Thumbs-Up

2016

The thumbs-up sign, widespread in the early stages of anti-apartheid struggle, functioned as a sign of solidarity among activists and their supporters. This gesture is ubiquitous in photographs of mass action such as the Defiance Campaign (1952) and the Treason Trial (1955-61). Throughout the 1950s the thumbs-up strategically demonstrated that actions of nonviolent persuasion - boycotts, stay-at-homes, strikes, civil disobedience - were attempts at mass negotiation. The commitment to passive resistance came to an end in 1960. The crystallizing event was the Sharpeville Massacre. With the abandonment of peaceful, action came a more militant, uncompromising gesture: the clenched fist. 
 

From the thumbs-up sign to the clenched fist, from the open palm to the V for Victory, these gestures can be read both as exercises in signification with their own communicative meanings and as resistance to Apartheid through the years in numerous photographs of mass mobilization.The shift from one gesture to another produces a new image of the resistance to Apartheid, shifting from nonviolent to revolt. These photographs show the discourse of the image, as it travels from gesture to representation, from symbol to sign, from signifier to signification.

The semiotics of the thumbs-up gesture today is depoliticized and generic, signaling affirmative messages such as – ‘okay’, ‘like’ and ‘cool’. I am interested in this discrepancy, what might initially seem like sucking history out of its thumb. 

Presented at S&L in  2015, Johannesburg and Intersections Rotterdam Art 2016, with Kunsthuis Syb

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