Radiant; Graphics in the Cold

By Ornella Biagetti

Posters are a type of printed media to advertise a product or event , often are decorative. They are often composed of pictures and bold titles to market and promote, which need to be concise and considered. As such posters can sit within different spheres of life, as a tool for advertisement or as a piece of art for the home.

They are specimens of striking graphic art. Millions of copies are produced everyday , each with a different purpose. From bands on tour to the notices attached to signposts , all call upon your attention to something important.

Posters were born to scream. When living in a challenging socio-political and economic period, posters are proven powerful tools. Wether its for an election campaigning, as a form of protest, to guide your choice on who to vote for, to stand up for human rights, and even to give those who are weak a voice.

You can see posters for political movements often in times of turbulence . Think of Cuba’s solidarity, think of all those Che Guevara posters.

Take for example OSPAAAL, the Organisation of Solidarity with People of Asia, Africa and Latin America. Born in 1966 during an international conference at the Habana Libre Hotel in Cuba , with an incredible attendance of national liberation movements and party leaders, the group was made up of mostly pro-Communist and/or  anti-American. Even Fidel Castro, co- founder and co-editor of Tricontinental magazine, called it “A great feast of international solidarity”.

A group of designers felt the necessity to put together a studio to create and produce posters and in general all the graphic part of Tricontinental publications, their official periodical magazine. During the Cold War, Cuba was isolated but the designers did find a way to keep themselves informed about what was happening in the rest of the world, especially the countries of the Third World.

House of Illustration, the UK’s only public gallery dedicated solely to illustration and graphic art have organised a passionate exhibition about Cuban designers operating at the time of the Cold War, in collaboration with OSPAAAL.

Private collector Michael Stanfield contacted the foundation’s director Colin McKenzie to organise and display the best pieces of his numerous OSPAAAL posters and Tricontinental magazines acquired through the years. Taking all three spaces of the gallery, 170 pieces of artworks from the period 1966 – 1992 are now on show to the public.

Exhibition curator Olivia Ahmad decorated the gallery’s rooms taking inspiration from the impressive visual impact of the posters, fascinated by their boldness and the explosive colours recalling Pop and Op art.

These posters showed strong symbolism of hot topics, as at the time these posters were carrying powerful messages.

Rafael Enriquezs made an allusion to the foreign debt with America: a giant dollar symbol is a crucifix for the poor.

Alfredo Rostgaard image of the guerrilla hero Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara is ‘Radiant Che’ in rainbow colours, as a sign of what the Comandante meant to his people.

Ernesto Padron, in a quite sarcastic advertising style, designed the explosion of a rifle fire shot coming out from colourful cubic letters, to let observer better visualise his solidarity with the people of Laos during the Vietnam war.

Another facet to the exhibition project is an interesting video contribution played on a loop in a tiny booth at the gallery. Last February, the staff of House of Illustration took on the little adventure of going to Cuba and interviewing some of OSPAAAL’s designers and the former director of communications Arleen Rodriguez Derivet.

The video document is enriched by voices talking in details on the techniques they used, different printing materials, anecdotes of their work, politics and life by the actual protagonists of the organisation’s graphic production.

There were also very talented women contributing, some of them active in the printing workshop, others designers. For instance, Jane Norling is a Californian visual artist that moved from San Francisco based People’s Press (a non-hierarchical collective) to Cuba in 1972, to be closer to those colleagues she estimated and supported already for a couple of years, designing a poster supporting the anti-colonial movement of Puerto Rico.

The soul of Cuba and its people its colours, music and warmth and this exhibition is a demonstration that even in times of deprivation and suffering, wherever in the world someone is fighting injustice, the power of solidarity can be illuminated by outstanding art. Messages of hope are destined to influence people’s minds and leave their mark in history forever via a wonderful creative process.

Until 19 January 2020

House of Illustration – 2 Granary Square, London, N1C 4BH

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