Despite the digitization of design, the tradition of hand-painted banners, known as yaftat, show no signs of disappearing. Kubik Design Studio director and adjunct graphic design lecturer at LAU, Maria Bahous explores the public messages that mark Lebanon’s streets
In Lebanon, we have come to appreciate those familiar public banners dangling between electrical wires across the city and marking our streets. These hand-painted calligraphic messages painted on large white cloth banners are known as a yafta in the Arabic language (yaftat, plural), which translates to “banner” in English. Yaftat are characterized by their simplicity and direct communication, as much as for their traditional value dating back to the early decades of the 20th Century. They are indeed one of the oldest practices in the Arab world to spread public opinion, expression and announcements, long before printed posters were mass-produced. Today they are considered as a cheap but very efficient way to put out a message to the public.
The yafta has become a major component of Lebanon’s visual street language, whether fixed within a street or carried by hand during demonstrations. They reveal deeper meanings alluding to style, belief systems, geographic region and cultural direction, with their own stylistic and type treatments.
Use of yaftat
Yaftat are not used for one specific purpose. They serve a vast variety of messages but are all a reflection of communities, their lifestyles, thinking processes and relationships with each other through the simple use of text. Lately people are resorting to using yaftat to express or advertise messages with personal interest. Despite their ephemeral nature theses messages are part of the Lebanese scenery. Though the content varies from one city to the other, since they are circumstantial, they exist all over the country.
While posters are commissioned out to graphic designers, illustrators or visual artists leaving room for self-expression through visuals and words, public banners are more of a simple direct message of paint or ink on a canvas that somehow preserves the typographic practice of street painters.
Though these public banners are not considered exquisite pieces of design or art, they keep us connected with an important aspect of Lebanese artistic heritage, calligraphy. The painted letters in most cases follow the principles of calligraphic gestures and structure.
Even though the real value of the yafta is in what they say, not how they present it, when creating the banner there is a choice of calligraphic style – Ruq’ah, Naskh or Diwani – to express thoughts. Of course, as with all traditions, yaftat have been influenced by the digitization of modern times, nowadays it’s often printed using digital typography. The cost to commission a yafta is mainly defined by the number of colors used and whether in hand-painted calligraphy or a printed digital font. The price goes up if you include hand drawn illustrations or images, but of course in the case of many, it’s a DIY job.
These public banners are an expression of identity, underlining the intrinsic values of a certain community, through which society’s thoughts, emotions and wishes are expressed. They could be a positive and peaceful note addressed to one individual or to a group, or an expression of melancholy or hostility, voicing public opinion towards an opposing party.
Though differently used, yaftat are rarely anonymous and always hold a signature as a personal letter addressed in the name of a single person or a whole community. They also have an underlining structure with a clear hierarchy. They could be formulated in simple Lebanese jargon or take the form of lyrical praise, sometimes quoting well know poetic or religious verses.
2 The population wants the election of the president.
Blessed are our Lebanese army; heroes, leaders, generals and soldiers.
THE MANY FORMS OF YAFTAT
These banners express the tension between the individual and the community or the community and the state. They reflect a dynamism and overall atmosphere within an area. They are mostly loaded with political messages and express hostility or disagreement with an action or political leader.
Opposite messages of rebellion, these banners express appreciation or solidarity for a political party, a leader, the army or even a citizen from the region. They are mainly lyrical and show pride.
Welcoming or farewell note
This category could address a citizen returning or leaving his village or on a more generic tone it could be a means to honor important religious or political figures.
A note to express sorrow
Mostly used at funerals. These are messages to express love, gratitude and sadness towards a loved one.
Used to congratulate someone on an achievement or a successful event such as a marriage or graduation.
Cheaper than a billboard or flyers, banners are also used to advertise a menu, a promotion or sales.
Yaftat are also a way to deliver official messages addressed to the public. It’s a practical tool that helps to announce a message to the community at once.