Review: Art of Solidarity: Cuban posters for African liberation

Banque Nacional du congo 1968, By Alfredo Juan Gonzales Rostgaard. Art of Solidarity at International Slavery Museum 2017 - This is © ‘Courtesy Lincoln Cushing/ Docs Populi Archive’

Art of Solidarity: Cuban posters for African liberation, 1967-1989
International Slavery Museum
, until 18th June

Words, Julia Johnson (Messy Lines)

Think of the words “revolution” and “1960s”, and most of us think of Peace and Love. But in most of the world at the time, “revolution” meant something much more serious. Across Africa, the colonies of European empires were rising up and demanding independence, making their case by any means necessary. They may have been at war with their Imperial masters but they found a friend in Cuba, who through OSPAAAL (The Organisation in Support of the Peoples of Africa, Asia, and Latin America) supported each independence movement with equal fervour.

This support came predominantly in the form of political guidance and soldiers, but also in propaganda. For there is no denying that that’s what the posters featured in Art of Solidarity are: promotion of a clear political agenda. As you may expect from Cuba, there is no room for peaceful negotiation here. If there can be said to be a unifying theme to these works, its violence, as is testified by the recurrent imagery of guns and fists.

The art of the poster has long been acknowledged as an effective and successful means of transmitting political messages. They’re big enough for a great design, cheap and easy to produce, and can transmit their message to a wide audience by being placed anywhere. And it’s noticeable that whilst many of the posters transmit their message in small texts of multiple languages, the art is used as the true universal language, sending a message that you imagine people from any culture or class can understand.

Whatever your political views, there is no denying that these posters are striking works of art. If the purpose of propaganda is to draw attention to the political issue the artist supports, these are successful. The bold designs, clean lines and distinct use of colour make them stand out. If you saw one of these hanging up on the street, you’d take the time to stop and look at what they’re about. If you support the cause, you’d be proud to have these adorning your walls.

But it’s undeniable that our perception of the posters is coloured by the subsequent political history of each struggle. Nowhere is this truer than with the posters in support of Zimbabwean independence. If the designers had foreseen what a dictatorial mess the country would become, would they still have fought for the cause? Then of course there’s the example of Cuba itself, where these militant words of the past now seem almost meaningless in the age of thawing US relations and the increased embracing of capitalist principles.

This benefit of hindsight, however, makes this exhibition more interesting. It blends together the passion of idealism with the troubling truths of reality. Does our knowledge of the end result make the beauty of the art in any way less valid? Art of Solidarity gets you thinking about this and other questions whilst making no judgements. The posters are artefacts and storytellers of their own. The featured designers would no doubt be delighted to know that years after the historical events, their art is still making an audience question the nature of power.