The roots of the Cuban poster traditionCuba 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 revolutionThe 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 styleOne 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 Viet 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 screenprinted posters were cut by hand, even many of the ones that "look" like large-dot photostencils.The current situationEver 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. The web-based sales catalog of Barnes and Noble (a major U.S. bookseller) displays over 30 digitally-reproduced "Cuban posters," many originally created by OSPAAAL and ICAIC. With the exception of the Cuba Poster Project and the Center for Cuban Studies, I have never heard of a situation where sales of originals or reproductions were done with the authorization of the producing artist or agency, not to mention arrangements for compensation.
The task aheadPosters 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. Lincoln Cushing, Docs Populi - Documents for the Public firstname.lastname@example.org