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Police firing ‘purple rain’ on protesters, Cape Town 1989 (photographer unknown, from the cover of Die Suid Afrikaan , 1989, Tafelberg Publishers). 

Police firing ‘purple rain’ on protesters, Cape Town 1989 (photographer unknown, from the cover of Die Suid Afrikaan , 1989, Tafelberg Publishers). 

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This article explores the extent to which colour functions as an independent mode in a particular context and explores the culturally produced regularities in the uses of colour in this context. Drawing on a Hallidayan metafunctional view of text, we look at how colour instantiated systems of knowledge and belief (ideational function) and social re...

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... way that Figure 1 rallied support for the United Democratic Front. It also signifies resistance to the state with the invocation to ‘Free all political prisoners’. This poster represents a shift from the black, red and yellow of the UDF. The ANC colours dominate the visual mode and red remains for the written text. However, it is interesting to note how quickly the colour red disappeared from these posters and popular media altogether (see Figure 4). The poster shown in Figure 4 was issued by the National Reception Committee set up in 1989 to welcome long-serving political prisoners. A prolific outpouring of posters, murals and flyers, all in the ANC colours of black green and gold, heralded the arrival of those who had served time with Mandela or were returning from exile. The poster depicts the ANC salute which was adopted in June 1949: ‘The Congress salute is the right hand clenched with the thumb upraised. It represents the unity of the people in Africa’ (ANC Handbook, 1958, in Seidman, 2007: 38). The raised fists evoke images of mass resistance, people’s power and unified opposition to the state. The strong visual statement of these fists is echoed in the exclamation mark of the written slogan, ‘Long live ANC!’ Some would argue that the ANC, now in its 17th year of government, is not always seen as worker-friendly and has opted for a far more capitalist solution than originally anticipated. This may have been reflected in their colour coding from the start through the absence of red – and even the choice of ‘gold’ with its connotations of wealth. It is our contention that colour as mode worked most effectively when social and political conditions were in crisis and at a point of urgency. The strong, flat and unmodulated colours that printers call ‘spot’ colours worked well as a mode of communication where communal identity and political affiliation needed to be established fast and messages needed to be conveyed with as much clarity as possible. However, when social conditions are less fraught and messages are conveyed with less urgency, colour coding reflects this different environment. It is notable that colours become muted, even monochrome, when messages are more benign. Playing with tonal relationships in visual communication speaks of time and luxury. A monochromatic scheme is the full range of a hue from its deepest shade to its lightest tint and if a hue is mixed with grey, a ‘tone’ is created (Bleicher, 2005: 55). In an atmosphere of political stability, posters informing the public of exhibitions, films or meetings do not have to jolt the viewer into action or have them reflect on their political affiliation. It is interesting to observe that posters about Dafur, the DRC or Rwanda circulating the world are often printed in muted colours or monochrome, but these are posters that are not being generated from within the country. They are more about the developed world informing itself about a far-away situation and therefore have an ‘arty’ coffee table book quality to them. The key semiotic affordance of monochrome is the restraint involved in the lack of stark colour differentiation. Kress and Van Leeuwen (2006: 234) argue that a monochrome colour scheme has become a key signifier of the ideologies of postmodernism in which ‘hybridity’ is positively valued. Monochrome reflects and constructs our current social and political atmosphere of relative subtlety and ‘greyness. Much of our visual media, even of a political nature, is currently conveyed in monochrome. Top fashion houses, like Dolce & Gabbana and Calvin Klein, display monotone wardrobes. Movie posters, which used to excel in the most blatant primary colours, now mirror the shift to monochrome. Advances in technology have enabled this shift to happen with convincing aesthetic standards. The colour palette of the internet and its applications have undoubtedly had an influence and many websites skilfully utilize the semiotics of colour. While six million colours may seem like a lot, this is in fact a small number compared to the infinite colours found on Rembrandt’s palette. However, since web palettes are so visible and acces- sible to millions of people who would not formerly have given time to colour considerations, a general intoxication with modulated or ‘flat’ colour has been encouraged. In a way, the personal computer has ‘democratized’ colour, if, as Gage (2006: 31) argues, muted colours are considered more tasteful to those in a higher socioeconomic bracket, while ‘bright saturated hues may be considered more common, popularist