“I have to go before it changes!” is an exclamation I’ve heard a lot from Seattleites lately. This in regards to Cuba and the latest news about improved relations with the U.S. While it’s not entirely too late to be a before-and-after witness, the truth is Havana has already changed, dramatically. I first went to Cuba on an AIGA exchange program in 2006 and visited four more times since, most recently in January (with permission from the U.S. Treasury Department) to interview graphic designers as part of an on-going project.
Every time I go I see progress—a greater political openness and a “creeping capitalism” among the changes. This time my Cuban friends clearly felt much freer to chat about subjects I wouldn’t have dared to bring up in the past, especially not in public. There’s a renewed energy in the streets, more tourists than ever, a wave of small business entrepreneurship, and food! Carts with healthy looking vegetables throughout old Havana, plus a wave of new restaurants. This in a city where before I felt lucky to stumble on a neighborhood pizzeria, aka a shady-looking, barred window into someone’s living room proffering cheap “Cuban pizzas”—a hunk of baked bread with a spoonful of tomato-ish sauce and a sprinkle of questionable cheese.
But the changes I’ve paid particular attention to have occurred within Havana’s design community. In 2007 I organized an exhibition, The Seattle-Havana Poster Show, which travelled to both cities. This exchange brought me close to a group of poster makers, primarily younger Cuban designers, and it’s through their growth that I’ve tracked concrete changes in their society, both economic and political.
From a low point in the early 1990s, when the loss of financial support from the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. embargo combined to leave Cubans near starvation (for sure there’s no need for posters when your next meal is in doubt), the tradition of Cuban poster design has rebounded. It’s heartening to see the resilience and purposefulness of a core group of designers who magnify each other’s efforts by acting as one another’s mentors, educators, provocateurs and cheerleaders. The change I’ve witnessed has been a wholesale resuscitation of the Cuban poster in a manner that honors the past and is fully modern. Ernest political posters of their golden era are gone. Humor and camaraderie are the hallmarks of the new age, as evidenced by the twice-annual gathering of Havana poster artists for their not-at-all exclusive club CACa (Club de Amigos de Carteles). There, posters are laid out on the floor, beer is consumed, good-natured insults fly, and ultimately peers crown the best poster of the lot. A rough and tumble mini-democracy, or at least a rowdy beauty contest.
There’s much more to say, and more to read here in an article about current Cuban poster design by Chelsea Bolan, a writer I travelled with to help document the trip. You’ll be able to see some of the posters we talk about first-hand at an upcoming Seattle-Havana-Tehran poster show. Yep, Tehran, which is a whole other story.
Photography by Daniel R. Smith.