by Pooja Suresh HollannavarJun 08, 2023
On October 10, 1868, two important events unfolded in Cuba: independence from their colonialists, Spain, and the abolition of slavery. Ten days later, soldiers of the independence revolution (known as Mambises) took the city of Bayamo, and the song La Bayamesa, the current Cuban national anthem, was sung for the first time.
On January 3, 1966, 513 delegates representing 83 groups from countries across Latin America, Asia, and Africa gathered in Havana, Cuba for the first Tricontinental Conference. The meeting was organised by Moroccan politician Mehdi Ben Barka, who was killed in 1965 before the conference took place. In attendance were two anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist groups, the Non-Aligned Movement—an organisation of countries not associated with any power blocs—and the Afro-Asian People’s Solidarity Organisation, which promoted unity between countries formerly under imperialism.
Thus, emerged the Tricontinental magazine, a bimonthly theoretical publication complemented by another monthly bulletin with lighter material but equal aesthetic rigour. From the outset it was decided to utilise high-quality posters with a profound political and ideological vision that were easily comprehensible in all cultures and languages as a graphic element. Thus the message was largely visual, with very brief texts published in the organisation's four languages—English, French, Spanish, and Arabic.
Within a short period of time, OSPAAAL political posters accompanied every magazine and the graphic design of both the magazine and the bulletin gained international fame for their artistic and professional quality—innovative design aspects, form of expression and elements taken from the profound historical roots of the people and brought to the current period as an accusation. Tricontinental political posters were circulated worldwide and surprisingly, could be found in kiosks in the most remote towns and villages of our three continents. Today they hang in important galleries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe, and are in the hands of collectors in pursuit of a genuine art whose rigour and profound aesthetic vision is a contribution to the political message that our people wish to launch on the world.
What is it that posters do? Are they simply a call to action? Are they meant to provoke—thought, norms, the conscience? Are they to dwell upon, or be riled up by? Do they inspire? Do they really change ideologies? Posters tend to disrupt the status quo, certainly. They express discontent, dissent; they organise, protest, spread awareness, wake up the complacent. Can they be the harbingers of revolution? Often clandestine, posters are snuck inside the ‘benign’ propaganda of the state, in newspapers and tabloids. Necessitating being public, they are slapped onto the walls across busy streets in the dead of the night; or become spectacles at the town square. As a record of dissent in history, do they become an archival memento? What happens to a poster when it reaches the museum?
The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has close to 500 Cuban works in the collection, including hundreds of posters ranging from film and tourism advertisements, to independent artworks and works published by the Organisation of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa and Latin America (OSPAAAL).
Posters are not precious. But anything in a museum comes to be exactly that. In a museum in Britain, even more so. Donata Miller, Assistant Curator, Africa & Diaspora, says, “This display is an opportunity to reflect on ambitions for freedom and independence across Asia, Africa and Latin America across a period of global political change. As reflected in the full display title, OSPAAAL: Solidarity and Design, the posters focus attention on the role design can plan in creating and fostering networks of support and solidarity.” The display was unveiled on the occasion of the London Design Festival 2022, with OSPAAAL focusing on non-western designers, and encouraging an inclusive view of design. The display marks the beginning of a V&A online hub for OSPAAAL research, articles and digital media content.
Alfrédo Rostgaard, a longstanding Art Director at OSPAAAL, remarked, "We wanted to establish a clear, direct or indirect, but original communication, and did not scorn any initiative that would allow us to be effective and contemporary.”
The display creates a reflective intervention within the gallery. A space of generosity and inspiration, from the posters, to text and the design. The blue walls and accents draw on colours used in the posters, complimenting the existing historic V&A architecture. Featuring 14 posters, the display is showcasing from September 17, 2022 to March 31, 2023 and will be accompanied by articles, blogs, tours and events.
Bold graphics (in primary colours) and few but cutting words (in large serif typeface), printed in bulk on inexpensive paper have made for transformative tools across time and place. One of the most legible and accessible means of broadcasting—the poster—goes beyond its intent of political action, capturing the cultural and political zeitgeist of its time. The poster’s tangibility, its artistic quality (design, composition, typeface, colours, et al), its use of symbols and imagery that deem literacy unnecessary, gives it unfettered access and hence power over collective thought and action. The poster, once popular on the streets—distributed, pasted, trampled upon—now finds itself in history books and archives of museums.
Posters are often anonymous, but in a way that they are authored by many, as opposed to 'none'. Their designs are highly intuitive, then they are stylised. They employ basic visual elements to say something radical, and spur action. Posters rely on the psychological impact of reductive messages, expressed simply and loudly, an urgency driving their quick and wide distribution. Their contents span from using humour, satire, grotesque imitations, caricatures, clever puns, slogans and symbols, to critique their subject of derision or celebrate their ideologique in quickly replicable and consumable ways.
Posters, while made to function as transitory political objects, have a certain stamina to them. They become records of culture and anti-culture, as well as subjects of a retrospective study of aesthetics. In all of this, posters become a language in themselves, of superlative legibility and a relevance that transcends their political standing.