between nationalism and visual culture. First, the visual is an essential means of establishing genealogy for those vying to assert hegemony. Hizballah posters, for instance, draw a parallel between the martyrdom of Imam Husayn in 680 and the casualties among the party’s armed wing, the Islamic Resistance. Second, the genealogies of struggle are often in fundamental conflict. The omnipresent Dome of the Rock in Hizballah posters evokes pan-Islamism, implying that the party’s fighters die in defense of the Muslim umma rather than the Muslims of Lebanon, let alone other Lebanese. By contrast, the Phalange and its affiliated militia, the Lebanese Forces, frequently deploy symbols of the separateness of Lebanon — the flag, map and cedar tree — as well as Christianity. The Syrian Social Nationalist Party and the Lebanese Communist Party, given their dedication to Palestinian and Lebanese resistance movements, seldom claim an exclusive Lebanese nationalism. Each faction’s chosen iconography is therefore best seen in argument with that of its competitors.
These insights are unfortunately hindered at times by cursory analysis. For example, Maasri notes the use of pop aesthetics in the posters of Palestinian and allied left-wing parties, yet fails to consider why these forces would have appropriated, in 1970s Lebanon, an art form developed in the trenches of the Cold War. This omission is particularly disappointing, considering her emphasis upon the dialogue between Cuban and Palestinian revolutionaries. In a second instance, Maasri highlights a fundamental tension between the functional claims of Western modernism in the 1960s and the individualistic approach of Lebanese artists to poster design. By her argument, however, the poster’s ultimate goal is functional: to produce and sustain a collective identity. How then did Arab artists put an individual approach to work for a communal project? How were these tensions negotiated formally? How does this study complicate standard readings of Western modernism, especially considering its claims to internationalism?
Off the Wall includes nearly 150 color images of political posters, a fraction of the approximately 500 that Maasri digitized in the course of her work, building an online resource for future researchers. One can only hope that Maasri’s study will motivate scholars to consider more closely the critical relationship between politics and visual culture. The campaign posters adorning buildings during Lebanon’s June 2009 parliamentary elections attest only further to the importance of that endeavor.