Designed in Cuba: Cold War Graphics review

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5 out of 5 stars
Designed in Cuba: Cold War Graphics review
Lázaro Abreu Padrón, 1969, OSPAAAL, The Mike Stanfield Collection. Image courtesy of the House of Illustration

Time Out says

5 out of 5 stars

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Here’s Richard Nixon as a kind of Nazified American Eagle, his bloody talons digging the heart out of Indo-China. Here’s a woman dressed up as the Statue of Liberty, boredly smoking a fag. Here’s an Egyptian hieroglyph made of bullets and hand grenades.

There’s savagery and savage humour in this remarkable show of 100 posters and 70 magazines  produced between 1966 and 1992 by Cuba’s state-run OSPAAAL, the snappily named ‘Organization of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa and Latin America’. For such a dry-sounding outfit, OSPAAAL’s house style was pretty far out. As Fidel Castro himself said,
‘Our enemy is imperialism, not abstract art.’

Free from a state aesthetic of the kind that dominated Soviet-bloc propaganda of the era, these Cuban designers were able to freestyle. They were young; many of them were women. The screen-printed pop-art colours of their work feel a million miles from Russia’s granite-chinned tractor-constructors. It’s no surprise that many of these artists came from an advertising background: you get the sense of a state taking the weapons of mass-market capitalism and turning them on their makers.

Cuba’s sheer proximity to the US (not to mention it being riddled with CIA) leads to a kind of uneasy double identity: while decrying the meddlin’, warmongerin’ Uncle Sam, there’s a definite cultural influence in the funky afros and even funkier graphics. There’s a wonky irreverence too. A 1969 image shows an American spaceman reaching towards an incredibly crappily made silver-foil moon. He’s standing on the backs of three black lads lying on the floor; the overall effect is like an unreleased episode of a communist ‘Blue Peter’. Whether it’s with a psychedelicised Che Guevara or a chain-snapping Angela Davis, these artists hammered their message home while reflecting a changing world with visual wit and humanist empathy. The Cold War never looked so hot.

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