Our Struggle is Your Struggle:
This page reflects an exhibition that was to be hosted by Poster House in New York April 25-November 3, 2024.
The following is the introductory text and pull quotes. Captions for sample posters above at bottom of page.
This exhibition displays posters supporting solidarity with anti-imperialism, national liberation, and other issues and movements frequently marginalized in Western media. Most were produced during the turbulent 1960s and 1970s, when the increasingly successful U.S. civil rights and antiwar movements mirrored a post-war geopolitical turnover in which nations that were defined as part of the “underdeveloped third world” (today termed as the “Global South” or “developing nations”) shed their colonial legacies and sought new ones. Two of the three most powerful countries on earth—the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China—were socialist or communist, and a distinct sense of change filled the air. This was a time that saw the emergence of second-wave feminism, the environmental movement, and the struggle for gay rights. After two decades of dormancy, poster art as an expression of popular culture exploded in the mid-1960s.
These posters are of the type generally described as “propaganda,” an often-derogatory term shaped by who produces them, the intended audience, and the messaging. These posters were designed, printed, and distributed by a hybrid of government agencies and nominally “independent” organizations with Cuban or Soviet Union government backing with similar goals, namely to act as a counterpoint to the politics of the West. The audience was largely young people, a swollen demographic bubble from the post-World War II baby boom.
What makes these complex and special as propaganda artifacts is that despite being produced by governmental or affiliated agencies, their messages and style resonated strongly with those expressed by grassroots and independent organizations. Almost every country represented in these posters was once a part of a European or U.S. empire, and in many cases is still in internal conflict over that historical distortion. Posters about the United States touch on its long involvement in foreign wars (Viet Nam, Korea), invasions and punitive policies (Grenada, Cuba), and unresolved colonial legacy (Puerto Rico), as well as domestic struggles (Angela Davis and the Black Panther Party). Others highlight support for social justice and human rights in far-flung nations. Cuba no longer produces the robust body of graphic work it did during the “golden age” of the 1970s and 1980s, but it is hard to understate the profound influence of these posters on a whole generation of activist graphic artists. These issues and images remain profoundly relevant today.
For many years, the Cuban revolution and its struggle to develop a socialist nation under the heel of the U.S. government inspired people all over the world. The Cuban publishers here include OSPAAAL (the Organization in Solidarity with the Peoples of Africa, Asia, and Latin America) and OCLAE (Continental Organization of Latin American and Caribbean Students). One poster displayed in this exhibition was issued by Comité Organizador, the host committee for the 11th World Festival of Students in Cuba. Another was printed by the Cuban Committee for the Liberation of Angela Davis—both under the auspices of Editora Politica, the publishing arm of the Cuban Communist Party.
OSPAAAL was officially a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) recognized by the United Nations. Based in Havana, its mission was ideologically aligned with that of the Cuban government and was supported as a global extension of its internationalism led by four representatives from each of the three continents. Starting in 1967 it published Tricontinental magazine, with a circulation of 30,000 copies in four languages (English, Spanish, French, and Arabic) and mailed to 87 countries. Inserted into most issues were the posters on view here, establishing the world’s most effective international poster distribution system. Although some posters were limited edition screenprints, those mailed out were offset on thin paper. The powerful graphics and potent messaging in multiple languages made these posters instantly accessible to a wide audience. OSPAAAL closed in 2019.
OCLAE has been based in Cuba since its formation in 1966 and mobilizes student movement activities in 22 countries. While little is known about the distribution method of these posters, the lack of folds indicates that they were mailed in tubes or bundles.
The non-Cuban publisher represented is the IUS (International Union of Students), an association of university student organizations in 112 countries. Based in Prague, Czechoslovakia, the IUS represented the Soviet Union’s interests in geopolitical struggles after World War II, until the last gasp of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union beginning in the late 1990s. Like Cuba, the Soviet Union positioned itself as defending those struggling against the crush of colonialism (despite itself having ulterior interests in global influence) and the excesses of capitalism. IUS influence on world youth was cause for alarm to the West—the United States National Student Association withdrew from the IUS in 1948, and, by 1952, the CIA subsidized the NSA. Britain’s secret propaganda unit also published at least one fake IUS poster with an altered, anti-China message. The distribution methods for these posters are undocumented.
Although most of the IUS posters are by anonymous designers, almost all the Cuban posters are by known artists, reflecting a pride in authorship for “propaganda.” In many ways the production of these posters during this period is similar to the U.S. 1930’s Federal Arts Project and the Works Progress Administration—artists getting paid to make public art about causes in which they believed. Refreshingly, in terms of design, all but one of these posters avoid mimicking the socialist realism typical of Soviet and Chinese propaganda.
Pull quotes for display
“Solidarity is not charity, but mutual aid in pursuit of shared objectives.”
“Unlike any other straight propaganda art I know of.”
“…the purpose of the political poster in Cuba is not simply to build morale. It is to raise and complicate consciousness.”
“When you, Comrade Fidel, said that our cause is your cause, I know that that sentiment came from the bottom of your heart.”
“The Cuban posters…brought back by Venceremos Brigadistas from a tiny country in transition taught us profoundly about liberation efforts around the world.”
“These posters created a symbolic visual language that was immediately accessible.”
Return to Docs Populi / Documents for the Public page last revised 2/27/2024