In my lifetime what little I knew about Cuba was summed up by the Cuban Missile Crisis, old cars, Fidel Castro, and Che Guevara’s image in connection to all of the above – which I now realize isn’t really representative of the culture or of the events that led to their isolation.
The Pasadena Museum of California Art’s exhibit Hollywood in Havana: Five Decades of Cuban Posters Promoting US Films does a great job of illustrating the fact that that although the average person in the US knew nothing about what was going on in Cuba, Cubans were well aware of what was going on in the US. Their compilation of Cuban movie posters over the last 50 years prove that Cuban’s love for American cinema didn’t stop when Fidel Castro overthrew Fulgencio Batista’s American supported dictatorship. The Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos or ICAIC was instituted right after the Cuban Revolution – the revolution was on January 1, 1959 and ICAIC was put into effect in March, which goes to show how vital the arts were to the cause. ICAIC was meant to transform Cuba from a country of consumption to production and to empower citizens to use film to form the individual and collective consciousness.
Before the revolution illiteracy in Cuban countryside was 40% due to the fact that there was no universal education and only the rich could afford schooling. Post revolution the government realized that the media was the most powerful and effective way to mobilize and educate people. In 1961 ICAIC launched the cine movil, mobile projections that traveled by boat, truck and mule bringing film to remote parts of the island that didn’t have electricity. That same year the government launched the Literacy Campaign as a national effort to raise national literacy. More than 100,000 students, teachers, professionals, factory workers, and everyday citizens taught their neighbors or went into the countryside to teach people in need. By the end of 1961 literacy reached 96% and more than 700,000 Cubans had learned to read and write.
Despite anti-American sentiments, despite the 1960 trade embargo, and despite the 1961 Bay of Pigs fail, Cubans enjoyed a wide variety of American films. And if you’re wondering how they were able to get them into Cuba, so is everyone else – interestingly enough no one is willing to discuss just how they got the films into the country. But I digress. You’re probably wondering: what’s so great about the posters anyway? I must admit I wasn’t particularly jazzed about the concept myself, but the answer lies in the aesthetic and imagery ICAIC allowed their artists to explore freely – it’s a freedom that feels counter to everything I was taught to believe about Cuba as a kid. Each poster is an example of the creativity and free expression of each artist, they are also beautiful abstract interpretations of classic films like The Godfather, Singing in the Rain, Silence of the Lambs, and Schindler’s List. It’s an inside look at what kind of artistic styles were popular and how limited materials influenced the development of emerging artistic practices. In the 1960’s a lack of ink meant that posters had to be 50% white. It wasn’t until 1967 when supporters of the revolution living abroad donated color inks, which led Cuban artists to embrace Pop, Op, psychedelic, abstraction and Nouveau art forms.
Check out some of the iconic posters below.
You can catch the exhibit at the Pasadena Museum of California Art until January 7, 2018
Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA is a far-reaching and ambitious exploration of Latin American and Latino art in dialogue with Los Angeles. Led by the Getty, Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA is the latest collaborative effort from arts institutions across Southern California.