On December 1, Stony Brook’s Zuccaire Gallery began hosting the “Printing Solidarity: Transcontinental Graphics from Cuba” exhibition, which features more than 60 printed works designed by the People’s Solidarity Organization of Asia, Africa and Latin America (OSPAAAL). Created in Havana in the 1960s and 1970s, the posters use bold flat colors, geometric patterns and humor to create global solidarity against imperialism.
Although the OSPAAAL posters cover a range of different revolutionary movements, these posters essentially communicate with each other through an exchange and manipulation of ideas, images and iconography. The more you look at a piece, the more you realize how much went into creating it. When I walked through the big door of the Zuccaire gallery, I was excited to go to “Printing Solidarity” so I could finally see all the works I had learned about in my art history class.
The opening event included a guest lecture by Scott Starrett: “Revolutionary Aesthetics: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Political Design”. Starrett is the founder of Tandem, a communications design firm specializing in designing media for different social and political advocacy groups to “advance the greater good.” Many of Tandem’s projects, such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s well-known campaign, use simple patterns and bold colors like the “Printing Solidarity” posters. However, when I first sat down at his talk, I was still curious how Starrett could relate a modern design firm to groundbreaking 1960s posters.
Near the start of Starrett’s lecture, a slide listed a series of words: “Fact, truth, community, history, narrative…propaganda…revolution.” Starrett explained that these words fall on a spectrum and gradually blend into each other. As an example, he told us to think about the Nike logo. Their business logo can be seen as a form of propaganda to encourage consumers to buy their products, or it can serve as motivation, reminding people to “Just Do It”. In the same way, OSPAAAL’s posters both encourage resistance to injustice – sometimes with violence if necessary – and remind viewers of the cultural spirit of the 1960s, strengthening solidarity between regions.
Today, if people see political or social art that does not align with their core belief systems, they are quick to dismiss it not only as fake, but also as underdeveloped. More often than not, even if we don’t agree with something, we can still learn a lot about its connections, its process, and its spirit. Many OSPAAAL posters depicted guns, which may be alarming, but the more I looked at them, the more I saw them as a symbol of resistance against imperialism. Regardless of the topic, it is highly commendable that artworks can create empathy with a global audience.
Starrett’s lecture revolved around the concept that almost everything, consciously and unconsciously, takes influence and communicates with materials from the past. In one of Tandem’s Green New Deal posters, a neoclassical statue of a goddess features prominently in the foreground. The poster appears to represent a statue of Soviet Socialist Realism, but it could also be reminiscent of Greek Hellenistic sculpture. Starrett said he wanted the poster to spark a conversation about what the public means to the Green New Deal. Similarly, OSPAAAL artists also refer to the past, often appropriating images from other cultures or other artists.
“Solidarity Printing” taught me that originality isn’t dead — our ideas just become more refined and complex.
Starrett also took the time to explain the process Tandem went through to design a poster for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign for US Congress. Even though Tandem’s campaign poster for AOC looks very simple, many thoughtful historical visual elements have been incorporated into the creation of the poster. Some United Farm Workers patterns and aesthetics inspired. The use of purple in the poster was meant to mirror the purple of the Brand New Congress logo. The application of yellow was linked to yellow in optimistic works like Rosie the Riveter’s iconic World War II poster.
It’s so fascinating that even the smallest details can have been carefully planned and can have a huge impact on the success of a political design. The more I study art, the more I realize that sometimes less is more, and Starret’s talk reinforces this idea. The same amount of work that goes into an extravagant piece can go into a simple piece. Looking at the “Printing Solidarity” pieces, I can imagine artists working on different designs that are simple, powerful, and understandable.
Scott Starrett’s guest lecture helped me realize that what Cuban poster artists did in the 1960s and 1970s was not just a random and lucky event. It was a prime example of a complex process that involves referencing and appropriating visual material from the past – a complex process still used today. It cannot be defined simply as a story or propaganda. They are a timeless appeal to the senses of a global, multi-generational audience. You don’t need to have a background in Cuban history or poster design to be touched by OSPAAAL posters in “Print Solidarity.” All you need is an eagerness to sit back and let those powerful images sink in.
A link to Starrett’s talk can be found here.
On February 23, 4-7 p.m., at the Zuccaire Gallery, there will be a panel on the global 1960s, followed by a panel discussion on social justice-focused activism at Stony Brook University in the 1960s -70. “Printing Solidarity: Cuba’s Tricontinental Graphics” will be open until March 12, 2022. Galerie Zuccaire is open from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. during the semester. To schedule a guided tour in February, contact [email protected]