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Vivid Cuban Posters Shown at Art Center

Friday October 17, 2003

The West Coast’s largest showing of Cuban Poster art, an exhibit called “One Struggle, Two Communities,” is underway at the Berkeley Art Center, highlighting the release of a new book that chronicles the island nation’s rich history of cultural and political posters. 

The book, Revolution! Cuban Poster Art, written by show curator and Berkeley resident Lincoln Cushing, is being hailed by some as the newest Buena Vista Social Club. Like the movie, the book and show are meant to showcase a rich art form well-known in Cuba but unfamiliar to many in the United States—in part due to the two countries’ less than friendly political relations. 

The show features 60 Cuban posters but also includes several Bay Area political poster artists, building what Cushing calls a “dynamic interchange.” The decision to include the two different communities, partly at the behest of the art center, also shows what Cushing calls “currency between art communities”—where ideas and styles are able to “ebb and flow” between countries without regard for political barriers. 

The posters span a time period between the mid-60s into the 1980s, and, as Cushing puts it, “are stylistically all over the map.” Themes range from baseball to Imperialism, from Japanese samurai movies to the Black Panther party. Artistically, the style is unique, fusing simplistic symbolism with complicated themes and bright pastel colors to create a captivating presence. 

Cushing explains that Cuban posters were originally produced by three main agencies: the Cuban Communist Party, the Cuban Film Institute, and the Agency For International Solidarity. 

As posters, the graphics served as propaganda tools, alerting the public to issues of concern such as the conservation of water and electricity and the war in Vietnam, and as art they livened up a country that—unlike the U.S.—is not dominated by advertising and marketing billboards and placards. 

This unique dual purpose helped to inspire at least one of the Bay Area artists in the show, Juan Fuentes, whose trips to Cuba and political involvements in the United States drew him towards posters, which he says offered the perfect blend of politics and art. 

“Posters were a way to popularize an image and not make it so singular,” he said. 

Fuentes said he graduated from San Francisco State in the early 1970s at a politically charged time during the height of the struggles in Latin America and at the beginning of the Native American Movement and the Third World Liberation Movement. 

He said that, at the time, several of his friends were involved in organizations that today might be labeled as terrorist cells, where members studied how to assemble and maintain guns to train before moving off to places like Central America to participate in the liberation struggles. Fuentes said that when he realized he might wind up dead if he went the same route, he began to recognize that his contribution was going to come through art. 

Fuentes began to volunteer his services to political groups and has since become a well-known political artist, producing posters for a wide variety of groups, several of which are at the show. 

Cushing, who himself has spent years creating political posters, was born in Cuba, where his father was stationed at the American embassy. During several of his return trips, he said, he “realized that there was a huge amount of work that hadn’t been disseminated to the American public,” inspiring him to begin collecting, cataloging and preserving the posters. 

A political activist himself, Cushing said that his push to expose the art was an attempt to help people look at Cuba with open eyes. 

“Cuba has been demonized in this country and I want people to be able to have an open mind,” said Cushing. “I’m trying to build bridges, not walls.” 

The exhibit itself is carefully assembled and well-displayed, making it very hard to pick a favorite poster. Cushing’s own pick is the first poster he ever acquired. The central image is an inverted conical straw peasant’s hat, still in the making, suspended over the South and North Vietnamese flags, which are fused into one. The strands of straw from which the hat is being woven and the threads that complete the neat meshwork pattern spell out the word “solidarity” in several languages. Completing and empowering the image is the falling bomb the hat intercepts as it hurtles toward the flags. 

The image’s simplistic style and its direct yet complex message is characteristic of many of the other posters, whose messages hit home, often with amazing force. 

The show is a worthy stop for anyone with an eye for politics or art—and especially to those who appreciate both. The book is also a must for anyone interested in the range and vitality of this little-known art form. 

The show will be up until Dec. 13 and admission is free. 

The Berkeley Art Center is located at 1275 Walnut St., tel. 644-6893. For more information see the Center’s website: Revolution! Cuban Poster Art, 132 pages, Chronicle Books, San Francisco, $19.95.