In the Process of Making Themselves: Poster Art, Internationalism and the Cuban Revolution
by Tings Chak
“From a spark a fire will flare up.”
—motto of Iskra
’Im in the musty basement of the Marx Memorial Library and Workers’ School in London, UK. I find Marianna amongst piles of posters—she is the volunteer responsible for digitizing the library’s vast archive of posters. I am taken to a small office where Lenin spent two years, while in exile, writing for Iskra (“spark”), the underground newspaper and ideological heart of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party.
About Iskra, Lenin had said, “A newspaper is not only a collective propagandist and a collective agitator, it is also a collective organizer. Political agitation is impossible without a regular and widely distributed newspaper. Its contributions and distributors formed the nucleus of the future Party.” There is a framed map on the wall with red arrows detailing the distribution of the paper throughout Russia and Europe—a reminder of the many lives that were risked so that this publication could find its readers.
I look at the tome on the small desk. It collects the old Iskra issues. I am visually jarred by the tightly packed pages of Cyrillic text. The frugality of space reads like a testament to the extremely difficult material and political conditions under which the publication was produced. It’s as if the feat of reading it is as great as that of producing it.
But I did not come here for Lenin. I came to look through the archive’s collection of posters and publications produced by the Organization of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa, and Latin America (OSPAAAL).
In January 1966, the Cuban people hosted the Tricontinental, a conference in Havana of revolutionary movements from Africa, Asia and Latin America. This historic meeting— with over 500 delegates and 200 observers from 82 countries on three continents—was born out of two anti-colonial formations: the more conciliatory Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), and the more radical Afro-Asian People’s Solidarity Organization (AAPSO). Hosting the conference in Havana solidified the young revolutionary government’s orientation towards internationalism—a principle of political unity that transcends nationalist boundaries. The presence of international attendees also legitimized the revolution.
OSPAAAL emerged from the Tricontinental Conference as a permanent organization—its secretariat is still based in Havana—with anti-imperialism and socialism as its objectives. One of the primary projects of OSPAAAL was its two publications: the monthly news-oriented Tricontinental Bulletin and the more analytical and theoretical bimonthly Tricontinental Magazine. Their global distribution helped serve as a key bridge among liberation movements in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Black Panther Party leader Kwame Ture, then known as Stokely Carmichael, called the Tricontinental Magazine “a bible in revolutionary circles.” In a report on the Tricontinental Conference, the Organization of American States (OAS) called the OSPAAAL “the most dangerous threat that international communism has yet made against [the] inter-American system” with its “its unconcealed desire to create an effective propaganda impact by rapidly publishing a great quantity of documents, speeches, and informational material on the event, and widely disseminating these through all available media.”1 They understood well the war of words and images being waged by OSPAAAL.
Impact. Persuasion. Repetition.
From the 1940s until the revolution, Cuba was the media capital of Latin America. The media landscape—radio, television, the press—was closely tied to the interests of the US government and US capital. Though US advertising agencies began stationing outposts in Latin America in the earlier part of the century, they landed in full force around World War II. These agencies served to secure the economic and cultural hegemony of US empire. Cuba had been a key laboratory for multinationals conducting market research for new products, selling the American dream with every commercial and promoting the interests of corporations such as the United Fruit Company. Meanwhile, advertising education was being formalized and the public relations industry professionalized. Media technologies, such as commercial radio and television, were gaining momentum. The art and science of advertising was being consolidated. Consumption— conflated with modernity and development— was the industry’s mantra.
Studying the rise of Cuba’s broadcasting industry in this era, Yeidy M. Rivero writes: “US advertising agencies on the island created a cadre of advertisers who were trained to adapt US advertising strategies to the Cuban and Latin American economic and cultural mi- lieu.”2 In 1959, the revolution would seize the well-developed mass-media system and inherit a workforce of skilled creatives and experienced technicians—the forces of production of US imperialist propaganda in Cuba—and turn them against the empire itself.
From madmen to revolutionary artists.