and egalitarian. Before ending, we want to note an ironic event that took place in Cape Town towards the end of 1989, during the height of the Defiance Campaign and shortly before the unbanning of the major South African political organizations. On 2 September, police turned a powerful water cannon on thousands of protesters attempting to march to parliament. The water contained a strong purple dye (see Figure 5), the intention being to mark all those who were protesting so they could face arrest at a later time, even if they managed to run away. Hundreds were arrested and for days it seemed a large part of the Cape Town population had become various shades of purple. This flew in the face of racial segregation laws and became a standing joke. People filled out ‘purple’ on the section of the arrest forms that demanded information about race and the defiance campaign slogan was changed temporarily to ‘the purple shall govern’. Ironically, the event contributed successfully to the Defiance Campaign in that people with different skin colour looked more alike. ‘Purple people’ signified the ultimate embodiment of the mode of colour as a political statement, more than the media of clothes mentioned earlier. Unwittingly, this particular event also coincided with and marked the end of the era of colour being used as a mode with ideational urgency as we moved into a new monochrome phase. We have attempted to explore the notion of colour as mode, namely the abil- ity to construct textual and interpersonal relations through colour, as well as a more complex link between colour and ideational meaning, as used by South African organizations to mobilize masses of people. Colour need not only function as one mode among many, but can exist ‘on its own’ in a given time and place with broadly shared conventions in a community of practice. We have also shown that colour does not always have ‘mode-like’ status (Kress and Van Leeuwen, 2001: 25), but that it depends on the context and usage. Perhaps a more useful question is not whether colour is a mode, but when does colour function as a mode? It is our contention that one context in which colour operates most effectively as a semiotic force is that of excessive press censor- ship, and in an environment where many cannot read or write. Under these conditions, messages realized through alternative modes and media need to be delivered often and as quickly as possible. Chosen colours initially accompany particular written or visual messages and, with time, those signifiers become less reliant on other modes and media, to the point where a message can be imparted purely by colour, realized in a range of media or sites of display. Therefore, extreme political conditions that include press restrictions can utilize colour in this iconic sense to convey multifaceted messages. Here, colour as mode depends on ‘sign makers acting within the needs and understanding of a particular community and its more or less conventionalized practices’ (Bezemer and Kress, 2008: 172). As Kress and Van Leeuwen (2006: 228) argue, social groups that share common purposes around uses of colour are often relatively small and special- ized compared to groups who share speech or visual communication. In our explorations, we have come to see colour more as a ‘dialect’ than a universal language, as it is so dependent on context, as illustrated by the specificities of the South African situation. We have also shown how the link between colour as mode, and the particular media in which it is realized, are of interest, such as in items of clothing, where subtlety and the nuancing of overtly anti-state messages are necessary. Here, colour as a modal resource is able to be used in a particular site of display, namely the body, in a way that the visual and the written mode are not. It is thus clear that colour as signifier carries a ‘set of affordances from which sign-makers and interpreters select according to their communication needs in a given context’ (Kress and Van Leeuwen, 2006: 232). This research is based upon work supported by the National Research Foundation (NRF) in South Africa and the University Research Committee at the University of Cape Town. Any opinions, findings or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and therefore the NRF does not accept any liability in regard thereto. Archer, A. (2006) ‘A Multimodal Approach to Academic “Literacies”: Problematizing the Visual/Verbal Divide, Language and Education 20(6): 449–62. Barthes, R. (1977) Image Music Text . London: Fontana Press. Bezemer, J. and Kress, G. (2008) ‘Writing in Multimodal Texts: A Social Semiotic Account of Designs for Learning, Written Communication 25(2): 166–95. Bleicher, S. (2005) Contemporary Color Theory and Use. New York: Thomson Delmar Learning. Eco, U. (1979) The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Gage, J. (2006) Colour in Art . London: Thames & Hudson. Halliday, M.A.K. (1978) Language as Social Semiotic: The Social Interpretation of Language and Meaning. London: Arnold. Halliday, M.A.K. (1985) Spoken and Written Language. Melbourne: Deakin University Press. Hoffmann, L. (2004) ‘The Psychology of Colour: The Creative Artist. URL (consulted May 2007): asp Kay, P. and Berlin, B. (1969) Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution ...

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