Resistance in Print: Daniel Drennan and the Jamaa Al-Yad Collective

I am fortunate enough to have taken an illustration course with Daniel Drennan back in the spring of 2011 at AUB.

Only a year ago, I was that bright-eyed student to whom linoleum was a newfound surface to experiment around with, struggle with, and nag about - and nothing more.

I regret being so negative about linocut, and I retract the foul words I directed towards the medium in those Nescafe-fueled all-nighters. When I came across Jamaa Al-Yad, the artists' collective Drennan founded in 2009, I saw that linoleum could be a whole lot more than a piece of rubbery canvas. In fact, any mode of art is only powerful in the right hands. It was then that I understood the "middle-ground" concept Drennan repetitively explained back in class. You'll read more about it in the accompanying interview. 

"The Collective bypasses the celebration of design and art practice as an individual venture, yet it does not aim to impose a given mode on current local art or design scenes; instead it strives to witness the current state of those arts and the changes that are occurring on a local as well as global level, in an effort to ever empower local designers, craftspeople, writers, and artists in ways that are of significance in terms of their own historic modes and practices and their audience, but also within the scope of their engagement with and connection to other local artists, trades- and craftspeople, and not just a cultural elite or paying audience. This focus on true Voice will sidestep problematic tools and frameworks, and by working in an organic and collective manner, may return the artists' Collective to prominence, re-enabling creativity pro-actively, sustainably, rewardingly, and joyously."Drennan doesn't necessarily illustrate all the prints for the collective (whose name translates to "clenched fist"). He works with a team. 
The following is an excerpt from their manifesto and explains the vision behind the works.
What strikes me as interesting is the anonymity associated with the works. No print is signed, although a given artist has obviously put in a lot of time to come up with the design and to execute it accordingly. Skills are put on the table and are used in a way that members are not dismissed nor glorified in their individuality - but rather as the collective as a whole.

Topics heavily range around Palestine and territory, but in a manner that does not outwardly and offensively accuse opposing parties. The resistance is so peaceful and strangely light-hearted that one almost wouldn't dub it as 'resistance'. 

The expressions of the anonymous characters featured can weaken the coldest of viewers, regardless of their political views. The same results could not have been achieved through Adobe Illustrator. The fine, hand-carved lines certainly humble the topic, and I can understand why linocut is the most frequent process for Jamaa Al-Yad. 

I chatted with Drennan as a spokesman for Jamaa Al-Yad's works.

Bananapook: This is certainly a unique type of collective. Are most members illustrators?
Daniel Drennan: To us, everyone is a potential illustrator, or designer, or writer, or what have you. As an artists' collective we see our role as two-fold: First, to serve as an outlet for creative expression that advocates for community and social activism. Second, to teach and pass on the knowledge of the techniques we use to those internal to and outside of the group. So the answer to your question might in fact be: All members are illustrators in this sense. Beyond this though are other roles that are just as important: translation, archiving, research, writing, design, etc. The posters/artwork are our most forward aspect, but there's a lot more going on.

B: How many members currently make up the collective?
DD: It is flexible. There is a core group of maybe 25 people; the main mailing list has 400 people on it. Projects come together and we pull in working units from both groups.

B: Is it considered an NGO? 
DD: We were required to register with the government as such, though the term "NGO" is not a term we would use to describe the group; it carries negative connotations in terms of humanitarian imperialism, which runs counter to how we see things locally and how we conduct ourselves. تجمُّع, more appropriately.

B: Is Jamaa al-Yad open for anyone to join?
DD: Absolutely. In our bylaws we describe the two basic levels of being part of the collective. First is as an adjunct member, which requires being involved in a project or projects as a show of commitment. After that it is possible to take a more actively engaged role in determining how the group works, what projects are taken on, etc.

