Cuban Gods

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Although the term propaganda has taken on a negative connotation in the United States, the meaning of the word is more benign elsewhere on the planet. The Institute for Propaganda Analysis defines propaganda as “…the expression of opinions or actions carried out deliberately by individuals or groups with a view to influencing the opinions or actions of other individuals or groups for predetermined ends and through psychological manipulations.” In my research regarding propaganda and visual art, I have found that in an international sense, the word is an umbrella term that encompasses any premeditated persuasion that finds its form through the conduit of material culture. Books, articles, essays, billboards, posters, paintings, sculpture, decorative art, theater, and so on can all be propagandistic if an ideological agenda is the basis of their raison d’être.

Perhaps the word in American English that most closely resembles the coloring of propaganda elsewhere would be advertisement. Certainly we do not like to think about the “psychological manipulation” that is prevalent in advertising, but the genre is one of the best examples of an operational contemporary form of propaganda in the US (think: Coca-Cola red). Americans tend not to object to an entity advertising a product; propaganda is simply the sale of a system of ideas, rather than the sale of a product (although products can also push ideological agendas). The Hope poster that circulated during Obama’s run for presidency is an example of an American political propagandistic approach, and it was successful in becoming a positive emblem of change, rather than being rejected as “psychological manipulation.” The Hope poster is not America’s only act of visual political propaganda. In fact, post-World War II America sought to emulate the quality and output of Latin America’s propaganda poster machine.

In this light, I would like to look at poster propaganda used by radical regimes in mid 20th century Cuba to mobilize popular support for the revolutionary cause, and subsequently the new Communist state. These images are guided in no small part by the legacy of ideological advertisement that precedes them in religious, monarchical, and capitalist iconography. An interesting thing to consider is how revolutionary regimes, like those found in Cuba and Soviet Russia, aggressively utilized visual propaganda for anti-establishment causes, and how that zeal transformed from a revolutionary plea, to a heavy-handed purveyor of thought-control in its own right. The appropriation of religious iconographic tools by secular interests is not a simple process wherein the state replaces the image of a god and inserts the image of a charismatic political leader. Rather than always posing a counterpoint to religion, communist Cuba sometimes enlisted Christ as an ally. Secular interests also began to use the proletariat itself for the subject of the central icon— parallel to the use of the fashion model in advertising. Although it employed well-trodden tactics of visual propaganda, Cuba always managed to alter these conventions in meaningful ways, developing its own unique graphic style.

ImageCuban propaganda posters maintained a strong circulation from 1959, the year of Castro’s

Imageentrance, until as recently as 1991, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Three organizations were responsible for most of the work: the Communist Party printing department (EP), the Cuban Institute of Cinematic Art and Industry (ICAIC) and the Organization in Solidarity with the People of Africa, Asia and Latin America (OSPAAAL). The artist Alfredo Rostgaard was a consistent contributor to ICAIC and the art director of OSPAAAL from 1960-1975; he produced both Radiant Ché and Guerilla Christ (Figs. 5-6). These two works simultaneously embody an acknowledgement of and a turn away from the old religion, and also an embrace of a new kind of spiritual leader. Rostgaard’s painterly style in Guerilla Christ employs a Byzantine flatness, arousing thoughts of outdated, inefficient bureaucracies, while at the same time stoking nostalgic sympathies for a traditional martyr.

His 1969 poster, Radiant Ché is an adaptation of the 1968 photo by Alberto Korda, Guerrillero Heroico, which would go on to become one of the most revered images in popular culture; however, Rostgaard emphasizes the spiritual quality of Ché Guevara’s image even more than the original photo did. In the photo, David Kunzle has observed a “flattened halo,” and I would add that the flowing hair and upward gaze also bears a certain Christ-like similarity. However, in Rostgaard’s graphic rendering, a prismatic spectrum of color emanates from the star at the center of Ché’s head; invoking a saintly light and also an all-knowing third eye. The pop-colors cast a light that is mostly flat, interrupted only toward the bottom of the image, where a hint of rolling smoke is illuminated by the rainbow of light radiating from Ché’s body. The smoke operates as a testament to the realness of the Ché’s light, but also as a reference to a regime intent on rising above the incineration of the bygone traditional authority structure. Even the nature of the rainbow, where a range of colors are represented democratically on the color plane, could be seen as a graphic metaphor for the hope for equal rights for diverse groups including women and black Cubans. Rostgaard’s poster captures the essence of Cuba in the 1960’s: tenuously connected to a long-standing heritage and also anticipating a future that looked bright for International communism. Image

Also done in 1969, Rostgaard’s Guerilla Christ is a visualization of a quote by Colombian revolutionary, Camilo Torres, a Catholic priest who left the church to become a member of the Marxist National Liberation Army (ELN) and was killed in 1966 in an offensive strike against the Colombian government. Torres said, “If Jesus was alive today, he would be a guerrillero.” Rostgaard’s Jesus wears army green and has a rifle slung over his shoulder; he is caught in quarter-profile and looks out stingingly toward the viewer. The poster exploits the emotional appeal of the martyrdom of Jesus, and shows that the deep-seeded visual traditions of Roman Catholicism in Cuba, although it was officially an atheist state, were still strong motivators for popular support. The visual rhetoric of Catholicism gave moral weight to the revolutionary movement. In effect, by representing Jesus as a guerrilla fighter and invoking the word of Torres, Rostgaard is pushing the idea that Jesus himself would revolt against the corrupted forces of both Catholicism and Batista to join a movement “for the people,” simply because it was the right thing to do. Converting the sacred prophet of Christianity and enlisting them as a force on the side of a revolution that aims to destroy Christianity as an organized religion is no small task. The complex play of group psychology and visuality in art are strong weapons in the arsenal of the ideological shift. Screen shot 2014-02-27 at 9.42.21 PM

1. R. Hart Phillips. “The Future of American Propaganda in Latin America.” The Public Opinion Quarterly 9, no. 3 (Autumn 1945): 305–312.

2. Victoria E. Bonnell. Iconography of Power: Soviet Political Posters Under Lenin and Stalin. University of California Press, 1999.

3. David Kunzle. Ché Guevara: Icon, Myth, and Message. University of California Los Angeles, Fowler, 1997.

4. “Christ Guerrilla – Alfredo Rostgaard – 1969.” International Institute of Social History. Accessed February 25, 2014. http://www.iisg.nl/exhibitions/chairman/cub19.php.

Featured Img: http://www.vidadelatinos.com/article/vintage-cuban-posters

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