Voices of the People
“This art is an invitation to dream, to imagine a new country,” says David Craven, curator at the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, NM, and professor of art and art history at the University of New Mexico. On September 8, 2006, Craven unveiled a unique presentation of Latin American poster art. More than a hundred striking images from thirteen Latin American countries and the United States are on display, many for the first time.
This inaugural exhibition focuses on themes of solidarity, self-determination, human rights, revolution, and culture. The posters date from the late 1950s to the mid-1990s, with the majority originating in Chile, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. The images displayed are not only history: a moment in time to contemplate but through the decades they have influenced new struggles for human rights and continue to have contemporary pertinence. Posters created in Vietnam during the sixties and seventies are rich in symbolism and technique derived from Latin American artists, and fresh, new examples are seen among the proliferating groups of artists against war here in the United States and Canada. The streets of Baghdad are plastered with handbills of anti-war sentiment. Wherever ordinary people are suppressed and a concerted effort made to silence their voices, protests squeeze through policy cracks and rise in art, poetry and prose, and music.
In the early 1980s, Craven traveled to Nicaragua to see the Sandinista cultural programs in action. Following the “Revolution of Poets,” graffiti and posters abounded. They forged a new language of the people through the use of brash color, vivid, suggestive imagery, and understated text. These “voices of the people” influenced the democratization of a culture.
Probably the most sustained and organized effort to establish a school of poster art in Latin America was in Cuba after Fidel came to power in 1959. Most of these posters used hand-cut silkscreen stencils, mixed media techniques, and photo offset reproduction. Generally, between 200 and 1,500 copies of each were printed. Castro’s long-term government has allowed Cuban artists the time and support to develop their genre to a remarkable degree.
While at first glance some images may seem to be purely one-dimensional, political propaganda, in many instances nothing could be further from the truth. These are not posters made on the fly. They are a sophisticated blend of ideas, imagination, and color use that influenced artists throughout the Americas; they are a multi-layered chorus of grassroots expression. There is no doubt that this artistic tradition contributed to the psychedelic images of the counterculture in the United States, for example, and to the many posters protesting the Vietnam War. (See the exhibition piece titled Vietnam Aztlán (1973) by prominent U.S. artist Malaquias Montoya.).
César Chávez’ United Farm Workers’ movement provided a significant moment for the genre in the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Like seeds to the wind, images of Ché and Our Lady of Guadalupe, among others, spread messages of spirituality and power to the people through theater, poetry readings, and posters by artists such as Yolanda López, Rupert Garcia, and Ester Hernández.
Craven points out that Latin American posters “put little emphasis on the negative: they evoke longing for a better life, for inclusion, and for dignity.” Those featuring Ché Guevara, one of the most iconic images of our time, are good examples. “The majority of them play off the famous Alberto Korda photograph taken of Ché in March 1960,” continues Craven, “Ché’s gaze is direct, yet it soars beyond us. He appears tough, resolved, but also visionary.” It is not a threatening image — there is no gun, no gore, no violence. Compare this with such familiar film posters as those featuring Silvester Stallone as Rambo and the differences are striking. Unlike contemporary marketing pieces, Latin American poster art is not an airbrushed representation of a celebrity or commodity. Instead, they motivate through personal appeal: “This is about you — your life, your family, yourcountry.”
At the height of its proliferation, poster art hammered at the borders of repression and discrimination. Posters such as Raúl Martínez González’ “Lucía” (1968), inspired by one of the first great feminist films, revolutionized fundamental new roles for women. Its bold, flat, photographic images of actresses and rich, tropical colors speak of the Caribbean, echo Andy Warhol, and unite a rising international concern about women’s rights. Again, the images are positive incarnations of the possible; the purpose is to lift the heart, to reach for the dream.
While “wandering and wondering across the Americas from 125th Street and Broadway in New York to the most somber esquinas of Buenos Aires,” Ilan Stavans, professor of Latino culture at Amherst College, author and critic, became captivated by Latin American poster art.
