Free South Africa Keith Haring
Find out more about Keith Haring’s Free South Africa series, browse prints & editions for sale & view the works wanted by active buyers right now.
Depicted in the artist’s instantly recognisable style, the Free South Africa series is an example of how Keith Haring’s used his playful figurative drawings to tackle social injustices around the world, notably racism and apartheid in South Africa. 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.
Why is Free South Africa important?
As with his other activist works, Haring uses a simplified visual language of recognisable symbols to convey the complex and troubling subject matter. By creating accessible images that lent themselves to circulation in posters, t-shirts and postcards, Haring generated an effective form of popular protest where weighty moral messages could be clearly understood by the masses. Worldwide public pressure at the time to influence change in South Africa eventually led to the release of lawyer and activist Nelson Mandela from prison and his subsequent election to be president in 1994.
Friend of Haring’s and executive director of the Keith Haring Foundation, Julia Gruen, has said of the series, “We can feel that image really in the simplest possible way spoke to a kind of political activism… It’s really about fighting against oppression. It’s about bucking the system. It’s about questioning authority.”
Haring’s poster Free South Africa that shows the image from Free South Africa 3, originated from a painting he completed in 1984 of the same design (currently exhibited at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam). In 1985, Haring created a lithograph from this painting and added the text ‘Free South Africa’ to the lower border of the composition. Though there are countless examples of Haring’s screen prints on the market, his lithographs are rarer. Haring produced many large editions throughout his career, but each is characterised by the careful precision and vibrancy of the one that comes before it, demonstrating his mastery of the process.
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