Cuba's digital destination
Interview with Lincoln Cushing How did you originally get involved in writing this book involving Cuba?
By accident of history I was born in Cuba of North American parents (my father was in the U.S. Foreign Service). During my formative years in the late 1960s and early 1970s I became attracted to social justice printmaking, and made agitational posters in San Diego and Oakland (California). But I barely absorbed the Cuban poster genre until I first returned to the island as a cultural tourist in 1989 for the third Bienal art exhibition. All of a sudden, all the parts began to fall into place. When I visited OSPAAAL and asked the simple question, “How many posters has your organization made?” no one could tell me. With help from other colleagues, I then began to systematically identify, shoot, and catalog every known OSPAAAL poster. The project expanded to include work from other agencies, but still it was just a research effort. But one day an editor from a local publisher, fresh back from a trip to Cuba and very excited about the graphics, approached me and asked if I wanted to write a book.
What was the driving motivation behind the preparation of this book?
I wanted to do several things. First, I wanted to acquaint the general public with this incredible body of work – world-class posters from a tiny, poor country. I also wanted to inject some rigorous scholarship into the study of posters themselves. Few take these documents seriously, and I felt that they deserved some attention. And finally, it was an opportunity to challenge some of the long-overdue attitudes held about Cuban politics and culture. Most U.S. citizens know nothing about Cuba besides the standard Cold War line. But our country has a shameful role in much of Cuban history, a role that’s convenient to ignore. I happen to believe that the Spanish-American War was one of the most egregious acts of aggression this country has ever mounted, and most U.S. citizens have no idea what it was about.
How did your perception of Cuba change during the process of writing this book?
The shaping of the chapters helped me to reevaluate how I think of Cuba. As with all my books, I let the posters themselves determine the subject areas, and I was surprised. The notion that “national pride” or “sports and health” were such dominant topics was educational.
How would you describe the key tenets of this book?
One is that you don’t need to have lots of expensive graphic art equipment to make good art. The Cubans were doing many of these with basic tools. One poster that looks like airbrush was made with India ink zipped off of a toothbrush. A second is that it is possible to make good art with a serious message. The design challenges of making a graphic about, say, public health, or glass recycling – these are tough, and serve a real public need. And finally, to dispel the idea that art made under socialism is boring or trite. Many of these are very humorous and whimsical.
Do you have a favorite extract or story or anecdote from the book that illustrates a key message or theme from this book?
I love the quote heading the sports section, “I would rather play for ten million people than ten million dollars,” made by a Cuban baseball pitcher explaining why he wasn’t interested in defecting to the U.S. In this country, people are so wrapped up in making money and the fantasy of getting rich that basic social good gets lost in the shuffle. That’s a lot of what the current “Occupy Wall Street” movement is about.
What was the most surprising thing you discovered about Cuba during the writing of this book?
I expected to see more artistic influence from Mexico, with a long graphic tradition, or Puerto Rico, an adjacent island with a powerful poster tradition. There was almost none.
Do you have any future plans to become involved in Cuba related projects?
I’ve been deeply distracted by other poster subjects, but I do keep in touch with colleagues in Cuba. I recently wrote a short illustrated essay about the Biblioteca Nacional Jose Marti, a jewel of a resource operating under difficult conditions. I’ve also been involved in defending the creative rights of these Cuban poster artists – there have been several instances where their work has been outright ripped off for commercial gain, and I’ve arranged for royalty payments to be made to the artists or their estates. And I’ve been engaged in supporting U.S. efforts to normalize relations and to raise awareness of U.S. policy injustices, such as the unconscionable detention of the Cuban Five.
December 2011 History of poster art in Cuba
By Lincoln Cushing
The roots of the Cuban poster tradition
Cuba is a literate nation of 11 million people. It is a small enough that posters are an eminently viable medium for reaching wide audiences. Havana is a cosmopolitan capital of 1 million, which has been a cultural nexus between the old world and the new ever since the “discovery” of the Americas in 1492. As in Europe and the United States, lithographs appeared in Cuba in the mid 1800’s.
The emergence of a booming film industry in the 1940s – and posters publicizing those films – led to the first distinctly domestic style. In 1943 the U.S. exhibit “Originals of Tamigraph: Silk Screen Originals,” which included 55 works by 27 artists was a significant impetus for the emergence of fine-art screenprinting in Cuba. This also spawned work of a distinctly political nature, the birth of Cuban political poster art. During the 50s some artists applied their talents to printmaking, but it continued to remain no more a significant cultural form than painting or sculpture. However, it was the overthrow of Fulgencio Batista and the immense national transformation that followed that led to the “golden age” of Cuban posters. The non-commercial mass poster was the direct fruit of the revolution, a conscious application of art in the service of social improvement. State resources were allocated for a broad range of cultural and artistic projects, and posters were the right medium at the right time.
