In Nairobi, a group of anonymous artists, going by the name #NOIMPOSTERSHERE, interrupted the cityscape with faux campaign posters during the run up to Kenya’s 2017 general elections; their worked protested the control of public space by corporate and political interests and aimed to expand public discourse around politics and democracy.
Subverting the Visual Landscape of Campaign Posters
In the quest for the electorate’s vote political parties and candidates devote huge resources to election campaigns. Posters, due to their affordability and visibility, are a popular tool used to entice potential voters. Across Kenya when election fervour ramps up thousands of campaign posters are pasted on all manner of surfaces, where they are seen by hundreds of people daily. It has been said ‘If political posters were ugali, Kenya would be the best fed African country’. Campaign posters familiarise the populace to the candidate; present him or her in a positive light; and aim to win over someone’s vote. They are a method of mass marketing, conforming to a particular structure (candidate’s portrait, name, party and position running for) though seldom express the party’s or candidate’s policies.
The pasting of campaign posters create new aesthetics in neighbourhoods – albeit one every 4-5 years. The sheer mass of posters (and destruction or defacing of some) signify the extent to which parties and candidates will go to win; their imprint is perhaps the most visual aspect of political campaigns. However, this raises a number of questions. What do such posters say of Kenyan politics? Are posters simply there to canvas votes? Does one really know who is portrayed in these posters and what their interests are? How do posters assist voters in reaching informed decisions? Is the public stimulated into political debate and encouraged to participate in the democratic process from seeing these posters?
These questions were asked by an anonymous group of artists in Nairobi, who produced protest artwork, in the form of mock campaign posters, in the run up to the August 2017 General Elections. The artists pasted hundreds of these posters across Nairobi in a project dubbed #NOIMPOSTERSHERE. According to their website, the artists had ‘a mission of interrupting the cityscape that becomes polluted with political campaign posters we are forced to engage with during the run up to Kenya’s 2017 general elections.’ Their name is a play on the command ‘No Posters Here’, which the group see as a ‘slogan of authority’, connected to the hegemonic control and appropriation of city spaces. The reference to ‘imposters’ (impostors) signifies the majority of politicians portrayed in campaign posters – who the artists consider as individuals pretending to be someone they are not for their own personal gain. Though the group of artists themselves can also be seen as imposters, as they subvert the visual landscape of election campaigns by creating and pasting their own posters alongside authentic posters, in the hope of prompting dialogue and reflection around politics and democracy in the time of elections.
Culture Jamming or Political Jamming?
The method employed by #NOIMPOSTERSHERE have close ties to ‘Culture Jamming’; a creative movement aimed at disrupting the dominance of corporate media, advertising and the marketisation of public life. In the book ‘Activism! Direct Action, Hacktivism and the Future of Society’, Tim Jordan describes it as ‘an attempt to reverse and transgress the meaning of cultural codes whose primary aim is to persuade us to buy something or be someone’. Anna Wacławek, in the book Graffiti and Street Art, says the practice of Culture Jamming is a ‘direct way to answer back to those who have financial, and by extension visual, control over cityscapes’. Wacławek goes on to say that through subverting key components of original advertisements ‘artists effectively empower the public in their experience of their environment and challenge the status quo.’ However, Culture Jamming can also be seen as a way of reclaiming public space where advertising messages have become the only ones permitted. In the book No Logo, Naomi Klein speaks of this saying ‘Culture jamming badly rejects the idea that marketing – because it buys its way into our public space – must be passively accepted as a one-way information flow.’ These concepts of Culture Jamming are overtly targeted towards the corporate world and capitalist agendas. However, if one replaces the product with the politician, and the corporations with political parties, then the project #NOIMPOSTERSHERE can be seen as doing what Culture Jamming strives for – though what might be better termed ‘Political Jamming’.
Confronting the Control of Public Space
Through pasting hundreds of posters around Nairobi, #NOIMPOSTERSHERE confronted the egotistical production of city space controlled by commercial and political interests, which urban dwellers often passively accept. The project visually animated the streets and corners of neighbourhoods within the city, potentially providing sites where different forms of discourse and public engagement could take place. Such actions may not at first appear significant. However, a vibrant society depends upon a lively public sphere. If certain viewpoints are excluded, one voice overpowers others, or only certain truths represented, then the public interest becomes eroded. #NOIMPOSTERSHERE contributes (in its own small but significant way) in countering this threat by providing alternative voices and opinions, while at the same time re-appropriating public space for public life, rather than commercial or political profit. Though what are the narratives these posters present and can one really say they have societies interest in mind?
The artists created over 25 poster designs which critiqued Kenyan politics and democracy through using humour, satire and frank messages. For example, a series of posters showed hyenas, pigs and vultures dressed in coloured suits set against a brightly decorated backdrop. The use of these animals draws upon other artists’ anthropomorphic representation of MPs as greedy, opportunistic, scavenging, and looking for instant gratification. Accompanying text referenced the unga crisis; politicians saying a lot - but not really saying anything (blah, blah, blah); or how the political establishment have been ‘taking Kenyans for a ride since 1963’. Other posters relied solely on text. For example, one poster displayed annual dates from 1990-2019 but left the years when Kenya held General Elections (1992, 1997, 2002, 2007, 2013 and 2017) blank; commentating on the significance placed on elections in Kenya (and elsewhere), but as is known, elections alone do not equate democracy. Another purely text-based poster read ‘We the People Want’, and listed pertinent issues close to the hearts of many Kenyans. In another set of posters an artist created a collage using authentic campaign posters, distorting what is genuine with what is fabricated. A similar method was also applied to a series of posters in which candidates’ faces were painted in a deformed, twisted, misleading and fuzzy manner.
Adopting the format of authentic campaign posters the #NOIMPOSTERSHERE posters created a likeness to the ‘real thing’ to cause curiosity amongst the public. This method can be seen as a distortion of reality and comments on what is real and fake. This is pertinent given the mediating role of media in distorting events and truths. Writing in the Daily Nation, in April 2017, Gabrielle Lynch spoke of the problem of ‘fake news’ that circulated parts of Kenya through leaflets, posters, mock newspaper covers and rumours which easily spread through new technology and digital platforms. The posters themselves are not necessarily acting as purveyors of truth – after all not all (aspiring) politicians are self-serving and in it for themselves (though many are) – but through the juxtaposition of real and faux they comment on the infiltration of fake or deceitful narratives entering the public sphere, propagated by not only those from the establishment but also the everyday person.
While it is common for people to speak about the public sphere becoming more and more digitised, moving into online platforms (such as Twitter and Facebook), #NOIMPOSTERSHERE communicates with real people who take up, occupy and share physical spaces within the city. The group is able to reach mass audiences across Nairobi through the use of posters – which would not be possible through other forms of art. While not all will be advocates of #NOIMPOSTERSHERE (I am sure there were those who criticised their approach and viewed it as unhelpful, provocative or even divisive in the run up to the elections), the group did nevertheless create spaces for democratic performance; they argue that the need for such space must not be overlooked; society must not become passive in conforming to the control of public space but rather work to reclaim it; the group also challenges unequal patterns of access to these spaces and who has opportunities to participate in the public sphere. Whoever these artists are (their identity would simply be a distraction from their mission) #NOIMPOSTERSHERE’s creative practices and actions are powerful tools in causing the public to question the status quo and disrupt everyday views on life and control over public space.