McCann Erickson (now simply McCann), a global giant of advertising, first opened its Havana office on August 1, 1944. It solidified its presence in Cuba and Mexico by acquiring Publicidad Guastella in 1951, becoming Publicidad Guastella-McCann Erickson with 65 employees in Havana and 45 in Mexico City. As part of an effort to boost US tourism and restore the island to its reputed former glory, US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista hired the agency to create a “citizen education” program to teach Cubans the benefits of tourism and how to be friendlier hosts. Batista cozied up with the secretary-general of the Confederation of Cuban Workers (composed of 1800 unions), Eusebio Mujal, and secured economic growth at the expense of increased worker exploitation. By the end of the decade, “disenfranchised unionists constituted a core constituency within Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement”3—the movement that would lead Cuba to revolution.
This same year, Félix Beltran—the future head graphic designer for the propaganda department of the Communist Party of Cuba— started working at the agency. He was 15 years old. Three years later he moved to New York City to study graphic design, painting and lithography. Upon his return to post-revolutionary Cuba in 1962, he would deploy his newfound skills in contribution to the revolution—defy- ing the material scarcity imposed by the US economic blockade with the very tools, skills and knowledge of the US advertising machine.
Like Beltran, many Cuban graphic artists had formal training as designers or painters before the revolution, and cut their teeth in advertising firms selling boxing matches, tobacco products and the latest perfume in the favoured medium of silkscreen printing. Almost overnight, however, their context would change.
They would become the madmen (and women) of the revolution.
Reflecting on the struggles facing us today, where are designers and artists—trained and untrained alike—in the fight for social justice and transformation? How can the left consolidate visual knowledge, experience and creativity—just as the Cubans did—to build our own vision and theory of a socialist design?
Our poster was a weapon of war.
I have a few piles of Tricontinental Magazine and Bulletin in front of me. I have never held an original copy before. These objects speak to a passage of time, in its specific historical conditions. The earliest two-colour publications are printed on rice-paper-thin paper—the text bleeds through the pages. The later publications are perfectly bound with full-colour covers on high-quality paper. I study every cover, flip through the pages. I come across a folded piece of paper wedged inside one of the issues. It’s a poster announcing the “World Day of Solidarity with the Struggle of the People of the So-Called Portuguese Guinea and the Cape Verde Islands.” I think for a moment about the two Portuguese colonies that form part of my own story: Macau, the homeland of my mother and Brazil, the place I now call home. I run to Marianna with the poster, to share this simple joy of discovering the poster as it was designed to be discovered. We have to make the difficult decision of whether to keep the poster in its original issue or to add it to the poster archive. The latter choice is its fate.
“To write about OSPAAAL’s posters is rather like talking about an old love affair,” says OSPAAAL artist Olivio Martínez.4 It is difficult to talk about the Cuban Revolution without revelling in its poster production—its posters are widely bought and sold in art markets, well studied and sufficiently drooled over.
So, what is to be learned by recalling this history now?
The commercial poster already had a vibrant life in Cuba prior to the revolution, but the format would be repurposed to promote the revolution’s ideas and programs instead of selling commodities. It would become the “anti-ad,” as Tricontinental’s creative director, Alfredo Rostgaard, called it. These posters were created to educate, inform and inspire: motorcycle-based health brigades; Akira Kurosawa neighbourhood film screenings; youth participation in the sugar harvest; energy savings campaigns and other public priorities were their subject matter. “The Cuban use of political posters recalls,” as Susan Sontag wrote in 1970, “the communist-humanist goal of creating better types of human beings.”
The poster eroded the dichotomies of commercial art versus fine art, high art against popular culture. Unlike the muralist tradition, sprung from the Mexican revolution of 1910, posters were favoured in the Cuban context as a more flexible and inexpensive form, more responsive to the ever-changing needs of the moment—unlike 1910, this was the age of mass reproduction and communication. The poster became a constant renovation of visual public life, from the streets of Havana to the murales (bulletin boards) of rural villages to the living rooms of working people who could never previously own works of “art.” The poster was an accessible form of self-assertion, a living material culture.
