Histories Absolved: Revolutionary Cuban Poster Art and the Muslim International

Medina, Los Angeles

Tucked away at the end of Chung King Road in the Chinatown neighborhood of Los Angeles is Medina, a small gallery space that for the past five weeks has housed Histories Absolved: Revolutionary Cuban Poster Art and the Muslim International. On any other day, the single room, privately-owned gallery might go unnoticed; there are no signs indicating its presence amidst the bustling shops and restaurants of Chinatown. Last November and December however, the vibrant colors of the nineteen original print Cuban posters on display radiated through gallery’s glass entrance walls, making Medina hard to miss.

Histories Absolved: Revolutionary Cuban Poster Art and the Muslim International. Installation shot, Medina, Los Angeles (2014). Work featured: poster by Victor Manuel Navarrate for OSPAAL (1979). Offset. 52 x 83 cm. Image courtesy of Eszter Zimanyi.
Histories Absolved: Revolutionary Cuban Poster Art and the Muslim International. Installation shot, Medina, Los Angeles (2014). Work featured: poster by Victor Manuel Navarrate for OSPAAL (1979). Offset. 52 x 83 cm. Image courtesy of Eszter Zimanyi.

Curated by Sohail Daulatzai, professor of Film and Media and African-American Studies at the University of California in Irvine, Histories Absolved showcased a modest subset of the many political graphic art posters produced and distributed globally in Tricontinental Magazine by Cuba’s Organization of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa, and Latin America (OSPAAAL). From the 1960s through the mid-1980s, OSPAAAL commissioned a number of artists to design posters promoting Cuba’s solidarity with, and support of, anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist struggles around the world. This culminated in a captivating array of designs encompassing a wide variety of visual styles. Often, these works make reference to traditional Asian, African, and Latin American art and visual culture, while simultaneously drawing on aesthetic elements from popular international art movements, including Psychadelic Art. The result was a potent and effective visual language of revolutionary action that appealed to a vast transnational audience, and continues to resonate with uprisings and political movements today.

Histories Absolved focuses specifically on posters depicting the struggles for liberation across North Africa and the greater Middle East, a region Daulatzai has termed the ‘Muslim Third World’. Upon walking into the gallery, one was immediately struck by three enlarged prints each adhering to separate walls in the room. One of these, an off-set print designed by Victor Manuel Navarrate in 1978, affirms Cuba’s solidarity with the people of Palestine. A high-contrast, black-and-white sketch of a resistance fighter figures prominently in the poster and visually occupies almost its entire length, with the poster’s text marginalized. The figure contrasts strongly with the print’s arrestingly bright red-orange background, giving the impression that the fighter is emerging from a sea of blood. His left hand reaches outwards with his index and middle fingers in “V” shape, dualistically signifying victory and peace, while his right hand raises a gun toward the sky. Treelike roots emerge from the fighter’s boots and extend downwards, implying a powerful connection between the land and the Palestinian people, and suggesting the Palestinian revolution is ‘growing’ despite, and perhaps because of, the ongoing bloodshed caused by the Israel-Palestine conflict. The roots at the fighter’s feet further insinuate that the revolution cannot be defeated: even if the soldier is killed, the roots of the struggle will remain and bear life to the resistance movement again.

Navarrate’s symbolic juxtaposition of victory/peace and violence implies that achieving liberation necessitates struggle and sacrifice, while the ambiguity of the fighter’s appearance allows the fighter to be interpreted as belonging to various different ethnicities and struggles. This ambiguity enables universal identification with the image, thus furthering OSPAAAL’s aim to create international solidarity against imperialism. The simple yet striking character of the poster’s design, while serving the practical purpose of allowing for quick and easy reproduction, also ensures its legibility among a vast audience. Indeed, one does not need to be literate in order to be emotionally moved by the imagery and interpret the poster’s support of active resistance against colonial occupation.

The three enlarged prints in the gallery were surrounded horizontally by original OSPAAAL posters held in simple black frames to guide the viewer’s eye in a sweeping motion across the space. Representing countries from Afghanistan to Syria to Morocco, many of these posters are reminiscent of western Psychadelic Art in their use of flat shapes, bold, warm saturated colours, and stylization of details. Faustino Perez’s 1968 ‘Palestine’ design, for example, depicts an abstract, two-dimensional profile of a man on a solid orange background. The man’s ‘eye’ – importantly the only part of the image drawn in three dimensions – also forms part of a rifle, suggesting that the act of bearing witness to injustice can also be a form of resistance against oppression. This striking conflation of weapon with body immediately grabs the viewer’s attention, while the aesthetic style of the poster allows it to blend in seamlessly with popular concert and film posters produced in the West during the same era. Consequently, Perez’s poster would have been more palatable internationally than the often didactic posters produced by the Soviet Union, helping OSPAAAL to successfully, and perhaps more covertly, spread Cuba’s anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist ideology.

