[Cuban Poster Art Part One: OSPAAAL]
“The art of the Revolution will be internationalist, at the same time as it will be tightly bound to the national roots. We shall encourage the legitimate and combative cultural expressions of Latin America, Asia, and Africa, which imperialism tries to destroy. Our cultural institutions shall be vehicles of the true artists of these continents, of the neglected, of the persecuted, of those who do not allow themselves to be domesticated by cultural colonialism and who fight together with their people in the struggle against imperialism.” – A mission statement from the Congress on Education and Culture in Cuba.
[Libya, Angola. OSPAAAL posters often feature a traditional figure from the country it is commemorating, juxtaposed by some small weapon of defense. Large weapons of destruction, such as planes and bombs, are only used by the imperial oppressor.]
In January of 1966, the first meeting of the “Organization of Solidarity with the Peoples of Africa, Asia, and Latin America [OSPAAAL]” took place in Havana, Cuba. Recuperating from a failed campaign in Africa and preparing for his next in Latin America, Che Guevara was not in attendance, though the organization had been conceived at his request due to the necessity he felt for “Third World unity in the face of First World imperialism.” This conference gave birth to a government sanctioned and subsidized magazine called Revista Tricontinental, which was published in Spanish, French, English and Arabic and distributed to a whopping 87 countries, a massive amount when you consider how small of a nation Cuba actually is. Modest sized fold-out posters accompanied every issue of Tricontinental, the purpose being that each image would commemorate a certain country oppressed by and struggling against US imperialism, giving it a specific day (or week) of solidarity based on “some recent historic event.” For example, the African American people received August 11, the date of the Watts Riots. These posters were used to support the revolution within Cuba and to “promote liberation movements internationally.” Just as the Revolution was, Cuba’s public art has always been unashamedly internationalist, always supporting the idea of Third World liberation… something in which, by contrast, most other socialist countries tended to be shy about due to interests of conciliation with the United States.
[The African American people, Papua New Guinea.]
Speaking of the US, despite the embargo, a remarkable amount of Tricontinental issues hit American shores as well, becoming collectors items for a certain few. With over 350 graphically striking posters having been produced by OSPAAAL over the last 40 years, 38 countries in total have been commemorated, Vietnam being the leader in this group. Only two US individuals have ever been honored… Angela Davis and George Jackson, as illustrated by Black Panther Minister of Culture Emory Douglas [whom I also believe was the only American artist ever commissioned for the series]. Due to their widespread popularity, the posters became much larger in size [thus issued physically separate from the magazine shortly after Tricontinental‘s debut] and were rolled into tubes. Sadly, the OSPAAAL posters reached their numerical peak during the 1970’s due to diminishing resources and help from the old Socialist bloc, as well as decreasing fervor for “revolutionary adventurism” in general across the globe. Whereas OSPAAAL was once employing dozens of artists during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, by the mid 1990’s, the number had dwindled all the way down to 2! Nonetheless, Che’s idea of “exporting revolution” may have come to a demise a long time ago, but Cubans still continue to export the idea of revolution.
From a visual standpoint, the OSPAAAL posters have become the absolute front runners in political poster art with their stark imagery often juxtaposed by vibrant colors, thus inspiring countless mimics across the world since their arrival. Before the first OSPAAAL conference even transpired, a supposed debate between Che Guevara and Fidel Castro took place on the topic of which visual style they wanted the art of the Revolution to be depicted in. Castro, famously quoted as saying that “our enemy is imperialism, not abstract art,” was a noted fan of modern art, often calling it “crazy” just as the Revolution itself was, and opted for “modern” to become the new national style under his new government. I have read that Guevara was not quite as gung ho on this matter and needed some convincing. He has been quoted as saying that the celebration of “artistic freedom” ends up as indulgence in “meaningless anguish and and vulgar amusement,” although it offered “convenient safety valves for anxiety”! Apparently, Che abandoned these thoughts soon enough though, coming to an agreement with Castro to purposely rebel against the realist style favored in countries such as China and Russia [Khrushchev made no secret of his hatred for abstract art]. Che came to recognize the hypocrisy of theses nations as he stated “the socialist realist art of anti-capitalist twentieth century revolutions is based on essentially bourgeois academic realism of the nineteenth century, which was also a class art, more purely capitalist perhaps then the decadent art of the twentieth century, which at least reveals the anguish of alienated humanity. Why then should we try to find the only valid prescription for revolutionary art in the frozen academicism of socialist realism?” Furthermore, Che went on to say that realism threatened to “put a strait-jacket on the artistic expression of humanity which is in the process of making itself anew through revolution.” Despite oppositional political expression being heavily restricted in Cuba, cultural expression [through graphics] became very open and experimental during this time, often using the styles of Pop, Op, Psychedelia, Neo-Surrealism, and Neo-Art Nouveau.
[Zimbabwe, Puerto Rico.]
Many OSPAAAL posters commemorating Cuba paid homage to Che himself, particularly after his death in 1967. On occasion, his portrait was shown alongside that of Camilo Cienfuegos‘ as well. Che was considered by many to be as physically beautiful as he was “morally beautiful,” thus his face became a popular icon of revolution in general… a symbol against social struggle not only in Latin America, but everywhere in the world. I won’t get into the gross commercialization of his image that has occurred in recent decades but Che has always been a figure of “peace through war” and according to Fidel Castro [after being asked in the late 1960’s about what he thought of so many American students clutching portraits of Che during demonstrations], “his ideas, his portrait, and his name are banners in the struggle against injustice by the oppressed and exploited and they arouse passionate enthusiasm in students and intellectuals everywhere.” Indeed, to this day, Che very much lives on as a hero to those who dare to challenge the “status quo,” and rebel against injustice wherever he or she finds it… actions of which belong to Guevara’s own definition of “revolutionary.” It is for these reasons that Che’s OSPAAAL posters are among the most sought after.
[Puerto Rico, Zimbabwe.]
[The African American people.]
To view a near complete series of OSPAAAL posters, click on this link. Cuban Poster Art Part Two: ICAIC [The Cuban Film Institute] coming soon.
MY QUOTE OF THE DAY: “The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be… The nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.