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Psychedelia, Satire + Solidarity—Cuba’s Revolutionary Posters Showcase the Country’s “Golden Age” of Graphic Design

“Our enemy is imperialism, not abstract art.”

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.

1
Day of the Heroic Guerilla, 1968

By Helena Serrano

“From 1967, OSPAAAL had a dedicated creative department usually with an in-house team of three or four designers, but at busy times, people were drafted in from Cuba’s state propaganda departments to help meet demand. That’s how Helena Serrano came to design this poster for the ‘Day of the Heroic Guerilla’ (the anniversary of Che Guevara’s death). It was her only design for OSPAAAL, but it has arguably become their most iconic and it’s easy to see why—it’s a rippling op art sensation that draws you into the spirit of Latin American fraternity. During the Cold War period, many women contributed to OSPAAAL as freelancers, and while their designs are relatively limited in number, they are some of the most enduring.”

2
Solidarity with the African American People, 1968

By Lázaro Abreu Padrón (after Emory Douglas)

“OSPAAAL was connected with leftist and radical organizations across the world, including the California-based Black Panther Party. The Party’s Honorary Prime Minister Stokely Carmichael wrote articles for Tricontinental magazine and described it as a “bible in revolutionary circles.” The two organizations sent their print material to each other, and repurposed images from each other’s publications. This image, originally by Emory Douglas for The Black Panther newspaper was re-drawn by Cuban designer Lázaro Abreu Padrón and combined with Letraset type and hand-drawn Arabic letters. Between these organizations with shared values, there was no question of licensing images or concern about copyright protection—Douglas said that he was “glad to see” his images adopted in Cuba.”

3
Nixon, 1969

By Alfredo Rostgaard

“OSPAAAL posters were folded and placed inside Tricontinental magazine for distribution. This one, by the studio’s first creative director, uses the fold to make a playful three-part reveal. At first seen with a fairly innocuous side profile, each time the page is unfolded, US President Richard Nixon becomes more demonic. This kind of playful satire was typical of Rostgaard, who as well as being an incredibly prolific designer was known in his studio as a practical joker. When I first saw it, the psychedelic ‘punch line’ image reminded me of Milton Glaser’s 1966 poster of Bob Dylan. Although Cuba and the U.S.A. were ideologically opposed and political relations were deeply strained, Cuban and North American designers saw and were inspired by each other’s work throughout the Cold War era.”

4
Tricontinental, North American Edition No. 3, 1971

By Jane Norling

“OSPAAAL’s Tricontinental magazine was a digest of revolutionary news and radical political writing from across the world—its editorial line encouraged its readers to freely copy and distribute their content to take its message further. In San Francisco, the radical collective People’s Press developed the North American edition of Tricontinental, with design by Jane Norling. Her cover of its third edition was an image of a Vietnamese woman militant rendered in bold two-color. Norling was later invited to Cuba as part of a cultural exchange, during which she worked at OSPAAAL’s design studio, producing a poster in solidarity with the people of Puerto Rico. Norling was the only North American designer to produce a poster for OSPAAAL.”

5
Cuba and Marti Present at the Moncada, 1983

By Rafael Morante Boyerizo

“Other than the posters and magazines themselves, there is little archival documentation about the work of OSPAAAL’s design studio, and so the research process for the exhibition involved meeting some of the studio’s former designers, including Rafael Morante Boyerizo. The incredible diversity of the studio’s output supports what many of the designers told me—that they were free to experiment as far as their resources would allow, so long as they conveyed their messages clearly. Morante told a different story, and said that he remembered guidelines and restrictions. One was that nothing could be placed in front of the Cuban flag, but he persuaded an exception to be made for the 19th century Cuban poet and revolutionary leader, José Martí.”

6
Hatuey El Primero, 1992

By Gladys Acosta Ávila

“Gladys Acosta Ávila was OSPAAAL’s most prolific woman designer—she made posters and editorial illustrations from the 1970s to the 1990s, usually with bold visual metaphors and hand-drawn type. This ‘portrait’ is an unusual approach for her. It imagines the Taíno cacique (chief) Hatuey who led the indigenous resistance to Spanish conquistadors in Cuba in 1511—in Cuba, he is a celebrated icon of struggle against colonial rule. Acosta would have created this design by painting areas of flat color in gouache so that the image could be reproduced either by offset lithography (if equipment and inks were available), or, if needed, by Havana’s screenprinting shops. OSPAAAL’s posters were produced in editions of up to 50,000, but they were ephemeral and rarely preserved. The Hatuey piece we have in the exhibition is one of precious few screenprints left.”

All images © OSPAAAL, The Mike Stanfield Collection.

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