In 1966, the delegates of 82 governments and national liberation movements gathered at the Habana Libre hotel in Havana, Cuba for the first Tricontinental Conference. The newly nationalized luxury hotel and casino had opened as a Hilton just before the revolution, and briefly became Fidel Castro’s base following his overthrow of the military dictatorship. Now it was being used as the setting of one of the largest gatherings of anti-imperialists and the establishment of OSPAAL (Organization of Solidarity of the People of Asia, Africa and Latin America). The organization, which was founded to support global liberation movements and promote cooperation between socialist nations, shuttered last summer, but in the 53 years intervening, it produced around 350 posters. A new exhibition at the London’s House of Illustration, Designed in Cuba: Cold War Graphics, brings together 100 of them, along with 70 magazines, which were meant to promote Cuba’s revolutionary message to the world over.
Although officially a non-governmental organization, OSPAAAL was very much a product of Castro’s Communist Cuba. OSPAAAL’s output reflected Cuba’s commitment, following the 1959 revolution, to supporting other countries seeking independence, as well as movements outside Cuba that sought to fight oppression and achieve radical change. Castro himself described the situation in 1966 as a worldwide struggle ‘against colonialism, racism and imperialism.’ The work featured in the exhibition reflects these ideological themes and present a different perspective to the usual Cold War narrative. A diverse range of topics come through, such as the American Black Panther Party, South African Apartheid, the partition of Korea, the Vietnam War and American Imperialism, as well as subjects more localized to Cuba and Latin America.
The majority of designers working for OSPAAAL had been employed by advertising firms before the revolution. Afterwards, they put their skills to work promoting solidarity. Far from having the usual consistency or constraints often associated with propaganda, OSPAAL’s various artists and designers were seemingly free to work in whatever style they wished. As the exhibition shows, this visual eclecticism was one of their strengths. Multiple influences come through, such as Pop and Op Art, psychedelia, pop culture, and the style developed by Emory Douglas of the Black Panther Party. Cuban designers generally favored simple, direct, colorful images that were both eye-catching and economical. Designers turned the techniques of capitalist advertising back against itself to produce radical, striking images that were a far cry from the more traditional and often-dull ‘Socialist Realism’ style generally preferred in the USSR. As Fidel Castro at the start of the exhibition states, “Our enemy is imperialism, not abstract art.”
All of the works in Designed in Cuba are drawn from the collection of Mike Stanfield, who holds the world’s most extensive body of OSPAAAL material at his home in Oxford. The exhibition features work by 33 designers and spans the era 1965–1992, between the first Tricontinental Conference and the fall of the Soviet Union, known as the “golden age” of Cuban graphic design. We asked curator Olivia Ahmad to talk us through six key OSPAAAL from this time.