These posters were also claiming economic, political and cultural independence from the United States, less than 150 kilometres beyond its shores. This was a struggle for power, and for meaning-making. As art historian David Kunzle writes, “The nation was strong enough to turn upon the enemy, the enemy’s own cultural weapons, selectively adapting styles and reusing con- tent in satirical rebuttal.”5
On its impact, Félix Beltran said, “The poster could circulate in countries where a functionary was not allowed to speak about the ideas of the revolution.”6 The magazine and its poster— multilingual and triple-folded—exported the vision of the revolution to the world, with a circulation of about 50,000 copies per issue. The folded poster, as described by Martínez, was one of the “variety of other disguises, all invented with the aim of avoiding the suppression that the empire attempted to use with every publication we produced.”7 Since its inception in 1967, Tricontinental has produced an estimated total of nine million posters, which have been distributed to 60 countries.8 This number is even more impressive when considering the material scarcities imposed by the United States’ economic blockade—and upheld by its ally Israel—that has repressed the island since the revolution.
There is a full-colour Tricontinental special digest dedicated to Che Guevara. It is undated but I suspect it must be from around the time of his CIA-backed murder. It is an homage to el comandante, presenting the many posters that OSPAAAL and Casa de las Américas made of him. The styles are as diverse as Che’s disguises. One poster per page with ample margins. I think about the generosity of space in the layout—space for reflection and breath. I admire the quality of paper and luxury of ink used, then think about the US trade embargo imposed on Cuba after the revolution. This printed artifact, through the labour and materials behind its production, is in itself an anti- imperialist assertion.
El bloqueo (“the blockade”) imposed by the United States on Cuba began as an embargo on arms sales to Cuba in 1958, and was extended to nearly all exports to the island by 1962. Despite its violation of international law and opposition by a majority of the world’s nations and governing bodies—including the UN General Assembly’s annual resolution condemning the embargo—the economic stranglehold continues today.
It is impressive that a country mired by such constraints—where the vast majority of paper was imported—prioritized the materially intensive production of internationally-distributed print media. Rafael Morante, a Madrid-born Cuban graphic artist, recalls, “there was a time when there were shortages of everything: the paint needed by the painters, coloured stock, printing inks and sometimes even paper.”9
Offering another perspective, Rostgaard reflects that the embargo helped the artists “in the quest for our own forms of expression… From the need to solve our own material problems, we began to discover new forms.”10 The shortage of materials in Cuba forced designers and printers to find ingenious solutions with unorthodox outcomes: hand-cutting letters from magazines, collaging images from printers’ catalogues, reprinting on back issues of news- papers. The Cuban experience teaches us today that material scarcity can actually advance the aesthetic forces of production—and reminds us of our creative abundance.
Our enemy is imperialism, not abstract art.
Cuban revolutionary posters stand apart from other forms of socialist and communist poster production. There are no muscle-men factory workers, no noble peasants, no socialist realism. Instead, there is humour and pain, anger and resistance, bloodshed and hope— there is a fuller humanity, as if beauty could indeed be an ideological method.
Cuban artists received an artistic freedom rarely found in the commercial art world, which is tightly tied to conceptions of an individual and marketable style. Cuban artists also enjoyed a creative freedom unheard of in other socialist societies, where Party-line socialist realism was hegemonic.
In his condemnation of the narrowness of socialist realism and its bourgeois-class origins, Che Guevara warned that “realism-at- all-costs” would mean “putting a straitjacket on the artistic expression of the people who are being born and are in the process of making themselves. What is needed is the development of an ideological-cultural mechanism that permits both free inquiry and the uprooting of the weeds that multiply so easily in the fertilized soil of state subsidies.”11 And in the process of making themselves, the Cuban graphic artists deployed all the visual means of production at their disposal.