“I was intrigued by the hundreds of posters displayed everywhere on the streets of El Salvador in the early nineties,” he says. During a meeting at the hacienda of a wealthy El Salvadoran entrepreneur — a passionate collector of posters representing diverse nations and ideologies — his host snapped on a spotlight and carefully spread his collection along the surface of a massive dining room table. “What my eyes took in left a lasting impression,” Stavans explains. There were compelling images by both legendary and anonymous artists “addressing agriculture, imperialism, and education; depictions of Omar Torrijos, Augusto César Sandino, Nelson Mandela, Evita Perón, Mao Tze-Dong, Fidel Castro, and especially Ernesto ‘Ché’ Guevara.” A poster of Jesus Christ portrayed as a guerrilla fighter abutted one vilifying Richard Nixon. There were José Martí, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Neruda, and Marilyn Monroe. Weapons and warriors, saints and sinners. Bold colors and coded messages emanated from striking symbols. Although many rendered the US government unfavorably, stylistically they drew heavily from the in-your-face commentary of US pop culture. Stavans was dazzled. Sipping rare tequila, his host mused, “Politics is always messy, but the art that comes out of it is pure!”
The exhibit in Albuquerque this fall spans the “golden age of posters.” Each has a complex back-story, a subtext of human concerns arising in the melancholy of a historic moment. They reflect a struggle in process, not a static past but a progression and evolution of humanity. Taken as a whole, these posters unite in a rich, complex a capella harmony — a narration of people’s yearning for improved lives. They set those voices free.
The National Hispanic Cultural Center, 1701 4th SW, Albuquerque, NM, is dedicated to the study, advancement, and presentation of Hispanic culture, arts, and humanities. It provides a window for visitors to learn about Hispanic culture throughout the world. The Latin American Poster Art Exhibition runs through March 4, 2007. More information can be found at www.nhccnm.org, or call 505-246-2261.
Latin American Posters: Public Aesthetics and Mass Politics, a volume to accompany the exhibit, is now available. It is illustrated with more than 100 poster images documenting four decades of Latin American social and political history during a time of widespread crisis and unrest. Edited by Russ Davidson, with essays by David Craven, Russ Davidson, Teresa Eckmann, Tere Romo, and Ilan Stavans. Published by Museum of New Mexico Press.
All images appear courtesy of the Sam L. Slick Collection of Latin American and Iberian Posters at the University of New Mexico University Libraries
Luis Belaguer, “Jornada continental de apoyo a Viet Nam, Cambodia y Laos, 15 a 21 de octubre” (Internacional Day in Support of Viet Nam, Cambodia, and Laos, October 15-21), Cuba, OCLAE, Organización Continental Latinoamericana de Estudiantes, 1969, offset lithograph, 63 x 42 cm., Sam L. Slick Collection of Latin American and Iberian Posters
Malaquias Montoya, “Vietnam Aztlán”, United States of America, 1973, offset lithograph from serigraph, 59.4 x 36 cm., National Hispanic Cultural Center, Art Museum.
Antonio Martorell, “Betances”, Puerto Rico, Taller Alacrán, 1970, serigraph, 90 x 48 cm., Sam L. Slick Collection of Latin American and Iberian Posters
Raúl Martínez González, “Lucía”, Cuba, ICAIC, Instituto Cubano de Arte e Industria Cinematográfica, 1968, serigraph, 76.5 x 51 cm., Sam L. Slick Collection of Latin American and Iberian Prints.
Rosemary Carstens has been a freelance writer for fifteen years, focusing on writing about health, art, books, film, food, and adventure travel. She has visited most of the remote regions of the world and is the author of Dream Rider: Roadmap to an Adventurous Life (Black Lightning Press 2003), a book about women and motorcycling, and co-author of Sustaining Thought: 30 Years of Cookery at the School of American Research ( 2006). Carstens lives in Longmont, Colorado, with her most recent ride, the Road Goddess, a classic Yamaha Virago 1100.
Works by Rosemary Carstens
Art: Voices of the People