New Internationalist

Where the streets have no shame

Issue 396

An ages-old form of public expression is squeezed out. Lindsey Collen surveys the encroaching slick.

sarah john
sarah john

On a dark and rather blustery night two of my friends were out in the capital, Port Louis, pasting up the usual big-format letter-press posters announcing a coming public political meeting to be held in the vicinity. Navy-blue ink on off-white newsprint. ‘Grand Meeting’, the posters announced (all meetings being ‘grand’). While they were busy slapping on the home-made flour-glue, ready to stick up a poster on to the wooden-slatted wall of an ancient building on a side road, an old man’s voice came from inside to break the silence: ‘Are you folks pasting up posters out there?’ After a short, guilty silence, one friend replied: ‘Yes, yes we are.’ He put his glue brush down in the dark, out of respect. ‘For what party?’ the voice asked. When they replied, he said: ‘Go ahead!’ Then the voice continued: ‘When you’ve finished with that one, could you paste another one just here, a bit lower and further to your left?’ He tapped on the inside of the wall next to his bed to indicate the place. ‘Terrible draught coming in!’

In Mauritius, posters have always been an important medium for direct communication with people. They get pasted up in bus-stops, on electric pylons, on rubbish drums, on walls of nondescript buildings, on palings around building sites. You can judge the mood of the country at a glance. You are informed by them. You are invited by them. You are included by them. And the experts at pasting them up make an art of choosing strategic places, so that at the expense of only 50 posters, thousands of people can get the message from a club, association, union, political party, or a benevolent organization.

Most posters, just like the ones my friends were pasting up, are printed on the same few very old letterpresses still in action. They announce petanque tournaments in housing estates or five-a-side football fixtures in villages; a film in a big cinema house or blood donations needed at such-and-such a place on Sunday; religious celebrations of all denominations; fasts, processions, public forums on key topics of the day, fancy-fairs, hip-hop concerts, and of course the next important political meetings at a particular street corner. Other posters are hand-painted slogans – everything from ‘We want price controls back!’ to ‘The right to strike at once!’ In the past two decades, there have been multi-coloured offset posters, too, when just the colour alone tells you which party is holding an event.

And then a campaign started in the country. In schools, in the media. Posters, the campaign went, are dirty. They are an eyesore. What will tourists say? Posters spoil the environment. It’s the fault of political parties. The country must modernize. Suddenly, the police began laying charges on people pasting them up, accusing them of not paying tax to the District Council. (No one had ever taken notice of this regulation before, of course.) Or laying charges on the grounds that some factory owner had complained about posters on their perimeter wall. Do-gooders would get funded by business and, with the permission of a municipality, would scrub the walls of bus-stops ‘clean’ and then paint some childish fresco on it, showing tourists the cute naiveté of us, the local population.

Gradually this democratic space began to shrink. It’s been almost closed down by vilification and by repression. It still exists, but it is humbled. In its place there is a new mass medium supported by very strong economic interests – and strong steel frames, too.

Bus-stop walls are now fixed up with square spaces for glossy advertisements for transnational fizzy drinks, cosmetics, disposable nappies, trendy jeans and cellphones. Meaningless messages cover almost all the space the eye can see. Even dustbins now have ‘sides’ with frames for firms to rent or buy, covered with glossy ads for banks, insurance firms, shopping arcades, deep-sea diving. Giant billboards stand ostentatiously everywhere vaunting empty faces, dwarfing peoples’ daily lives. Entire buses are disguised as a brand-name chocolate bar. Public space invaded and polluted by advertisements, a democratic space taken over by capital.

Capital already controls the press and most radio. Now even a place to paste up a poster is sold to the highest bidder. Leaving senseless messages pasted everywhere, unrelated to living, breathing society.

Lindsey Collen is a Mauritian novelist.

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