How Cuba’s Cold War graphic design found humour in propaganda

Designed in Cuba: Cold War Graphics is the first time the country’s propaganda designs have been shown publicly in the UK.

A poster encouraging the “peaceful and independent reunification” of Korea, by Lázaro Abreu Padrón from 1969

When most people think of propaganda, they might think of strict state-guided aesthetic values with didactic messages. But a new exhibition at London’s House of Illustration, which presents a major collection of Cuban propaganda for the first time in the UK, shows a different side to the political medium.

Olivia Ahmad, the exhibition’s curator, says that there’s “a lot of humour and levity” in these magazines and posters, which were produced during the Cold War under an initiative championed by Cuba’s political leader at the time, Fidel Castro. The Organisation of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa and Latin America (OSPAAAL) was established in 1966 with the goal of promoting cooperation between socialist countries and liberation movements.

A poster marking the “day of the heroic guerrilla” by Helena Serrano from 1968

As part of this overarching mission, OSPAAAL’s in-house design team created an illustrated magazine, Tricontinental — and a smaller, more news-focused format with fewer illustrations called Tricontinental Bulletin — which featured articles about liberation and radical movements. The magazines were published into four languages; Spanish, English, French and Italian. Posters were folded into the magazine for distribution internationally.

The exhibition covers the period of 1965—1992 and the work of 33 designers with 100 posters and 70 magazines from designers like Helena Serrano, Olivio Martínez Viera and Gladys Acosta Ávila. The work is drawn from a single UK private collection, the Mike Stanfield Collection.

A particularly important figure was Alfredo Rostgaard. He had previously worked in advertising and viewed OSPAAAL’s work as the “anti-ad” — for Rostgaard, they were not selling a lifestyle, but human co-operation and self-determination. The exhibition reveals the overlap between the two mediums.

“Corrupting” the past

A poster by Alfredo Rostgaard, 1969

Designed in Cuba: Cold War Graphics is loosely themed around ideas of “visual communication strategy”, with sections exploring typical methods employed by the designers such as portraiture. The designers often turned to political icons to make their points: Che Guevara, Ho Chi Minh, Nelson Mandela, as well as African-American political activists and authors, Angela Davies and George Jackson.

Here, the designers’ playfulness and diversity influence can be seen, Ahmad says. They are “not serious or formal portraits” but instead use “bright colours” inspired by the pop art movement. “They’re reminiscent of Milton Glazer’s Bob Dylan illustration,” Ahmad adds.

In one poster from 1969, Rostgaard depicts the revolutionary, Che Guevara, coloured in with a rainbow design. A more subdued poster from 1989 by Alberto Blanco González, features an illustration of Nelson Mandela against a bright orange backdrop, with the simple tagline: “symbol of the anti-apartheid struggle”.

A poster depicting Nelson Mandela, by Alberto Blanco González from 1989

Another strategy OSPAAAL incorporated was a focus on indigenous cultures. For example, posters intended for Cambodia used imagery of the country’s temple, Angkor Wat, as a way to protest America’s influence. By focusing on ancient traditions and cultures, like Mayan iconography, OSPAAAL “situated revolutionary struggle in history” Ahmad says.

According to Ahmad, the designers thought carefully about their audience: “What they were trying to do was think about who was going to see it, and who said they wanted to create solidarity with — they tried to match up with that.”

Instead of traditional propaganda, which has a more one-way relationship with its recipients, they asked: “What would you like to see?”

Female designers

Ahmad points to the female designers involved with OSPAAAL — although none were full-time staff, they were hired as freelancers in the studio. Though the medium of propaganda meant that the subject material was sometimes limited, female designers did bring a different perspective to the posters, Ahmad says.

One of these designers, Jane Norling, is the only North American artist to have contributed a poster design to Tricontinental. Norling is a social justice artist who distributed the magazine during the Cold War on the US West Coast, which was a centre for “radical activity” at the time, according to Ahmad. Based in San Francisco, Norling was part of People’s Press who illustrated and published a North American edition Tricontinental in the early 1970s.

Jane Norling’s cover of Tricontinental

Because of this support, Norling was invited to Havana in 1972 and designed a poster for the people of Puerto Rico. The poster features the Puerto Rican flag with crowds of people rising up silhouetted. And although their presence at the OSPAAAL team was limited and impermanent, the women designers are responsible for some of the most “iconic” designs, Ahmad says.

“It was quite crude”

A design by Víctor Manuel Navarrete featuring Uncle Sam, from 1980

Stylistically, a lot of block flat colour is used, as the early designs were produced by silkscreen. Later, off set lithography came into the mix with technological developments from the Soviet Union. The colourful style is indicative of the “emotive” style of these posters, according to Ahmad.

“It’s not telling you what to do or think,” she says. “It’s not shouting — it’s appealing to different things in you like your sense of humour and emotions.”

A cover of Tricontinental from 1971

Given the international audience, there is also a reliance on visual metaphor. “It’s for an international audience who speak different languages, as well as people who are not literate,” Ahmad adds. Some of the easily understandable images that re-occur include the figure of Uncle Sam, to represent America, or the CIA’s logo, which in one poster, has a fist punched through it.

“It was quite crude,” she says.

“The themes are prescient”

Alfredo Rostgaard’s 1968 poster featuring imagery from the Black Panther movement

A lot of the exhibition covers recent history. The final section of the exhibition looks at the “icons of the revolutionary soldier” such as members of the Black Panther Party, a revolutionary political organisation founded in Oakland, California in 1966. Tricontental used the movement’s imagery in an attempt to express “solidarity with African Americans”, Ahmad says.

The Black Panther movement, women’s rights, the mistreatment of minorities; all touch on issues that are still relevant and talked about today. And though more relaxed than the Cold War era, tensions remain between Cuba and the US.

This means that the posters have are still “prescient”, highlighted by the fact that some of the designers are still alive. In preparation for the exhibition, Ahmad went to Cuba’s capital, Havana, to meet with some of OSPAAAL’s surviving members. Included in the exhibition are filmed interviews with three of OSPAAAL’s designers; Olivio Martínez Viera, Rafael Morante Boyerizo and Rafael Enríquez Vega.

Preserving a legacy

After 53 years, OSPAAAL closed this summer. After the 1990s, “poster and magazine production had slowed down a lot,” Ahmad says, who also points to the fall of the eastern bloc and dwindling resources as reason for this reduced output.

The exhibition is well-timed; as Ahmad says, the information is “evaporating”. This sense of loss is heightened because OSPAAAL’s work was not that well-known inside Cuba – the posters were not intended for the country that produced them. Around the world, the magazine had a circulation figure of 50,000 which, although sizeable, was not enough to ensure a widely-known legacy.

There is however a strong cohort of Cuban designers who are aware of their country’s legacy, Ahmad says. On her visit to Havana earlier this year, Ahmad visited the Instituto Superior de Arte, a university for the arts that was set up in the 1970s, where there were “active print and design departments”.

“Its design historians are committed to preserving that legacy.”

Designed in Cuba: Cold War Graphics runs from 27 September 2019 — 19 January 2020 at the House of Illustration, 2 Granary Square, Kings Cross, London N1C 4BH. Tickets cost £8.80.

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