maggy cuesta When did the designers and artists become involved in the revolution?
félix beltrán The revolutionary initiative did not come from the artists, but from the state. The state had control over everything, and consiquently the only way to do graphic design was through the state. It was more possible for a painter to work on his own -to produce a piece of art that the state was not totaly in agreement with- but this was not the case in graphic design.
In Cuba, graphic design is based on ideas that aren't created by artists -the (sic) come directly from the institutions of the state. Through various institutins, the state absorbed those graphic designers who remained in Cuba. The Cuban poster was artistically influenced by those who controlled these institutions.
mc Were designers given style guidelines or provided with the message and images to be used in the posters?
fb There wasn't a written manual, but there were certain restrictions. The state preferred designers to use phrases taken from the speeches of government leaders, principally from Castro. This way the messages were clear, with no risks in the interpretations. As a designer in a free country, one can say no to a client - disagree, of even say "Go to hell" - but in Cuba this was not possible because the revolution and its messages were considered omnipotent and infallible. Everyone had to be subordinate to these messages. This bred a lot of paranoia. I remember one time I made an illustration of Che Guevara in brilliant yellow, and one in intermediary said that it was too carnival-like, that the color didn't reflect his symbolic importance. These intermediaries often became inflexible and overtly cautious, because of their fear that mistakes - those that were considered political mistakes - would cost them their jobs. This happened to the point that artists would discard any ideas that could provoke the government to censure them.
As an example, I made a poster, Click, which became critically acclaimed but was initially rejected because the officials felt that the letters were not large enough to communicate the message. I explained that these letters symbolised the sound one makes when turning off a light switch, that if i made them any larger it would symbolise a large sound like "CLUNK." It was not at all an easy process, and these worries brought on the pressure to produce conventional work.
mc Did the lack of freedom of expression affect the quality of work being produced?
fb Yes, although I think there were other causes that also affected the quality. One has to remember that little was expected of a country like Cuba, which was under developed and lacked a poster tradition. If these posters had appeared at the time in the streets of New York, they would have perhapse created less attention. But they were a big surprise coming from Cuba
Time was also a factor. Sometimes posters were commisioned and completed in the same day. Ideas had to be created immediately -there wasn't time to really develop them. Concepts were simple, of course, but there were always exceptions like the posters of Fernandez Reboiro, who at times created incredibly visual concepts. Type couldn't be too small since it had to be created by hand. Colors were used flatly and out of the can, and there was no room for experimenting since there was a shortage of ink. There wasn't any way to dry these posters, and many times they would stick to eachother. All these factors lead to simplicity in the work.
mc Where (sic) graffitti or other media used to convey the message of the revolution?
fb Graffitti did not have a presence, mostly because there were not enough materials. Graffitti requires paint and brushes, and the shortages didn't provide enough materials to waste. The desire and conviction to work in other media was there, just not the possibilities. Sometimes, in exeptional cases for very important events, paper would be brought in and one or two presses would be reserved and higher-quality work would be produced. The poster was the great creative force in Cuba.
mc What percentage of the Cuban population was illiterate when you started working?
fb At the time, a sufficient number. In Cuba the campaign for literacy was extensive, extraordinary. The state would ask the people to learn to read and what was provided was political material - mainly about the Soviet Union. Literacy became a kind of indoctrination, like in the Americas when the Indians were taught to read and write in order to be influenced by Christianity.
You have to understand that the time before the revolution was a time of great difficulties for Cuba - of political mistakes, social inequity, gambling, prostitution, fraud and corruption. Although I don't agree with his views, I realise that Castro's rise and popularity was largely due to this atmosphire. Before the revolution, Cuba had been under a number of dictatorships, though there were still certain freedoms allowed. Castro raised many hopes, but ended up becoming a much more sever dictator than the previous ones.
mc Were these posters directed at the illiterate population or to the general public?
fb There wasn't really a study about the target audience. Selling political ideas is like branding, or selling a new line of clothing or a new perfume. The slogans at first are seductive because they are very clear and precise: "Defend our sovereignty," "Learn to read and write," "The land belongs to those who work it." These messages convinced many.
mc Were there counter-revolutionary messages as well?
fb I don't believe so, although in 1970 I created a poster for the celebration of July 26 - the commemoration of the assault on the moncada headquarters, the action that initiated Casto's revolution - that was open for interpretation. At the time, an editor of a Japanese magazine Idea was visiting Cuba, and I told him that I had tried to point out in the poster the peoples decline of interest in the revolution. The poster depicts a white star that becomes larger and turns to red. The idea is ambivalent in that it could mean rising to the top or falling to the bottom. I spoke very openly and my conversation was published. When the magazine arrived in Cuba, I was asked to meet with government officials about it. I admitted to them that I had conducted this interview, but I told them it had taken place in English and that the editor had misinterpreted what I said. I had to be very careful of what I said, because a mistake could prevent from ever being able to leave Cuba. At the time, I wanted to leave the post I had and work on other things, but the government would not allow it> One sure way out was to present medical papers proving mental illness, but this was like being condemned.
I do want to say that there was a time in which the poster had some freedom, though, and that was under the direction of María Angélica Álverez, who was married to the brother of someone highly placed in the government. She was more liberal, more open and defended a more modern Cuban poster. She came from an upper-middle-class family, and was against aligning with the ideas of the Soviet Union. Since she had power and was connected with people in power, her ideas were tolerated. The poster was bolder in its political statements during this time, though there were limits. No one was permitted to reproduce an image of Fidel Castro hung by his toes. Censorship did exist.
mc Do you believe Cuba promoted itself throughout the world with the poster?
fb Yes, through documentaries and posters. The poster could circulate in countries where a functionary was not allowed to speak about the ideas of the revolution. These were posters with very complex messages or phrases from Che or Castrothat were almost poetic. It was also a way for Cuba to denounce the contradictions of capitalism - especially those of the United States. One has to remember that in the '60s and '70s there were many problems in the U.S. such as racism, assassinations and abuses of political power. These were demonic examples of capitalism that were promoted inside Cuba as well as in other countries.
mc At what point did posters start promoting cultural messages?
fb In the late 1960s, documentaries produced by ICIAC [Cuba's national film institute] were extraordinary, and had a certain level of audacity. They used graphic brutal scenes from the war in Vietnam as well as music from the Beatles. These films became a medium of communication incomparable to others, and the posters became a way to promote these films. The govenment realized that the posters were of interest - especiall to foreigners. They became evidence that Cuba permitted modern art, and that there were certain liberties and tolerances in Cuba that distinguished it from eastern bloc countries.
mc What happened when the state no longer needed designers to create these posters?
fb Many things happened. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba had fewer resources. It used to be that the Soviet Union would send a cargo ship daily to Cuba filled with supplies; Cuba was an island artificially sustained by the Soviet Union. Then Cuba entered a time when it began to sell itself as a means of survival - a period of "dollarisation." the elite would have dollars to buy goods, but others would not. Design became very difficult, and conditions were precarious. the scarceness of paper was brutal. When a certain color would run out, another was used in its place. Iremember a poster that included the words "red" and "black," and since there wasn't any red ink the word "red" was printed in green.
The system ended up expelling some of those designers who had created posters. The same thing happened in the Soviet Union early in the 20th century with the Constructivist movement. The government squelched, suffocated and exiled artists. Constructivism was a movement that at certain times had its excesses. There were posters that were very attractive, but the communication was not precise enough for the state. Similarly, in Cuba there were movie posters that did not reflect the movie, or posters that were produced after the film had already been shown.