Activism through art
When the Palestinians establish a national museum, the curators will find the largest collection of Palestinian political posters not in Ramallah, Nablus, Beirut or Tunis, but in Washington - and they will find it not in the Library of Congress or in one of America's national museums, but in a small private home out in the suburbs.
WASHINGTON, D.C. - When the Palestinians establish a national museum, the curators will find the largest collection of Palestinian political posters not in Ramallah, Nablus, Beirut or Tunis, but in Washington - and they will find it not in the Library of Congress or in one of America's national museums, but in a small private home out in the suburbs.
The home is that of Dan Walsh, a political radical and graphic artist who has spent the last 30 years obsessively collecting Palestinian posters printed around the world. Today he has over 3,000 posters, some filed away in an archive, some on slides, but all of them scanned into a computer and stored on CDs.
After years of failed attempts to display his collection in American art galleries, Walsh has decided to produce his own exhibit - on the Internet. Anyone who is interested can print up a high-quality copy of one of the 100 posters Walsh has selected for the show, and read the brief accompanying articles he has written to explain their importance and symbolism. Walsh is now working on a book featuring these posters with explanatory texts and an exposition of his own social-political beliefs.
Walsh, 54, believes in the Palestine national movement. He is no fan of Zionism. As the interview at his home begins, he puts it all up front: Not only does Zionism go against the principle of separation of church and state, but it contravenes the American doctrine of "no taxation without representation." In other words, there can be no rule over the Palestinians without granting them democratic civil rights. Zionism is a reactionary movement trying to preserve a status quo that the Palestinians are fighting to change. Zionism, says Walsh, is inherently nondemocratic.
At the same time, Walsh admires the openness of Israeli discourse and the almost unlimited freedom of Israeli artists to express themselves. "Israeli democracy could use some Americanization," he says, "but American discourse could also learn something from Israel."
Walsh has been trying to write a book about Palestinian posters for 10 years, but each time he has shelved the idea because of limitations imposed by the publisher. For years, he has been trying to organize an exhibit, but over and over again, he has come up against the same wall of cowardice and hypocrisy. He says that respected American magazines sent reporters to interview him but panicked when they heard his views, never publishing the articles for fear that giving a forum to anti-Israel views would elicit cries of anti-Semitism. The greatest obstacle to "free and healthy debate" on the subject of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," says Walsh, "is the growing tendency in American discourse to equate anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism." He believes that as this connection is broken down, it will be easier to "speak more openly and air things out."
Like many liberal community activists in America, Walsh started out as a volunteer in the Peace Corps, a social-cultural endeavor launched by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 to bring the tidings of Western progress to the Third World. In 1976, Walsh returned from a three-year stay in Morocco. While waiting for the bus or walking the streets of Rabat, he would often try his hand at translating the posters and street signs. One day, he noticed a Palestine Liberation Organization poster on a billboard, and then another and another. They sparked his interest, and he began to collect them.
Soon he had a collection of 300 Palestinian posters. He made slides of them, and showed them at lectures he delivered at college campuses and before small groups of young people in the Washington district. He contacted radical artists and Palestinian activists around the world, who sent him more posters.
Over the years, his collection has grown, and with it, his frustration over what he describes as the stereotypical and unidimensional approach of the American public to the Palestinian question. Walsh's goal is to change this approach by exposing the public to Palestinian poster art.
"I see these posters as a revolutionary educational tool," he says. "They can help Americans see things from another angle and get them to think more critically than they do normally." Walsh believes that the trauma of September 11 has made this kind of thinking possible. "Since 9/11, Americans have begun to ask questions about the Middle East. This is an educational opportunity that would be a pity to pass up."
In the brief texts accompanying the posters on the Web site, Walsh offers a guide to Palestinian symbolism: the olive tree, the Arab headdress in red or black, the colors of the Palestinian flag, images of keys, chains, doves, maps and the embroidered peasant dress. The butt of a Kalashnikov assault rifle peers out of many of these posters, but Walsh has chosen not to play up those that depict the armed struggle.
"Posters of atrocities don't fit in with my agenda," he explains. "I've tried to select non-threatening posters, those that are lyrical in character and speak to the viewer. The way I see it, this is an introductory course on the Middle East conflict. Through aesthetics, I teach Americans things they don't know about the conflict."
Walsh insists that he doesn't have a single poster featuring anti-Semitism, racial hatred or a call for jihad (holy war) in his collection: "I'm not saying that such posters don't exist. I'm merely saying that I've never seen them."
Looking at these posters is like reading a diary of the Palestinian nationalist movement. For this kind of reading, one needs a certain familiarity with the symbols. "Unlike people in other countries, Americans have not been exposed to these symbols, and therefore lack the tools to interpret them. That's where I come in," says Walsh.
In America, Palestinian solidarity posters are not an industry, as they are elsewhere around the globe. Thousands of them have been designed in Europe and the Third World countries. According to Walsh, no other national liberation movement in the world enjoys that kind of visual support. Approximately half of the posters in Walsh's collection are the work of non-Palestinian artists. One of his favorites is a poster by a Danish artist that tells the story of the Palestinian people in the 20th century using traditional printing techniques and artistic motifs from Danish folklore.
Another is a rare silkscreen done by a Vietnamese artist in 1972 which shows Yasser Arafat making the V-sign against the backdrop of the Palestinian flag. Above him, in Vietnamese, is the slogan "Revolution until victory." The fact that Vietnamese revolutionaries took an interest in the Palestinian struggle, and expressed solidarity with it in the midst of a brutal war on their own soil, shows that "the Palestinian revolution has been a source of inspiration for other revolutionary movements around the world," to quote Walsh. In the text he has written to accompany this poster, Walsh suggests that students of Middle East history think about why there has been no similar outpouring of solidarity with the Zionist movement.
Walsh gives pride of place to the contribution of Israeli artists who have designed pro-Palestinian posters over the years. He believes that posters by David Tartakover, Ilan Molcho, Yossi Lemel and others drive home the universality of the Palestine liberation movement.
Walsh hopes that the American peace initiative, which calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the not-so-distant future, will give him a chance to take this substantial collection of Palestinian political poster art, which now sits in his suburban home, and press it into the service of the new surge of interest in the fate of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This frame of reference, says Walsh, "will open the eyes of the American public to a product of the Palestinians' creative energy and enable it to express views that were once taboo in American society."
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