The 10 best ... SA street posters

2013-11-03 14:01

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A new book by Laurence Hamburger called Frozen Chicken Train Wreck reproduces SA tabloid headlines that are packed with humour and deeper political meaning. He chooses his...

1. This was the working title of the book and is the opening page. I have an abiding love affair with it that’s a little inexplicable, but it has something to do with the fact that it’s potentially universally offensive to a variety of South Africans: from the unyielding Springbok supporter or prickly white racist, to the unquestioning proponents of BEE and “comrade deployment”, who might see it as a mocking of their philosophies. It’s none of those and all of them too. That’s the beauty of irony. It’s all about the many meanings that can be derived from a situation.

2. After returning from over a decade working in Europe, I collected posters off the street from 2008 until earlier this year and this was my favourite for ages. Part of its appeal is the sheer ballsiness of conjuring a news item from a virtual nonevent. The idea that a tree has human qualities – ill intent and premeditation – is what the headline implies. That’s not just absurdly funny, it also makes the subtle point that as humans our relationship to nature is very often one of arrogance and ignorance in equal measure.

3. This is another poster that was, for a while, a contender for the title of the book. That’s because it’s just brilliantly simple, like a killer line in a sitcom. Actually, it reminds me of the kind of
one-liners that made Seinfeld so brilliant. I threw it out as a title option when the book’s publisher in the UK said that he didn’t like it as a title because it sounded like a bad Sandra Bullock cop caper. Since then, I can’t think of it as anything but that – a bad Hollywood payoff line.

4. The Daily Sun has become a byword for tabloid sensationalism, melodrama and exaggeration, and not without some justification. There are people driving by in cars who regard their posters as cult material. However, it’s not without some precedent in South Africa, what with Zonk! and Drum in the 1940s and 1950s. But its whole approach to being a newspaper, clearly populist, has also helped personalise “the news” to the township reader – a critically important personality in this country. I find this particular poster uncommonly sensitive and philosophical, and deeply mysterious.

5. This is the only Afrikaans poster I’ve got. While I speak Afrikaans, I don’t really know the language well enough to get most of its idiomatic nuances that can make it so witty. This one was for when the Confederations Cup was played here ahead of the World Cup and the excitement of the Brazilians, and the great Kaka, being in town, was sky-high. I’m not sure that the tradition of wordplay really exists in our Afrikaans posters, which is a shame because learning a language is really ultimately learning its jokes.

6. Can a war be tender? This is probably the most “poetic” of all the posters I found on the street while I was collecting for the book. Its double meaning makes it funny but also very profound. It also seems to have captured a feeling of the “cold war” that can seem to exist here – the unspoken conflict, the fragile nature of it, the emotional, almost personal nature of it. I also like it because it seems to describe, to a T, a certain relationship in my life right now.

7. There are an enormous number of headlines about police and their behaviour. While no doubt most are committed to their jobs, many cops seem to be criminals. So who holds the power? The headline has a humour that is bald and graphic, and yet on reflection, it’s a phrase containing a certain despair. “Cops” replaces “Police” in many posters, probably for space, but I think as a word its slang subverts their status to an extent, bringing an ironic, comic quality to their behaviour.

8. This poster is just staggering in its unbelievability. It’s beyond contradiction. Beyond irony. It’s what novelists call “story”.
Whenever I look at it, I still think it’s like a plot for a Lars von Trier film. It’s uncanny and seems to defy logic, yet at the same time it’s not total nonsense and, as a result, has a profundity that goes beyond whatever the actual news item was. The truth is our headlines are littered with violence. Every day, they reflect a nation engaged in a terrible gender war.

9. This is sheer genius. It’s dry and clever, and works on a number of levels. It’s like Bob Hope’s work – a one-line gag with a hah-hah laugh. The fact that its “other” meaning is so dark and unambiguous makes it more ironic to those who know about the actual event. It’s playing with the apocalyptic nature of much of our news?…?and trying to bring a perspective to it. The idea that “the world” has a common personality that could experience these feelings makes it even more bizarre.

10. The truth about these posters is that they have a very specific task: to sell newspapers. Thus the skill in a good poster is that it’s got to be good advertising as well as good journalism. This one just works on so many levels. It’s like a government warning against drinking and driving wrapped up in a 1950s B-movie title. It’s catchy, immediate and funny because there’s a “knowing” quality to it – it’s a joke we can all participate in. It’s clever, but it’s not elitist. And that’s the kind of South African humour I like the most.

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