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ALBERTO KORDA’S 1960 photograph of Ernesto “Che” Guevara has become shorthand for revolutionary iconography. But, as Designed in Cuba: Cold War Graphics reveals, there is much more to Cuban graphic design than the implacable face of Che.
From the 1960s to the 1990s, the Havana-based Organisation of Solidarity with the People of Africa, Asia and Latin America (OSPAAAL) was home to a team of designers creating bold posters that championed the liberation struggles of the global South and condemned the actions of Cuba’s looming neighbour to the north.
Unlike the muscular socialist realist propaganda of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s designers applied their pre-revolutionary experience working in commercial advertising to creating what OSPAAAL creative director Alfredo Rostgaard called the “anti-ad.”
With influences ranging from avant-garde photography to Pop Art, Rostgaard’s creative team diverted their skill in capitalist persuasion to socialist ends.
Their images were designed in Cuba but distributed globally in editions of thousands — concise and arresting visual metaphors that could be understood without words.
A 1987 poster by Alberto Blanco Gonzalez, made to denounce imperialist aggression toward Nicaragua, shows the CIA seal with a fist punched through the centre — no explanation required.
The exhibition covers a 25-year period that saw a changing roster of designers working in-house at OSPAAAL. They were men but many of the organisation’s most enduring images were created by women seconded from the creative department of the Cuban government’s propaganda commission.
Berta Abelenda Fernandez’s vital images of women as warriors call for solidarity with the South African struggle against apartheid and support for self-determination in Guinea-Bissau, while a poster designed by Helena Serrano for a Day of the Heroic Guerrilla on the anniversary of Che’s death in 1968 transforms Korda’s well-worn image into a rippling op-art sensation.
Women whose names we sadly do not know were also integral to the distribution of OSPAAAL’s message. They prepared designs painted by hand in gouache with overlaid hand-drawn and Letraset type for reproduction by layered silkscreen printing or for print by offset lithography on Soviet machines.
Though the work from the exhibition is situated firmly in cold war era geopolitics, many of the issues they raise remain recognisable today.
Gladys Acosta Avila’s poster No to the Guantanamo Naval Base! was made in 1991 but its call remains unanswered, while a poster designed by US artist Jane Norling during a visit to OSPAAAL in 1973 expresses solidarity with people in Puerto Rico, who even today are denied the right to vote in US presidential elections.
These struggles are ongoing, but OSPAAAL will no longer play a part in them. The organisation closed quietly just weeks ago, making the exhibition a timely record of this compelling episode in Cuba’s exceptional design history.
Designed in Cuba: Cold War Graphics runs at House of Illustration from September 27 to January 19 next year, box office: houseofillustration.org.uk. Olivia Ahmad is curator at House of Illustration, Britain’s only public art gallery dedicated to illustration and graphic design, and editor of Varoom magazine.
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