Poster production since the revolution
The vast majority of posters produced in Cuba have been under the auspices of three agencies: Editora Politica, OSPAAAL (the Organization in Solidarity with the People of Africa, Asia and Latin America), and ICAIC (the Cuban Film Institute). Editora Politica (EP) is the official publishing department of the Cuban Communist Party, and is responsible for a wide range of (mostly) domestic public information propaganda in the form of books, brochures, billboards, and posters. In addition, many other agencies utilized the resources and distribution powers of EP for their own work, including FMC (the Federation of Cuban Women), the CNT (the National Confederation of Workers), and OCLAE (the Latin American Students Association). EP started out as the Commission of Revolutionary Orientation (COR, 1962-1974), then became the Department of Revolutionary Orientation (DOR, 1974-1984), and finally settled on Editora Politica in 1985.
OSPAAAL is officially a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) recognized by the United Nations, based in Havana, Cuba and with a board of representatives from all over the world. It is the primary producer of international solidarity posters in Cuba. Among its many activities has been the publication of Tricontinental magazine since 1967. At its peak its circulation was 30,000 copies, produced in 4 different languages and mailed to 87 countries. Included in most issues were folded-up solidarity posters, thus establishing the most effective international poster distribution system in the world.
ICAIC produces posters for all films made in Cuba, and for many years also created publicity posters for foreign films shown in Cuba as well. These posters were all of identical size to fit in special kiosks throughout Havana. There are, of course, other venues for poster production. The Taller Artistico Experimental de Serigrafía Rene Portocarrero, founded in 1983, is a fine-art studio in Havana, always abuzz with students and teachers. Other agencies also have small shops, such as ICAP (Instituto Cubana de Amistad entre los Pueblos, or the Cuban Institute for Friendship between the People). And finally, there are small job shops that will produce work for any commercial client.
Range of artistic content and style
One of the characteristics that separates Cuban poster art from that of its historical antecedents – the Taller de Grafica Popular in Mexico in the 1930’s, Polish film and political posters, and the state-sponsored posters of the Soviet Union and China – is the wide range of content and style. This is the result of several factors, including a long tradition of international influence in domestic artwork and a revolutionary government that was relatively open to experimentation and innovation. Although the “fine art” and “commercial art” worlds continue to exist in Cuba, a significant amount of resources and talent were funneled into challenging this capitalist dichotomy. Instead of selling products, artists could actually make a living using their skills to promote services and building community.
Posters publicized motorcycle-based health brigades, joining the sugar harvest, working in the sugar mills efficiently, or planting healthy fruits and vegetables on available land. Some crops, such as tobacco, posed challenges; one poster pleads for “Your youthful hand” in helping the harvest , but another warns that “Tobacco burns health.” Sports, education, and culture play a significant role; one poster for an armed forces chess tournament displays a commitment to play for keeps, another proudly proclaims “I am studying to be a teacher, “and a third uses a decidedly take-no-prisoners approach in promoting a conference on writers and artists. International solidarity is an important part of the Cuban culture, especially because the struggle against U.S. imperialism was being fought on Cuban shores. This deep connection to other underdeveloped countries struggling for self-determination resulted in many works succinctly and elegantly showing resistance against colonialism and U.S. imperialism.
The persistent theme of “As in Vie Nam” underscores a deep national determination to be as self-reliant, brave, and resourceful as the people of Viet Nam, equating domestic food and industrial production with the urgency of armed struggle. Although most of the posters are produced in offset format, many of them (and all the older ICAIC posters) were done in silkscreen, in limited numbers. Many of the more popular ICAIC posters have been reissued, sometimes multiple times, to meet the demand for sales. Almost all of the stencils for the screen printed posters were cut by hand, even many of the ones that “look” like large-dot photostencils.
The current situation
Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc in the mid-1990’s, Cuba has been laboring under what has been officially described as the “special period”. Economically, the country went into a tailspin, losing favorable trade agreements, oil and sugar subsidies, and technical assistance almost overnight. Ever since then, Cuba has followed a path of rebuilding its economy through international tourism. Massive joint-venture projects with Spain, Canada, Brazil, Mexico, and other nations have focused almost entirely on the hotel and ancillary service industries. This process, though justifiable given Cuba’s limited options, has resulted in considerable distortion of the cultural fabric. All the poster-producing agencies have had to transform themselves from State subsidy to having to rely on fee-for-service to become self-supporting. Although an organization such as ICAIC may have a chance at pulling this off, agencies with an explicit political message such as EP or OSPAAAL are withering on the vine. This belt-tightening has affected art production in every way. Even billboard design favors use of white space because ink is in short supply.
This difficult situation is compounded by a general disregard for intellectual property rights by foreigners, especially the United States. Because the U.S. government maintains such a hostile relationship with Cuba, many people assume that even if copyright is maintained it is unenforceable. All Cuban artists are acutely aware that although their work, mostly done for little pay, is a desirable commodity and can command high prices in the art market. Many Cuban artists were able to produce clippings from Christie’s and others indicating sales of work in the over-$1000 range. This exploitation is not just limited to the high-end market. For many years the web-based sales catalog of Barnes and Noble (a major U.S. bookseller) marketed over 30 unauthorized digitally-reproduced “Cuban posters,” many originally created by OSPAAAL and ICAIC. More recently, CafePress.com (a commercial Web portal for vendors) displayed products using art by René Mederos and Félix Beltran, but removed them after being asked to do so. AllPosters.com, however, does sell unauthorized (and uncredited) reproductions of works by artists such as Rene Mederos.
