The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2022

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FEB 2022 Issue
ArtSeen

Art of the Cuban Revolution

Printing Solidarity, Viva Cuba Viva!, Líneas Vitales

Alfrédo Rostgaard,<em> [Che]</em>, 1969. Carlos Vega Collection, Interference Archive.
Alfrédo Rostgaard, [Che], 1969. Carlos Vega Collection, Interference Archive.
On View
Paul W. Zuccaire Gallery, Stony Brook University
Printing Solidarity
December 1, 2021 – February 25, 2022
New York

Cuban Art Space
Viva Cuba Viva!
December 2, 2021 – February 19, 2022
Brooklyn

The People’s Forum
Líneas Vitales
January 28 – April 1, 2022
New York

For Che Guevara, Socialist Realism had run its course by the 1966 Tricontinental Conference. More than six years after the Cuban Revolution began, Guevara warned that “realism-at-all-costs,” which he believed grew from 19th-century bourgeois tastes, might encourage “putting a straitjacket” on Cubans who were “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,” he wrote.

Fidel Castro likewise viewed art as a means of education. Rather than indulge Cold War propaganda, Castro argued that Cubans should embrace modernism in all forms. “Our enemies are capitalism and imperialism, not abstract painting,” he told Le Monde in 1963. The revolution had eradicated a US-backed military dictatorship and expanded literacy across Cuba, but Castro’s aims extended beyond borders. As he forged new alliances in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, revolutionary artists conveyed solidarity through vivid and expressive graphic design.

For the past 63 years, United States intelligence forces have worked tirelessly to wear down Cuban autonomy, including more than 600 failed attempts on Castro’s life and a long-standing trade embargo. US media remains laser-focused on protests critical of the Cuban government, while the State Department maintains its mission of “denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation, and overthrow of government.” Against this backdrop, poster art is receiving newfound attention for its continued relevance in critiquing capitalist oppression worldwide.

Three concurrent exhibitions in New York expand on Cuban resilience through the aesthetics of the Organización de Solidaridad de los Pueblos de Asia, África, y América Latina (OSPAAAL), a revolutionary art movement focused on Third Worldism during the Cold War. Printing Solidarity at Stony Brook University’s Paul W. Zuccaire Gallery brings together posters and magazines from the collection of Brooklyn’s Interference Archive. Meanwhile, Viva Cuba Viva! at the Cuban Art Space covers the DUMBO studio’s walls with posters from director Sandra Levinson’s travels to Havana. And at the People’s Forum in Manhattan, Líneas Vitales (Vital Lines) hosts a collaborative series of new prints by contemporary Cuban and US artists who oppose the blockade.

Alberto Blanco, <em>We Denounce the Artificial Division of Korea</em>, 1980. Private collection.
Alberto Blanco, We Denounce the Artificial Division of Korea, 1980. Private collection.

Many OSPAAAL artists worked in advertising, instilling a Pop Art sensibility in their designs.1 By the late 1950s, however, the Communist Party began recruiting them to create silk-screen propaganda. Rather than selling products, they promoted ideas; Alfredo Rostgaard, OSPAAAL’s creative director, described their work as the “anti-ad.”

With few materials at their disposal, OSPAAAL artists made do with cheap newsprint, creating vibrant designs with bold typography that captured the 1960s zeitgeist and gave the working class a sense of ownership over art. Constructivism, cubism, and psychedelia merged with Afro-Cuban and Indigenous symbolism in the pull-out posters that accompanied TRIcontinental magazine and bulletin, which shipped globally in Spanish, English, Arabic, and French.

TRIcontinental subscribers would find fold-out posters featuring wide-ranging revolutionary iconography—from José Martí and Paris Communards to Palestinian rebels and Black Panthers—as well as condemnations of American imperialism. A bald eagle soars over a Korean map divided by stacks of U.S. dollars in Alberto Blanco’s We Denounce the Artificial Division of Korea (1980). Rostgaard’s double-sided poster of Richard Nixon, simply titled Nixon (1972), shows an illustrated portrait of the former president that, when unfolded, transforms him into a vampire. Stony Brook curators keenly placed the latter in a vitrine beside a video of the unfolding.

OSPAAAL viewed posters as interchangeable methods of updating Cuban public life on street corners and bulletin boards. Artists created multiple designs for the same topic and voted on which would make the cut. Rafael Morante noted that “there was a time when there were shortages of everything: the paint needed by the painters, colored stock, printing inks and sometimes even paper.” Rostgaard, however, viewed this as an opportunity to “solve our own material problems” in the “quest for our own forms of expression,” much like the Soviet Union’s Vkhutemas school.

