Posters of the Cuban Revolution: 20th September – 31st October 2014, Ground Floor, Reid Building, The Glasgow School of Art,
164 Renfrew Street, Glasgow G3 6RF
The striking and boldly colourful posters which lined the corridor in the Reid Building from 20th September – 31st October 2014 were commissioned by the OSPAAAL (Organization of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa, and Latin America) in an attempt to promote human rights, and to undermine colonialism and capitalism. The posters were created and distributed between 1967 and 1986 – a period of intense geopolitical discord between the USA and her capitalist allies in the West, and the communist bloc led by the USSR. The artists of the OSPAAAL were primarily from Cuba, namely Alfredo Rostgaard, the organisation’s art director, as well as one of the leading designers in revolutionary Cuban film. With more than 20 Cuban artists producing almost 70 pieces, the collection is truly impressive, and offers a fascinating insight into the state of politics and world affairs in the latter half of the twentieth century.
The images are international in their aspiration to incite ideological change; this is clear on a superficial level, as all of the posters are multilingual, expressing their solidarity with oppressed nations and individuals in four languages: Spanish, English, French and Arabic. The images often use these different languages artistically as part of their composition. The simple style of the graphics acts as a means of communication with a heterogeneous global population: the images themselves ‘speak’ in a universal language. Regardless of the tongue of the spectator, the messages are clear and instantly intelligible.
Many of the posters depict an individual shown in the context of a great injustice: warfare; starvation; or displacement. There are references to the bombing of Hiroshima, economic slavery and apartheid in Africa, territorial warfare in Palestine, and other inhumane atrocities that marred the ever increasingly ‘globalised’ global landscape of the twentieth century. There is also the suggestion that capitalism, and the colonialism and globalisation which goes along with it, are destroying indigenous cultures and stripping them of their value. A traditional Angolan mask, for example, is embedded with a grenade; a Taíno zemí (an indigenous Puerto Rican object of worship) is shown burning in flames, the smoke arising consisting of American corporate brands; a Lao Buddhist sculpture is seen cradling a man holding a rifle. It is suggested that the beauty and sovereignty of these cultures is endangered by the spread of the imperial power of first world countries.
By their very nature as political propaganda posters the images appear controversial and stirring. The OSPAAAL are a Cuban movement aimed at undermining capitalism and imperialism, and in this particular context aim to do so through the use of graphically designed posters issued to 80 different countries on three continents through their publication ‘Tricontinental’. Personally, I am unconvinced that all of the atrocities detailed are direct results of capitalism, as is silently implied by the OSPAAAL, and that they would not exist under a communistic system. These posters however are not intended to offer detailed analyses of the causes of human struggle, but instead are designed to influence and sway the individual at the atomic level, in order that they may change society at large. They are eye-catching, and the vivid colours often contrast with the stark images of chains, rifles, and death. These motifs are purposefully designed to rouse the viewer, and stir feelings of animosity towards the status quo, potentially even inciting some form of proletariat uprising. The sinister thing about these posters however, and all propaganda generally speaking, is the insidious emotional manipulation which is taking place: the posters veil their agenda with humanitarian concerns, but do not admit that any form of uprising will inevitably lead to the shed of innocent blood and further struggle.
If it is possible to remove the political context from these works, and to focus solely on the design and layout of the exhibition, it is interesting how so many images designed to grab and hold attention can sit next to each other harmoniously without seeming overwhelming. The images were laid out according to continent, beginning with South America at the far end of the corridor, and snaked round to include Africa and Asia. They do not wrestle for your attention, but instead form an organic whole, spanning three continents, two decades, and offering insight into the state of things in the twentieth century before Fukuyama’s assertion that history had ended with the triumph of capitalism. You can see in these images the on-going battle taking place before your eyes – one of the last battles for the world’s population’s hearts in recent history. The posters cover a widely varied palate of styles: some are reminiscent of Pop Art, some deliberately resemble travel posters and advertisements, some still resemble collages. It is in this regard that the posters truly reveal themselves as works of art over and above their political urgency.
Alongside this exhibition, there were two events which supplement the experience: Michael Tyler, the owner of the private collection to which these pieces belong, offered an insight into the images in the corridor in which they were located. On the day, the corridor was bustling with prospective students attending the school’s open day, and this gave the space a real feeling of energy which harmonized with the display. As well as this, Catherine Flood, curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, discussed art, design, and activism, using the posters as her point of reference, alongside the exhibition she curates at the V&A titled ‘Disobedient Objects’ (26th July 2014 – 1st February 2015). Both of these events were free, and are examples of the kind of events the Glasgow School of Art hold alongside exhibitions in order to provide a deeper understanding for those interested. They provide historical context, and also a contemporary context for the works, demonstrating not only how the works fit in to art history, but also how the exhibition, and the ideas which spawn from it, are relevant to the current artistic environment.
Sartre claimed in ‘What is Literature?’ that there can be no such thing as a great racist novel, because the work’s racism would prevent it from achieving greatness. I wonder, then, if there can be a ‘great’ piece of propagandistic art, as the work’s defining characteristics of bias detract from what may have made it great. The vital social aspect and purpose of these posters, the manipulation, whether rightly or wrongly, of the population, is not to be ignored, and certainly not in a time where misinformation and digital-age propaganda are as prevalent as ever. During his presentation, Michael Tyler pointed out the similarities between the events which the posters address, and the Arab Spring and the rise of the IS. There is certainly a resonance with history – that it may be repeating itself, that history has in fact not ended, and that there are many more struggles yet to face.
Review by William Burns