The Seatle-Havana Poster Show

July 14, 2007

I love bridges. I support all kind of actions that connect people, specially those who share common passions as poster design. Here is a compilation of thoughts from the curators of the Seattle-Havana Poster Show. A great example of the things that Cubans and Americans should do in order to solve 50 years of conflicts.

Why Seattle and Havana?

The first time I traveled to Havana, I was inspired by the great work of Cuban artists, designers and curators I met, especially given their very limited means. The U.S. is a huge presence in Cuban life; our embargo exacerbates their poverty while ubiquitous government propaganda rails against Bush and the U.S. Despite that, I was warmly greeted by everyone I met. Cubans separate the personal from the political, and I felt responsible for countering the negative images of America and Americans presented in the propaganda. My interactions became a kind of small-scale ambassadorship. Knowing that the country is loaded with talent unrecognized in the U.S., and that anything I did would make a difference on a personal level, I felt empowered to act. As I met designers and toured print shops in Havana, the quality and inventiveness of Cuban silkscreen poster stood out. It recalled the popularity—really the revival of—the same medium in Seattle and the idea of a joint show took root. People in both cities became excited by the possibility and donated their valuable time and expertise to make this show a reality.

The intention of this exhibit is not just to provide a well-deserved showcase for Seattle and Havana designers, but to engage our two cities in a constructive dialog. The more I travel, the more I see that individuals have the capacity to share something valuable, intangible but necessary, between estranged communities. The simple act of sharing creates a ripple effect that cannot be overestimated. One of my goals is that the Seattle and Havana designers not only to talk to each other, but to use their work to start a deeper conversation. Bumbershoot is the perfect initial venue for this show—our city will see it, maybe by accident, and perhaps it will inspire others. I’m proud to say that the show will travel to Havana next year and hang at el Centro de Desarrollo de las Artes Visuales (CDAV). In this recently renovated contemporary art space prominently located in the heart of Havana Vieja (Old Havana), the exhibit will be accessible to everyone, locals and tourists alike. All of the Seattle posters in this exhibit have been donated by the individual designers and will remain in Cuba, a significant gift to CDAV’s permanent poster collection and the people of Havana from the city of Seattle.

Daniel R. Smith
Seattle, USA, July 2007

A Tale of Two Cities

I’ve spent the last decade focusing myopically on the visual presentation of the Pacific Northwest music scene—beginning in the early ‘90s going to shows at the OK Hotel, Off Ramp and RKCNDY and seeing these fabulous 11×17” Xerox’d flyers on telephone poles. By 1994, a city-wide poster ban held Seattle in its ugly grip, but similar to other situations of oppression, some beauty came of it. For Seattle, it was the explosion of screen-printed posters. Flyers may have been banned on city telephone poles, but cafes and stores would often hang them in their windows, especially if they were nice and pretty and screen printed. Clubs like Moe’s Mo’Roc’N’café began commissioning screen printed posters for many of their shows. The stalwarts of the poster scene—Art Chantry, Jeff Kleinsmith, and a slew of comics artists, graphic designers, illustrators, and others, flooded in to fill the need for poster art, creating thousands of beautiful images—poster designs which oftentimes eclipsed the bands they purported to advertise. These days, we have global poster communities, like Gigposters.com, where you can see thousands upon thousands of show posters from as many artists.

For a decade prior to this phenomenon, Seattle’s poster scene was thriving, innovating, and evolving. The city’s poster designers today pull from that lengthy, historic, local tradition and simultaneously absorb all of the cool ass shit that is happening with posters all over the world. There are more poster designers actively creating amazing work in Seattle at this very moment than in the last century combined.
When Daniel Smith invited me to co-curate this exhibition with him, I was excited about the possibilities of comparing a city with as vibrant a poster scene as Seattle’s with one that is legendary in the same respect. I was curious as to what we would find when comparing not only the visuals from Seattle and Havana, but deeper questions as well: How have these two rich traditions evolved? What are the technological limitations associated with screen printing between the two cities? What types of events are posters created for? What are the standard poster sizes? Where is inspiration drawn from? Are there traceable stylistic vectors within each city or perhaps even between? What is the municipal attitude toward posters in public spaces?