Aside from exceptions such as the Cuba Poster Project and the Center for Cuban Studies, it is rare to see sales of originals or reproductions done with the authorization of the producing artist or agency, not to mention arrangements for compensation.
The task ahead
Posters are a vital, expressive visual art which have historically been a medium of choice for presenting oppositional voices. Unfortunately, the timeless issues they raise are usually eclipsed by their short lifespan in the public record. A variety of factors conspire to dramatically limit the number of poster images which not only survive, but are available to researchers, organizers, and the viewing public. These include physical deterioration (bad ink/paper stability, staining and tearing due to poor display techniques, fading from exposure to sunlight, infestation by bugs and rot, damage from improper storage, etc.), irreversible damage and loss (insecure storage resulting in fire and water damage, posters being thrown out as trash), and privatization (posters being bought up by collectors/dealers). Cuba is no exception. As in the rest of the world, the very agencies which produced the works had devoted little energy to preserving them.
An example of this a request by OSPAAAL in 1998 for display copies for an exhibit on Che Guevara; the agency did not have eight of the 18 different posters they had produced, and I was able to send down giant digital prints from archives created by the Cuba Poster Project. Because of the irreplaceable political and cultural heritage represented by this ephemeral art, I have been working with other independent poster curators (primarily Michael Rossman, an independent archivist, and Carol Wells, of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics in Los Angeles) to develop an approach for documenting and cataloguing the images and information in such a way that these works will forever remain potent voices of change.
We seek to empower poster-producing organizations to preserve their own visual history and allow them to breathe new life into images that were created many years ago. Because we are also concerned with preserving oppositional poster art in general, we see the documentation of “small” collections to be key pieces in the construction of a major archive of domestic and international posters. Much of this is based on recent developments in the digitization of images and databases that have only recently become affordable to smaller collections. One of the wonderful features of a digital catalog is that it is possible to build a complete “collection” without possession of the actual artifact, thus freeing producing agencies from the whole separate difficult task of poster collection and conservation. An image-rich database means that poster images can be quickly located and compared without reliance on curatorial memory or access to the actual poster. About the book
“Does for the golden age of Cuban poster art what Ry Cooder and Wim Wenders’ Buena Vista Social Club did for the country’s aged and neglected musicians.” -The Dominion Post 11/15/2003 (Wellington, New Zealand)
“…a vivid case for the preservation and analysis of this ephemeral art form.” Miami Herald, 12/7/2003
“…handsomely designed and smartly documented…may inspire today’s young propagandists.” -Steven Heller, Eye, Issue 54, Summer 2004
“There is little else available on this fascinating topic; highly recommended for all collections.” -David A. Berona, Library Journal, 5/15/2003 All of Us or None: Social Justice Posters of the San Francisco Bay Area
By Lincoln Cushing
The evolution of street art with a message
This long-awaited catalog of political posters pays homage to an influential and populist art movement that has created some of the most enduring imagery of our time. In All of Us or None, author Lincoln Cushing examines key selections from a remarkable archive of over 24,000 posters amassed by free speech movement activist, author, and educator Michael Rossman over the course of thirty years. This inspiring collection of Bay Area posters illuminates the history of this ad-hoc and ephemeral art form, celebrating its unique capacity to infuse contemporary issues with the urgency and energy of the eternal fight for justice. About the Author
Lincoln Cushing was born in 1953, in Havana Cuba to American parents before emigrating to the U.S. As a graphic designer and archivist, he has worked with the Cuban national library, the University of California at Berkeley, and other collections to preserve and catalog these amazing posters. He lives in Berkeley.
He has at various times been a printer, artist, librarian, archivist, and author. At U.C. Berkeley he was the Cataloging and Electronic Outreach Librarian at Bancroft Library and the Electronic Outreach Librarian at the Institute of Industrial Relations. He is currently the Digital Archivist and Communications Consultant for Kaiser Permanente. He is involved in numerous efforts to document, catalog, and disseminate oppositional political culture of the late 20th century. His books include Revolucion! Cuban Poster Art (Chronicle Books, 2003), Visions of Peace & Justice: 30 Years of Political Posters from the Archives of Inkworks Press (2007), Chinese Posters: Art from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, (Chronicle Books 2007), Agitate! Educate! Organize! – American Labor Graphics (Cornell University Press, 2009), an illustrated essay in?Ten Years That Shook The City???San Francisco 1968-1978?(City Lights Books, 2011) and All Of Us Or None???Poster Art of the San?Francisco Bay Area (Heyday, 2012).?His research and publishing projects can be seen at www.docspopuli.org May 2012