“We wanted to create a means of communication that was immediate, directly or indirectly, but at the same time original,” said Rostgaard in Richard Frick’s book Das trikontinentale Solidaritätsplakat, “and we did not reject any method or technique that would make our posters effective and modern.” As a result, there was everything from Constructivist montages to Pop Art, Cubism to Op Art, Psychedelic Art to pre-colonial iconography from across the tricontinents.
Due to its international orientation, Tricontinental posters favoured the image over text—affect does not require literacy. The “flat colour” silkscreen posters often included abstraction and reduction; high-contrast, vivid colours; reduced lines; and visual simplification. They appropriated symbols to satirize US imperialism, used colours to signify solidarity between oppressed peoples and repurposed the very styles deployed by capital against itself.
The art of the Revolution will be internationalist.
—Congress on Education and Culture in Cuba
Cuba presented through the OSPAAAL posters is as committed to internationalism—if not more—than to its nationalist ambitions. The poster, as Martínez recounts:
“was the response to a fundamental aim: that of supporting the struggle of the freedom movements. And this took place not only in many third-world countries; the horizons were soon extended to bring solidarity even to the United States… overcoming the frontiers represented by the triple ‘A’ in the organization’s name (Asia, Africa, Latin America), or simply reporting episodes of violence, brutality and cruelty by the rulers and military forces which underline their colonial and predatory anxieties in far-off lands such as Vietnam or South Africa.”12
The value of internationalism was carefully cultivated. Graphic artists collaborated closely with the Communist Party’s propaganda department as much as with specialists from diverse fields of work. “Days of Solidarity” with various liberation struggles were instituted. The constant dialogue among OSPAAAL’s member countries meant that graphic artists had exposure to international struggles, including through exchanges with delegations to and from liberation struggles abroad. One such example is Jane Norling, the only North American artist to produce a poster for OSPAAAL—in solidarity with the Puerto Rican independence struggle—during her months of working in Cuba. René Mederos, head of the design team in the Department of Revolutionary Orientation, was sent to Vietnam for several months to experience the war on the ground, marching alongside the liberation forces on the Ho Chi Minh trail. He returned with a series of paintings—poetic, colourful depictions of resistance through everyday life that juxtaposed the violence and brutality of imperialism. These paintings were turned into silkscreen images, then Cuban postage stamps. They were portraits looking towards Ho Chi Minh’s revolutionary promise of a “10 times more beautiful Vietnam.” For these artists, internationalism was a process, and solidarity was a verb.
To raise and complicate consciousness— the highest aim of the revolution itself.
I am working on a Facebook banner image for the new organization we are about to launch—Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, a global South and movement-driven research space inspired by the legacy of the Tricontinental Conference and spearheaded by Vijay Prashad. I’ve been studying René Mederos’ poster designed for the 10th anniversary of the Cuban revolution, a group of soldiers fronted by Fidel holding their rifles in the air with the Cuban flag flying in the backdrop. I think about what the rifle of today would be in the battle of ideas. I collage together a new sketch, replacing rifles with pens, paintbrushes and books. I replace the soldiers with women, mothers and children.
Since our launch in March last year, we have produced 11 dossiers with themes ranging from the shack dweller movement in South Africa to the crisis on the Korean peninsula to a massive workers’ housing cooperative in India. We have launched 44 weekly newsletters highlighting the most pressing news about peoples’ movements around the world. We have published a political notebook and working document for those looking for deeper study, and dozens of weekly hand-drawn portraits, uplifting the stories of revolutionaries around the world, particularly those of women. On the 60th anniversary of the Cuban revolution, we may not need armed struggle in most of our contexts, but we surely need a lot more than pens, paint- brushes and books to wage war against global capitalism, rising fascism and climate collapse. The ideological battle waged by the social and political movements of today must be fought not only with words, but also with visual culture. Like the advertising experts and art school kids turned graphic artists of the Cuban revolution, we need all of the cultural workers today—from graphic designers to cartoonists, programmers to poets, psychologists to meme-makers—to seize what we know in order to dream and to construct a world that is not only possible, but also necessary.