This piece by David Pratt appeared in Scotland’s Herald.
As I came down the aircraft’s steps into the stifling heat and onto the tarmac of Havana airport, I looked around me at the soldiers dotted along the runway apron dressed in khaki fatigues with Kalashnikov assault rifles slung over their shoulders.
As a young photojournalist and aspiring foreign correspondent, straight out of Glasgow School of Art, I was on my way to Nicaragua to cover the aftermath of the Sandinista revolution there in 1979. This was my first overseas assignment, the first time too I had set foot in a country outside Europe. It was only a transit stop, but here I was in Cuba, the land of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. This is what it’s all about, I recall thinking to myself, I have found my calling.
In the eyes of so many people like myself, Cuba was then, and to a great extent still is, quintessentially the land of revolution and international solidarity. Exotic, intriguing, controversial and above all political, Cuba is to the concept of international socialism, what prayer is to the Vatican.
In the years following my first encounter with the country, when assignments would later take me to locations as far flung as Vietnam, Angola or the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cuba’s indelible stamp on the socialist psyche of such places was always apparent.
As a sole communist outpost, barely 200 miles from the US mainland, Cuba during the uncertain and volatile days of the Cold War, was to reach out across the world through its unique propaganda art form, the political poster.
What is wonderful about this work and the artists who produced it, is the willingness they showed to embrace the most contemporary, often avant-garde graphic techniques and iconography to communicate their message.
“Our enemies are capitalists and imperialists, not abstract art,” was how Che Guevara, himself the subject of a memorable poster by Helena Serran, summed up the modernity of the artists’ approach.
Often drawing on historical, ethnic and indigenous cultural motifs rendered in the most contemporary of graphic styles, this sharp juxtaposition made for propaganda at its most potent. What ultimately was produced is about as far removed from the hackneyed, stereotypical Colgate smiles and clenched fists so beloved of Soviet Socialist Realist paintings as it is possible to imagine.
This instead is a genre that more often borrowed its iconography and visual alphabet from those earlier powerful Russian art movements of Constructivism and Suprematism. Time and again these dramatic poster images providing rallying calls in the fight against globalisation, imperialism and the defence of human rights, would also just as easily incorporate an amalgam of psychedelic and primitive art.
These poster messages – like Africa 1969 by Jesus Forjans or Day Of Solidarity With The People Of Laos by Rafael Zarza – were also aimed at communicating beyond simple text to audiences of different languages, levels of literacy and cultural backgrounds. They reveal an exuberance, irreverence and humour that moves far beyond the stuffiness of most political propaganda. The Cuban designers had the visual perspicacity to deploy a wide vocabulary of images and idioms, making their work distinctive and contemporary as well as politically effective. There is something too so uniquely Cuban about the works’ energy, despite the disparate international audience for which it was primarily created.
Unlike so many of the posters produced by anti-war campaigners in the West around this time, these images are often confrontational, calling on their viewers to seek victory rather than peace.
In Cuba itself at the height of the Cold War, a number of agencies were set up to achieve this task. Among them was the rather grandly titled Organisation in Solidarity with the People of Africa, Asia and Latin America (OSPAAAL). At its peak the organisation’s quarterly publication Tricontinental, which was distributed in four languages to as many as 87 countries, effectively served as a kind of catalogue and lifestyle magazine for the numerous liberation movements seeking to emulate Fidel Castro’s popular revolution, be they in Africa, the Middle East, Asia or Latin America.
For many people who have never encountered this poster art before, these images will come as something of a political and visual revelation. Wonderful then that the Glasgow School of Art is to show around 70 posters in an exhibition brought together from an extensive portfolio gathered by collector Michael Tyler.
Tyler is the first to admit that, having grown up in the peaceful backwater of suburban Sydney, he was blissfully ambivalent about politics and knew little about Cuba beyond reading The Motorcycle Diaries, recounting the early life of Che Guevara.
“I began my adventure into largely unknown territory, journeying into the dark heart of the Cold War era, with its revolutions, coups, dictators, proxy wars, paranoia and the struggles for independence from imperialism and colonial rule; dirty, nasty business that, were it not for these posters, I would most likely never have known about,” he explains.
This is an exhibition of work rarely seen. These too are images that, while reflecting on history, are equally powerful in revealing why so many of the issues and conflicts they first addressed continue to play out and haunt the world today.
Posters Of The Cuban Revolution is at the Reid Building, Glasgow School of Art, until October 31, daily from 11am-5pm, www.gsa.ac.uk
For the original report go to http://www.heraldscotland.com/arts-ents/visual/designs-for-life.1411268408