History curator Stephanie Gibson talks to Chris McBride, designer and member of Wellington Media Collective, about artists and designers making protest objects.
Artists came out in force to support and record the explosive 1981 Springbok rugby tour, its lead-up, and legacy. Some saw this country’s acceptance of the whites-only team as supporting apartheid in South Africa. Others felt that sport should be separate from politics.
Four posters by Wellington Media Collective have recently gone on display in the Toi Art exhibition Tūrangawaewae: Art and New Zealand to help tell this story.
Wellington Media Collective
Wellington Media Collective (1978-1998) worked alongside groups to deliver powerful messages effectively. The collective began as a volunteer organisation in 1978 and shared skills in design, photography, and printing with community organisations, trade unions, activists, theatres, and cultural groups, etc. The Collective was primed for action when the Springbok tour of New Zealand was scheduled for July to September 1981 – huge amounts of work went into producing anti-tour material, and most of the work was done voluntarily.
Stephanie: Why did artists and designers get involved in protests against the Springbok rugby tour?
Chris: We quickly saw how huge the protest movement was becoming, and that organisers needed people with design experience to make effective protest material. And they needed access to non-commercial print-making facilities – some commercial companies considered printing anti-tour material was too risky and potentially harmful for their business. We were fortunate that there were still some printing companies willing to stand alongside the protest movement and print bulk requirements.
Stephanie: What are some of the key ingredients of protest design? When I look at these posters, the elements that strike me the most are the strong directive words (‘Mobilise’,‘Oppose’,‘Patu’), the upraised clenched fist, and images of crowds.
Chris: You need clear, direct, and readable messages, vibrant colours, powerful symbols, and imagery – to catch people’s eyes and persuade them to act. The Wellington Media Collective was at the forefront of designing anti-tour material. Simple phrasing was reproduced across a range of different designs, and sometimes chanted during protest marches.
Stephanie: Two of these posters call for nationwide mobilisations on 1 May and 3 July 1981 to pressure the New Zealand Government to force the Rugby Union to withdraw its invitation to the Springboks and stop the tour. These mobilisations were hugely successful with about 75,000 people marching on each date. Both posters feature images of crowds – why is that?
Chris: Images of crowds are important to protest design as they show solidarity with a cause, and they leave a ‘quotable’ visual record which can be easily repurposed for subsequent protest material. For example, the image in the July poster was actually taken at the earlier protest on 1 May. The word ‘Mobilise’ also implies large groups of people, and harks back to the huge anti-Vietnam War mobilisations of the early 1970s.
Stephanie: The Oppose Apartheid poster was created by graphic designer Dave Kent of the Wellington Media Collective. The upraised clenched fist symbolises solidarity and was a key symbol of the black South African liberation movement.
Chris: The image of the fist is actually Dave Kent’s. The raised fist has a long history across the world and generally means unity, or solidarity, really, it is a symbol of resistance. It was a symbol of unity and strength used by the protest movement in South Africa so very appropriate to use on the poster to show the solidarity between the movements in Aotearoa and in South Africa.
Stephanie: The final poster advertises Merata Mita’s political film Patu!, which documented New Zealanders’ divided reactions to the Springbok tour and features some of the violent clashes during protests. These images still shock with their ferocity and violence. Tell me about the design.
Chris: It was great that Merata Mita was bringing her work on the Springbok tour protests to the big screen. Merata and other film makers across Aotearoa risked their lives to contribute footage to this important film. I made a decision to design and print this poster as a tribute to Merata, the film makers and the protest movement. I embedded photographs of the protests within the word ‘Patu’ (weapon), which is in turn embedded in a film strip. This allusion may of course be lost on younger audiences used to digital technology. But the idea was that the film itself became a patu in the fight against apartheid and racism.
The posters are a part of our Collective activist history. They, and the film, are also an integral part of the wider collective fight for justice here and overseas. I am grateful to have played a small part in creating some of the visual material associated with the anti-apartheid movement.