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South Africa

Keith Haring's 1985 Free South Africa series captures the struggle of the black majority against the oppressive white minority in Apartheid South Africa, symbolized by a rope around the neck of the black figure. Radiating dashes evoke the energy of the fight, culminating hopefully with the black figure overcoming the white.

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Meaning & Analysis

Looking to tackle South African Apartheid, Haring’s Free South Africa series shows how his signature artistic style is used to depict complex social issues. Printing and distributing around 20,000 Free South Africa posters in New York City in 1986, Haring worked tirelessly to mobilise support against apartheid.

In a journal entry from March 28, 1987, Haring wrote that “Control is evil. All stories of white men’s ‘expansion’ and ‘colonisation’ and ‘domination’ are filled with horrific details of the abuse of power and the misuse of people.”

Each print in the series features two stick figures in a struggle with one another, and as the series progresses, we see this struggle unfold. Using his bold, linear style, Haring represents the relationship between the black majority and white minority in South Africa during years of institutionalised racial segregation. The black figure on the left is rendered much larger than the white figure, symbolising the substantial disparity between the black majority and the few white people that had political and social power at the time. Haring clearly conveys this inequality of the white man’s power by showing the white figure with a rope around the black figure’s neck.

The presence of radiating lines and dashes work to bring movement to each image in the series, conveying the rage of the black figure and worry of the white figure who is about to be crushed. Haring playfully offers the viewer a glimpse of hope for the future by depicting the black figure crushing the white figure, marked by a red X, that represents this inequality.

10 Facts About Haring's Free South Africa

Free South Africa 2 by Keith Haring

Free South Africa 2 © Keith Haring 1985

1. The series represents emancipation from white supremacy in South Africa under apartheid.

Using his archetypal figures, Free South Africa represents a struggle between black and white characters. In each of the prints in this series, Haring depicts a small white figure with a noose, or leash, around the neck of a much larger black figure. The size of the figures symbolises the contrasting population sizes between black and white communities in South Africa, and underscores the irony of the white minority controlling and oppressing the black majority under apartheid.

The Star 12/02/90

The Star 12/02/90 © South Africa Gateway via Creative Commons

2. The series was created during a period of pivotal civil rights activism in South Africa.

Throughout the 1980s, the African National Congress (ANC) were embroiled in negotiations and campaigns to bring an end to apartheid. This was a decade underscored by both violent and peaceful protest, as the non-white population of South Africa showed the world the abhorrent realities of apartheid.

In the same year that Haring created this series, the apartheid government placed South Africa under yet another national State of Emergency, in a desperate attempt to maintain control. However, the ceaseless campaigning by non-white communities was not in vain. Just five years after Haring distributed his Free South Africa series, Nelson Mandela walked to freedom on 11 February 1990, setting the definitive end to apartheid in motion.

Free South Africa 3 by Keith Haring

Free South Africa 3 © Keith Haring 1985

3. Haring allegedly distributed 20,000 poster versions of his Free South Africa 3 print to encourage support against apartheid.

In 1986, Haring had his Free South Africa 3 print formatted into a poster, making it easier to circulate the image to a wide-reaching demographic. These posters were then distributed around NYC to raise awareness about the atrocities of apartheid. This series exemplifies the power of Pop Art's ties to mass-circulated media, and the ways in which art can be used to illicit powerful socio-political change.

Pop Shop III, Plate II by Keith Haring

Pop Shop III, Plate II © Keith Haring 1989