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Colonial Contexts in Early Posters

How can advertising for car tyres, animal feed, and coffee houses function as both the mirror and driving force behind a colonial, imperialistic worldview? In a research project, the Kunstbibliothek (Art Library) is systematically examining an entire group of holdings in its collection of early posters for references to colonial influence and racist content for the first time.

Around 3800 posters in the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin’s Graphic Design Collection, dating from 1840 to 1914, were catalogued as part of a digitalisation project in 2021‒22. They not only document the beginnings of poster art in Europe and the United States as popular advertising media but also reflect the period from which they originated ‒ an epoch of industrialisation that was accompanied by innovation and liberalisation as well as colonialist expansion and patriarchal structures. The pictorial imagery is underpinned by ideological perspectives and social conditions and values that we now view critically.

There are around 350 objects among the early posters in the Kunstbibliothek whose imagery has been influenced by colonial contexts. They include a wide range of references, ranging from documents of everyday culture shaped by unreflected colonialist matter-of-factness to product advertising – primarily for coffee, tea, palm oil, cigarettes and other “colonial goods” – with stereotypical, exoticising or racially discriminatory elements. The research project analysed the posters with these references in mind:

  • How were colonial theory and practice transferred to visual narratives?
  • How were power structures and hierarchical beliefs of white supremacy visualised?
  • Where can discrimination, objectification and sexualisation be discerned?
  • And what are the underlying contexts behind each case?

The findings of this visual analysis will be made available in the form of database entries with texts about each poster, a Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek (German Digital Library) online exhibition and an in-depth scholarly essay.

It becomes apparent how much advertising posters in the 19th and early 20th centuries – with their striking images, simple language and mass reproduction used for dissemination and persuasive reinforcement ‒ have contributed to a colonialist and Eurocentrist worldview that lingers to this day. The project aims to open perspectives on the collection that are critical of discrimination and to disrupt the visual habit of overlooking or even disregarding the use of exploitative image formulas. It is also intended to stimulate similar research projects.

Scholarly Team: Dr Ibou Coulibaly Diop, Dr Kristina Lowis, Dr Christina Thomson
Project Manager: Dr Christina Thomson
Collection: Graphic Design Collection, Kunstbibliothek ‒ Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Project Development: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Duration: 1 February to 31 December 2022
Online presentation: In progress