While the vivid reds and oranges found in a number of the designs on display served in part to evoke the feeling of an arid Middle Eastern / North African landscape, they also suggested a sense of vitality and urgency in these anti-imperialist movements of the Cold War Era. This urgency was further reflected in the posters’ slogans. Another 1978 design by Rafael Enriquez, for example, proclaims ‘Independence or Genocide’ in support of Western Sahara’s movement against Moroccan rule, while Rolando Cordoba’s composition from the same year declares ‘Unity is Victory’ for Lebanon. The multilingual character of OSPAAAL’s products accentuate the organization’s commitment to international solidarity: all of the posters’ slogans are rendered in Spanish, Arabic, French and English. Importantly, these texts were almost always printed in equally sized font, suggesting that the struggle for liberation should ultimately be a shared one, and no single language, or group of people, should be privileged over another.

In surveying the posters exhibited at Histories Absolved, it became evident that one theme remained constant throughout OSPAAAL’s work regardless of the posters’ various aesthetic influences: OSPAAAL does not shy away from embracing armed struggle as a means of resistance to oppressive power. As such, OSPAAAL’s artwork can certainly be interpreted as propagandistic. It frequently portrays men and women holding firearms, and the organization’s logo itself is comprised of a globe balanced on a human hand clenching a gun. The posters seem to assert that liberation cannot be achieved without some form of armed struggle, an idea that was shared among many prominent intellectuals and artists involved in national liberation movements in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. The juxtaposition of images of weapons (guns, grenades, chains) with bright, eye-catching colours served to rouse the viewer’s emotions and inspire immediate action, potentially at the expense of deeper contemplation. These posters cannot, after all, offer any guidance for what should take place after a revolution occurs. Still, OSPAAAL’s posters are unique in the way that they speak to the energy and excitement spreading throughout the Third World during a period of large-scale decolonization, as revolutionaries risked their lives in an effort to change their societies. Through aestheticizing violence, these designs act as a kind of visual resistance to cultural occupation, while also working to incite subjugated peoples and their international allies to rise up in defense of humanity and fight for freedom.

Throughout the five-week run of Histories Absolved, guest speakers and community workshops were also organized to supplement the experience of the exhibit. On the opening day of the show, Self Help Graphics & Art – a beloved Los Angeles-based non-profit arts organization – offered a free printmaking workshop for attendees to create their own posters inspired by those on display. The following week, scholar, activist, and author Chris Dixon presented a lecture on the important historical and ideological connections between grassroots organizing in the United States and abroad. These events helped turn Histories Absolved from a place of quiet reflection to a place of dynamic and active engagement, one which inspired viewers to consider a subjectivity outside of their own and to place current products of visual dissent, whether they be posters, graffiti, or hashtags on social media, within a larger historical discourse.

While the subject of these posters has a particular currency in the context of the United States’ ongoing ‘War on Terror’, Daulatzai’s curatorial statement reminds attendees that independence movements in the Muslim Third World and Latino-Muslim solidarity both have over a century-long history. Daulatzai references the writing of José Martí to reveal this continuing legacy, noting that in 1893, Martí declared “We are all Moors!” in support of the Berber community’s resistance against Spanish rulership in Northern Morocco. Martí’s writing would go on to become a major influence on Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution, inspiring the transcontinental support Cuba provided – and continues to provide – to other nations struggling against imperialism. By elegantly linking the struggles of the past to those of the present and connecting domestic oppressions to international ones, Histories Absolved considered the interconnected forces that shape the world and suggests we still have much to learn if we seek to create an egalitarian society.

In the wake of the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, as mass protests against police brutality have swept across the United States, Histories Absolved was particularly timely. It asked us to consider the role of art in the larger context of political struggle, and to draw connections between racial, economic, and gendered oppressions in the United States with the ongoing violence exerted by war, occupation, and American expansionism abroad. As debates over the efficacy of declaring ‘solidarity’ or ‘ally-ship’ with different struggles continue to take shape, Histories Absolved returns us to a radical past and asks us what we might gain from looking to the international solidarity movements of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s for inspiration. More than that, it encourages us to carry the revolutionary spirit embodied by these Cuban artists towards a just future.