B: What motivated you to start the collective?
DD: This is something that has always been present in my mind as an alternative to the usual individual or hierarchical models of working. I tried forming similar groups when I was in New York, both in terms of publishing a "communal" magazine as well as an online web site which grew out of my Masters program final project. But adherence to such a group requires a mindset and way of looking at oneself and one's work which is difficult to maintain in cultures and societies that consider marketing or branding of self as valid, which aim at self-promotion over community, or which are globalized into such ways of seeing things.

So this got me thinking about what kind of environment supports such a group, or is hostile toward it. I have been researching for a long time activist groups that manifest themselves artistically: The talleres of revolutionary Mexico, the Black Panther Party in the United States, just for two examples. I have tried to examine what keeps such groups together, but more importantly, the internal and external factors that often lead to their demise. We took almost two years to write our bylaws and charter which are based heavily on ideas of removing all negative incentives along these lines from the group. My lawyers thought I was a bit crazy to go to all of this extra effort instead of just using the government-supplied template; but the template was full of these negative incentives: hierarchy, elected officers, parliamentary procedure, etc. Now they say that the bylaws and charter we produced set a precedent for non-hierarchical structuring of such organizations, especially since our non-traditional approach was nonetheless readily approved by the government here.

The resulting debates we've had are rather telling in this regard. One such discussion revolved around why we choose to not individually sign our work. It is really difficult to not credit individuals when it comes to databases of artwork, illustration competitions, etc., it's the status quo, it's just "the way it is". Another debate with a friend who runs a similar group in the States was centered on the fact that if he imposed a similar restriction, most of the artists in his group would leave. This debate has historic precursors in artists groups around the world, and in this light, many present-day "collectives" might be better described as coalitions of individuals waiting for their personal break at which point they move on. We have attempted to dissolve the individual in the group, based on the historical precedent of such groups from the past, and this is a very different approach. The motivation here is based on the idea that everyone is capable of manifesting themselves as artists; that this is part of our human nature. So we are categorically against the cultural elitism inherent to the ideas of museums, galleries, the art market, the "graphic design" realm, etc.

B: Most of the images, if not all, seem to be linoleum prints. Is there a specific reason why?
DD: The work tends toward linoleum and woodblock cut, but we also have scratchboard and ink rendering as well. We've done workshops that involve simple collagraph printing, as well as eco-friendly stenciling. All of these are based in our commitment to the craft underpinnings of what we do, meaning, there are ways of working that are in and of themselves collective in nature, and which tie into the feedback loop of eye, mind's eye, and hand. The studio environment, the atelier, the tallere, these are communal spaces; working together in terms of production in and of itself forces you to work together conceptually as well; this then further bridges out to the audience you engage with, forging communal solidarity and support.

And so we see these techniques not only as communal in terms of the collective, but communal to the outside; the traditional printer's workshop was a politically important location within a community; there was a give-and-take involved. We are striving to maintain this as a valid model; to work within a community not as an elitist imposition but as an integral and holistic part thereof. This exists locally--unfortunately these days more likely along sectarian or political party lines--but as a work methodology it is not given any validity by artists who are trained to not see the vernacular as valid for anything other than pirating. So we tend toward ways of working that imply a certain craft or technique; linoleum/woodblock in this light have always been associated with revolutionary movements, partially due to their emotional impact and strong graphic quality, partially due to their technical precursors such as the printing press, and the desire to disseminate such images widely and at low cost.

BB: Aren't computer-generated illustrations quicker in "emergency" projects?
DD: Of course, and we do have some projects along these lines. But honestly I don't think they are as strong; some of them I wish to redo as prints. When I teach illustration I talk about what I refer to as the technical "middle ground", meaning, there are techniques which in and of themselves have intrinsic value in an aesthetic sense, such as printmaking, and there are techniques which are means to get to the final printed piece, like scratchboard. I can produce a print and it has value both as a print and as a printed illustration. My scratchboard in and of itself, on the other hand, has little inherent value; it is purely a "middle ground" technique. This doesn't invalidate it, it just frames it differently. 

