The Cuban Poster Crisis

Some consider Cuban posters the single most focused, potent body of political graphics ever produced in this hemisphere.

In an untitled painting by the noted Cuban artist Luis Martinez Pedro, an assembly of abstract shapes stands against a field of somber gray. This enigmatic image, wordless yet vocal, won top honors in a national exhibition of art held in Havana in 1955. It became one of the founding works of Cuba’s poster tradition—graphic art created in the service of political revolution.

His piece was purchased by a wealthy collector from New York. Pedro used the money from this sale to recreate serigraph posters of his image, which were sold throughout Cuba to help finance Fidel Castro’s revolution. Pedro renamed the poster “Two Rifles” and from this title the two rectangular shapes in its center clearly emerge as guns, weapons of resistance.

Three years later, following the unsuccessful Bay of Pigs invasion, the United States imposed a strict trade embargo on this small island country. Just 90 miles from the American coast, but isolated from its influences, Cuban graphic design flourished into a unique and internationally acclaimed movement. However, over the past three decades, little of this important work has been accessible to American designers.

Americans could not legally travel to Cuba until 1977, and as late as 1985, tourists, scholars and artists visiting Cuba could return with only a single copy of a printed poster. With rare exceptions, there have been few opportunities for the public to easily view the work. The Cuban contribution to graphic arts was only a footnote in the Modern Poster exhibition staged by the Museum of Modern Art in 1988.

Virginia-based art director and educator, Daniel Walsh, and Lincoln Cushing, a printer from Berkeley, California, co-founders of the Cuba Poster Project, are working to change that.

In 1986, Walsh sued the U.S. Treasury department, claiming that the embargo illegally blocked the free exchange of printed materials, which are protected under the First Amendment. Last winter, after nearly nine years of court battles, Walsh and the Cuba Poster Project won their case. As the first Americans to legally conduct business with Cuba since the embargo, the group recently met with the country’s most respected designers to view archives and design facilities and returned with a wealth of rare graphic material.

When it comes to the subject of Cuban posters, Walsh is opinionated: “It is the single most focused, potent body of political graphics ever produced in this hemisphere.” He credits this impact to the unique role that posters play in Cuban society. Unlike consumer-oriented countries, where the purpose of the poster is to sell or advertise, in Cuba it serves as a means of promoting political consciousness. Since Castro’s revolution, the poster has become one of the most visible and ubiquitous means of public expression on the island.

“The Cuban government recognized the poster as a legitimate political frequency,” explains Cushing. For many Americans, this communist nation may conjure up monographic images of an irate Fidel Castro, a martyred Che Guevara or stoic farm workers. In reality the scope of Cuban posters is amazingly diverse and unpredictable. Designers rejected Soviet realism and chose to develop their own unique graphic style of bold colors, thickly silkscreened to create ingenious imagery. Their posters communicate with concepts that are not blunted by dogma. Because artists work with relative creative freedom and the financial support of their government, the Cuban poster tradition has involved some of the country’s most talented painters and photographers.

The Poster Project, with the cooperation of Cuban officials, seeks to document and preserve that tradition. Cushing and Walsh have focused their efforts on three groups— the Cuban Film Institute (ICAIC), the Organization of Solidarity With the Peoples of Africa, Asia, and Latin America (OSPAAAL) and the Editora Politica, the official propaganda department of the communist party. The three most prodigious publishers of posters in Cuba, all create works geared toward very different audiences.

The Cuban Film Institute designs posters for movies that are shown throughout the island, ranging from John Wayne westerns, Kurosawa samurai flicks and Charlie Chaplin comedies, to more earnest political documentaries. The film posters are usually displayed in small kiosks strategically placed throughout Havana and the neighboring countryside. To attract attention, the work tends to be extremely lively and colorful, without relying on sensationalism or flashiness. In the Cuban society, cultural events are not seen as a commodity to be consumed, and the posters do not function as advertisements, but rather they are new works of art that are supplementary to the film. As a result, ICAIC artists such as the well-known Eduardo Munoz Bachs and Nestor Coll have produced an amazing collection of silkscreened images.

Editora Politica produces the majority of books, billboards and posters printed on the island and publicizes a wide range of topics, including AIDS awareness, occupational health, energy conservation, even baseball games and other sporting events. Because they represent such varied issues, Editora Politica artists are often required to produce works with competing or contradictory messages. In one poster, warning of the dangers of smoking tobacco, a hand holding a lighted cigarette is silkscreened over a black background. A wisp of smoke ominously curls up from the cigarette to form a ghostlike skull. Another poster printed in festive colors, encourages workers to participate in an upcoming tobacco harvest. The headline reads: Tobacco Awaits Your Youthful Hand.

Editora Politica designers, including the accomplished Rene Mederos, create works that are surprisingly sophisticated given the mass-audience they speak to. Their design remains graceful despite its official government nature and is characterized by strong and simple concepts, an a sparcity of text or extraneous information.

Perhaps the most internationally recognized group is the non-government agency OSPAAAL, which publishes continental, a magazine with worldwide distribution. Walsh describes the organization as a “revolutionary PR firm whose job is to keep the issues, art and culture of various liberation struggles alive in the eyes of the public. The agency is based in Havana, and operates with a rotating design staff that has included many of Cuba’s top designers, such as Alberto Blanco, as well as expatriates from other countries—even the United States.

The group’s posters are folded and bound into the magazine, and offer uncensored commentary on timely political issues in a style that is heavily influenced by international design circles, but remains distinctly Cuban.

The majority of Cuban designers continue to work in traditional hands-on methods, without the aid of computers or desktop technology. Cushing notes that Cubans are just beginning to embrace digital processes. The Editora Politica, for example, recently received its first computer— an IBM clone with limited software.

All three groups are struggling under Cuba’s economic hardship and paper, printing inks and silkscreen materials remain in short supply. As a result, Cushing sees Cuban poster art changing from “a major vehicle of expression to something that is done only when money is available.” The Film Institute now limits its posters to Cuban-made movies, and OSPAAAL has also seen its output plummet. Posters are no longer inserted into their Tricontinental magazine each month, but are released sporadically at the rate of two or three annually.

Of even greater concern is the preservation and archiving of the massive output of posters that have been printed over the last 30 years. Although Cuban designers have created indelible images and lasting visual commentary, few were concerned with the preservation of the actual printed piece. As a result, many posters were stored under poor conditions, and have fallen victim to humidity, fading and tropical insects. There are over 5,000 posters in the Editora Politica archives alone, and many are in poor condition. “Twenty years ago,” explains Walsh, “Cuban poster artists weren’t thinking about archival inks or paper, or hoping that someday they might have their work shown in a museum. They were thinking pass the ammunition, we need to get this thing printed.”

By reproducing many of the better Cuban works in a variety of forms, and making them available to an American audience, the Poster Project hopes to remedy the current situation. A portion of the proceeds from their efforts will be returned to the design agencies to help fund further graphic work. If the U.S. government continues to ease restrictions, Walsh is optimistic that in the future Cuban designers may even be able to accept freelance assignments from American clients.

This article was originally published in Communication Arts Magazine. © Philip Krayna.