René Mederos, <em>Viet Nam Vencerá</em>, 1969. Courtesy of Center for Cuban Studies.
René Mederos, Viet Nam Vencerá, 1969. Courtesy of Center for Cuban Studies.

Early in 1959, Castro appointed his long-time comrade Alfredo Guevara to develop and lead the Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos (ICAIC), which brought film to underserved regions. Much like OSPAAAL, the ICAIC promoted national identity by integrating popular culture into Cuban aesthetics. A lime-green poster at the Cuban Art Space by Eduardo Muñoz Bachs bears a monochromatic rendering of Charlie Chaplin amid a garden of colorful wildflowers. The title Por Primera Vez (For the First Time) alludes to a 1967 documentary showing the arrival of Modern Times by truck at Los Munos—the last Cuban village to first experience moving pictures.

Despite limited resources, Cuban artists traveled abroad to support liberation movements on the ground. Félix René Mederos ventured to Vietnam in 1969 and painted women of the National Liberation Front. Another poster of a painting featuring Ho Chi Minh, titled Viet Nam Vencerá (Vietnam Will Win), finds the aging revolutionary lost in a book beside a technicolor sea. The Cuban Art Space displayed these works on the same wall as an anonymous student’s illustration of Nixon, in which a photograph of South-Asian corpses is cropped into his mind. Other works at Stony Brook portray artists’ support for African decolonization from afar, such as Rostgaard’s 1972 poster of Patrice Lumumba smiling across the continent. (Lumumba, the first prime minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo, was overthrown and executed in a CIA-backed coup mere months after achieving independence from Belgium.)

The Cuban revolution coincided with the Black Power movement, and OSPAAAL artists admired the work of Black Panthers minister of culture Emory Douglas. Their posters on the plight of Black Americans expanded on Douglas’s graphic designs, critiquing police violence and advocating for self-defense. Morante’s poster of activist and author George Jackson, made after his assassination, shows blood dripping from his body in the form of the US flag. Daysi García’s Day of Solidarity with the Afro-American People, August 18 (1968) depicts African warriors inside the mind of a Black woman, all facing the same direction to evoke Pan-African unity.

Greta Acosta Reyes, <em>Peace and Solidarity</em>, 2021. Courtesy of the People’s Forum.
Greta Acosta Reyes, Peace and Solidarity, 2021. Courtesy of the People’s Forum.

US-Cuba relations still fuel discontent among artists today, but graphic designers in both countries continue to collaborate in service of a broader international workers’ movement. The 12 posters of Líneas Vitales, designed in 2021, build on the People’s Forum’s efforts to preserve the legacy of Tricontinental, which discontinued publication in 2019. Each artist chose a specific theme—such as peace, sovereignty, or future—and the overall series fosters new dialogues between younger artists who acknowledge the embargo as the central influence on Cuba’s current political crisis. Interestingly, Cuban artists opt for abstraction, while Americans work with photography and realism — revealing consistency with Che’s original dictate. In Peace and Solidarity, Cuban artist Greta Acosta Reyes designed dark-skinned hands weaving intricate layers of hunter-green vines in hallucinatory patterns. Michigan-based Ian Matchett advocates for “paz y socialismo” in a minimalist sketch of an apple branch, symbolizing love and health. Cuban artists Karla M. Gómez and Victor Ubieta insert disembodied eyes into visionary, high-contrast designs, while Vivek Venkatraman and Vienna Rye, based in Houston and New York, portray Castro’s likeness in shades of red, calling for an end to the embargo.

The Organization of American States once claimed Tricontinental was “the most dangerous threat that international communism has yet made against the inter-American system” with an “unconcealed desire to create an effective propaganda impact.” This denunciation from an agency notorious for overthrowing Latin American governments further accentuates OSPAAAL’s effectiveness. As Cuba leads COVID-19 vaccine distribution in the Global South, the intentional concealment of US imperial propaganda speaks to the resilience of Cuban art as a line of defense, urging us to consider what could have been.

  1. Before the revolution, Cuba was Latin America’s media epicenter for multinational corporations conducting market research. Fulgencio Batista hired New York advertising agency McCann-Erickson to teach Cubans the benefits of tourism while welcoming investments from wealthy US capitalists.

Contributor

Billy Anania

Billy Anania is an editor, critic, and journalist in New York whose work focuses on political economy in the cultural industries and the history of art in global liberation movements.

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The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2022

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