I've been involved with the computer and computer art since the 1980s; the history here is long and varied, but I think it is safe to say it is always reductive, just as the computer is a reductive automaton. I've yet to see it truly move beyond being a purely middle-grounded means to an end; at the end of the day the computer carries forth more of its own imprint than the artist's. So this becomes a question of base conceptual premise, how we see ourselves, and how we see the tools we use, as well as the work produced therefrom. Above and beyond this an avoidance of the false premise that somehow the minimal percentage of the population that has access to computers is the valid polis--engaged citizenry--that makes up a global audience. I would much prefer that our work end up on the walls of a local Palestinian refugee camp than on the computer screen of some Facebooker.

B: On the collective's site, the images are provided for anyone to print out or share. Do non-members generally take advantage of this privilege?
DD: This is what has been most intriguing to me as I develop the web site, and in contrast to what I just said, this is where I see the computer as intrinsically valid, as a means of distribution. The downloads from the web site are pretty consistent, and I am always happy to see someone a country halfway around the world all of a sudden take an interest in our work; it speaks to the global import of our messages. Much of our subject matter aims to create this broad-based coalition of groups fighting dispossession, displacement, injustice, etc. By contrast, we've also heard from galleries in Europe as well as other collectives, design journals, illustration magazines, etc. which have expressed an interest in reproducing our work in their locales even though often to different purpose, yet this to me speaks volumes about what we are attempting to do.

B: Does Jamaa al-Yad ever get any special illustration requests? Or are the prints self-initiated?
DD: We have a huge list of projects lined up; but time is always an issue, and admittedly we are kind of backlogged. I hope to get this moving this summer. Sometimes we'll be asked by a group or organization for a particular poster or commemoration of an event, or else such an idea sparks a project. For example, the "From the Land" project came about based on a request from a group in Norway that wanted to create posters for local storeowners who do not stock products of Israeli origin as a show of support for the BDS movement. We tried to map this onto a project idea for reviving ideas of the baladi or "homegrown". Similarly, the "He Toiled" project was a specific request from the New York Occupy coalition for a newspaper of posters from around the globe they were compiling on the "Occupy Wall Street" theme. So they end up being very interesting collaborations along these lines, in which a suggested idea sparks a local twist that still resonates in other places.

B: What's in the future for the collective?
DD: Everything we've accomplished has been done with most members either full time employees and/or students; given these time restraints I'm pretty proud of everything we've done so far. But this has meant putting some things to the side, such as the web site, which is likewise produced from the ground up in terms of programming and design. I'm hoping to spend a lot of time now getting its other modules up and running. Despite this, things are moving positively. We are currently working on the redesign of a political/literary journal, and have a list of other interesting projects lined up. We're looking for a workspace to form a more solid base for ourselves. We're hoping to continue actively collaborating with like-minded groups here in the region and around the world.

To quote Emory Douglas:
"If you've got art that's helping people escape their problems, then you're dealing with art that serves the interests of those who want to continue to oppress you....Art can be educational, it can show solidarity with others who are struggling. It can have a spirit of resistance or expose oppression and deal with institutions that don't serve the community's best interests."
This is our inspiration and our goal; serving the community's best interests. Our future will be marked by an attempt to manifest this credo to the best of our ability.


My personal interest in politics is null, and yet I find art to be the most beautiful and peaceful form of resistance. I only wish more citizens and protesters took it on instead of dubbing the response as a futile tactic. Its effects creep in indirectly - but they do so astoundingly. It's a shame that one would only realize the power of culture in its absence. I am comforted by organizations such as Jamaa Al-Yad who take advantage of this power. 

To keep up with Jamaa Al-Yad's projects and to view their official charter, visit their website - and do take advantage of that 'download' button underneath each image. Zoom in, see how delicate the technique is and how carefully it voices the image.

Jamaa Al-Yad are also on Twitter, as is Daniel Drennan. His tweets are 140-character testimonies to how dynamic his observations and writings are. Don't let his technical capabilities distract you, his writing is a whole other realm worth visiting. 

Create, appreciate,


All images on Bananapook are copyrighted material and all rights are reserved to the respective artists.


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