Red All Over: The Visual Language of Dissent
Neither art nor revolution thrives in a vacuum. Artists copy, adapt and transform cultural media to meet their needs. Urban youths in Paris spray-paint a commercial billboard to subvert its corporate message, Zapatista craftsmen sell cigarette lighters adorned with the image of Comandante Zero, and African-American slaves adapt the lyrics of traditional Christian hymns to support their struggle for freedom. With some detective work, it is usually possible to document the path of influence (e.g., a photo published in a magazine, a poster passed on by a friend) and reveal the vectors of dissemination. Examining these links is important to our collective cultural history, even if anonymous or uncredited works, rush deadlines, egos and historical amnesia tend to break the trail of provenance.
Cuban political posters
Cuban posters produced during the ’60s through ’80s represented an incredibly powerful body of work, reflecting both stylistic variety and political potency. Though many cities in the U.S. actively showed solidarity for Cuba (most notably Chicago, Boston and New York), San Francisco and the surrounding Bay Area appear to have the longest and deepest history in building cultural links. The exchange represented by the Havana-Bay Area axis has served as a significant source of energy and spirit for both communities. Few artists or activists at either end of this vibrant conduit escaped being touched by the creativity on the other side.
There were many ways in which the visual output of one community would appear in another. One of the publishers in Cuba, the Organization of Solidarity of the People of Asia, Africa and Latin America (OSPAAAL), distributed posters in its magazine, Tricontinental. By treating the poster as a political document rather than a sacred piece of art, they flooded the world with powerful propaganda. Occasionally, U.S. solidarity groups would rework a Cuban poster for domestic use: Ithaca, New York’s Glad Day Press, one of the first significant New Left presses, issued several posters based on Cuban art; Berkeley artist Jane Norling went to Cuba in 1972 and designed an OSPAAAL poster in solidarity with Puerto Rico; and a classic 1969 anti-Nixon poster by Luis Balaguer (See Fig. 1) reappeared in 2005 as an homage chiding the Irish prime minister for supporting the war in Iraq (See Fig. 2).
Cubans also did their share of appropriating U.S. poster images. Most notably, Black Panther artist Emory Douglas’ 1967 drawing of a mother holding her gun-toting child (See Fig. 3) inspired a similar OSPAAAL poster (See Fig. 4) the following year.
The artwork—and the revolutionary spirit behind it—has influenced a
whole generation of graphic artists. Berkeley Art Center’s 2003 exhibit
“One Struggle, Two Communities: Late 20th-Century Political Posters of
Havana, Cuba and the San Francisco Bay Area” invited printmakers from
the Asian, Black, Chicano and activist communities to reflect on that
resonance. Jane Norling put it this way in her exhibit statement:
Since those years I've pondered the role of the artist as a named individual relative to the artist’s work as it impacts society. The designer for the most part works anonymously producing items of visual communication under client/project banner—the product is what matters. The artist is named, name and person having everything to do with the artwork. Seems the terms are a function of purpose of the artwork; how well communication takes place is what matters. My most effective artwork today, as it impacts society, are political [campaign] signs, which enter the visual environment unsigned, unnamed. Curiously, they, more than any of my explicitly revolutionary artwork are, in design terms, the most direct formal line to my poster produced in Cuba 30 years ago.
Chinese posters during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR)
The GPCR (roughly 1966-1976) has been described as representing a “lost chapter” of Chinese art history because of the narrow range of officially accepted forms (few media besides posters and theater were allowed) and the view that Party politics trumped artistic creativity. There are numerous examples of artwork destroyed, academic departments dismantled, personal careers ruined, and even imprisonment and death. Yet alternate views of the GPCR recognize some of its positive contributions to art and culture, especially within the complicated trajectory of the Chinese revolution and its deep-seated class antagonisms. In spirit, many of its goals were laudable. For example, many countries struggle to keep their domestic arts production from being overwhelmed by foreign commercial media culture—even a modern Western democracy such as Canada has a national radio broadcast policy requiring that a percentage of its content be generated domestically. The state-sponsored encouragement of art-making by ordinary citizens is a democratic ideal, one fostered in the U.S. during the ’30s by the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project. And the concept that art should not be divorced from social needs and practice is a matter of long-standing debate within the art world, one hardly unique to the GPCR.
Because of their artistic orthodoxy, codified imagery and energized political tone, these posters became emblematic of the GPCR. Their iconographic style later served as a rich source for artistic and political interpretation, ranging from exploitative derivatives to clever homages. In everything from rock posters to commercial advertising, “Chinese poster style” became a recognized symbol of active revolution.
The 1978 catalog cover (See Fig. 5) for a British alternative book distributor is an excellent example. As the illustration wraps around from front to back, the people in it march into a wall—a visual critique of the perils of uncritical mass thought. Another poster from the same year by Bay Area artist Pat Ryan (See Fig. 6) illustrates how the U.S. counterculture appropriated classic GPCR imagery and icons, transforming them to reflect domestic issues. In a third poster of the same vintage, Mao rocks out, whipping up the masses (See Fig. 7)—nicely adapted from a Chinese original (See Fig. 8). A more contemporary example comes from cartoonist Kirk Anderson, who uses the vernacular of GPCR posters as “totalitarian art” to comment on George W. Bush’s government policies (See Fig. 9).
Similarly, these graphics inspired many political activists around the world, appreciating them as unique, positive depictions of disenfranchised communities building a new society. From the students making posters during the May 1968 Paris uprising to the Black Panthers in the U.S., groups outside of China paid close attention to the GPCR and its artistic output. Their imagery served as kindred cultural signifiers, reinforcing the revolutionary spirit of communities struggling for self-identification and social change.
Kathleen Cleaver, the communications secretary for the Black Panther
Party from 1967 to 1971, remembers the posters distinctly:
Because China is so far away, we saw very few posters. What was influential was a style, a Chinese style? By 1967 there was a sense that Chinese art was reaching out to the African liberation movement and to the Black liberation movement, at the same time that we were getting in touch with their art? During the Cultural Revolution, few activists and revolutionaries in the U.S. had a really clear appreciation of Chinese history—they read things that Mao wrote and they read things written about Mao. But it was the GPCR and the posters, along with other things coming out of China at the time, that were part of the ‘vibe.’ They were ubiquitous—they symbolized the height of revolution. That’s enough. We didn’t have all the details. We’ll never get all the details. (Excerpt from author interview, August 2006)
Even without all the details, the graphics of dissent leave an important trail to understanding our times, where we’ve been, as well as where we might be headed.