Would we see more differences or more similarities? The answers to many of these questions were surprising, making me realize that while residents of Seattle/Havana have heard tales of Havana/Seattle (and a select few perhaps have been there), most people knew very little beyond Ché and the Space Needle. The Seattle-Havana Poster Show on the most basic level is an illuminating visual art exhibition, but on a deeper plane it plays an ambassadorial role in bringing two geographically disparate cities just a tiny bit closer. Huzzah.

Jacob McMurray
Seattle, USA, July 2007

The Cuban Poster: Recent Past and Present

The remote past of the Cuban poster—both the colonial and republican periods—remains forgotten. Due to the absence of a complete historiography, many consider the so-called “golden period” from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s the only interesting moment of that form of expression. It was then that the mobilizing urgency of the young Revolution granted enormous importance to graphic advertising. Posters became a key sector of the visual arts, so much that it was described as “the art of the Revolution.” Later, with the exhaustion of topics, limited technical resources, emigration and changes in the professional profiles of many artists, Cuban poster production was substantially impaired. The economic crisis of the 1990s* reduced the quality and quantity of posters even further, and thus we arrive at the present moment.

Today the majority of posters—due to their restricted print runs and limited places for posting—are chamber pieces rather than street pieces. Moreover, those of the best quality are made by young graduates of the Higher Institute of Industrial Design (I.S.D.I.), who only create posters at the request of cultural institutions or contest callings such as those organized by el Comité Prográfica Cubana (the Cuban Prographics Committee), made up of the country’s most prestigious designers. Another current trend for Cuban posters is work specifically conceived for art exhibitions. Because of the very personal messages their creators convey through them and also because of their destination—art galleries—these posters might be considered examples of a new artistic displine. They display varied content and questionings of thorny economic and social issues that seldom appear in institutional graphics. These works are often polysemous, a feature that characterizes the whole of “new Cuban art.” Though conceived digitally, they embrace the esthetics that characterize the handmade, silkscreened posters of the early years of the Revolution: a limited and contrasting range of flat colors, hard edges, simple typography and a fondness for symbol. This seems to indicate that after a period of bewilderment, experimentation, and exploration of new technologies, our designers have learned the validity of what was defined in that recent past as an element of our identity, and now strive to recover it.

Pedro Contreras Suárez

La Habana, May 2006

[* Referred to as “the special period.” A particularly harsh time economically for Cubans following the collapse of the Soviet Union, formally a significant source of financial aid for them. D.S.]

A New Opportunity for Today’s Cuban Poster

There is no point in regretting that the glorious days of the Cuban poster—the so-called “golden age” of the ’60s and ’70s—are now nothing but a historical reference, lacking the continuity they deserved. Many things happened in Cuba and in the world that made the poster lose relevance as an element of communication in public spaces. Cuban posters today are not “a cry on the wall” (as an old master defined them) but a commentary, a necessary voice in the multiple dialogue of contemporary culture. Our economic circumstances, combined with the ignorant approach to communications processes by many bureaucrats, have gradually reduced the poster to a modest function we must nevertheless defend. We have achieved something in the last 10 years and this exhibition is evidence of it.

I have never been to Seattle. The cities I know in the United States are on the East Coast or in the Midwest, so I have not even approached the life, the streets, the inhabitants of your city. I don’t know how much we have in common, but the passion for posters of some graphic artists from Seattle and Havana seems to be something that unites us strongly.

The Seattle-Havana Poster Show is probably the first poster exhibition between two cities of the United States and Cuba. We must be proud of that, and we must thank Daniel Smith and his colleagues and friends for their tremendous energy to turn a simple conversation held several months ago into the reality that the Seattle public may enjoy today. In the future, the public from Havana will have the same opportunity.

To be able to place our posters beside those of the Seattle designers and artists is a valuable opportunity for the Cuban designers. I take the liberty of writing here on their behalf, and with great respect for a master like Muñoz Bachs, whom we all admire enormously. By sharing our visions, our experiences with silkscreen and our ways of expression with the public and colleagues from Seattle we are contributing to break stereotypes, prejudices and limitations that separate us much more than the thousands of kilometers of geographic distance between both cities.

Pepe Menéndez

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