Revolutionary design: OSPAAAL and the art of the poster

Produced as part of OSPAAAL: Solidarity and Design

Print is the perfect medium for the dissemination of information. For centuries, the ability to mass-produce artwork in print has allowed for the spread of art and ideas across the globe. Whilst on the one hand, print has facilitated the rise of a global consumerist culture, enabling companies to advertise their goods to vast audiences, it has also been used to spread radical ideas and demonstrate solidarity with powerful causes across the world. Nowhere is this more evident than in the OSPAAAL posters of the 1960s and 70s.

(Left to Right:) Guinea and Cape Verde Solidarity, poster by Abelenda Fernandez, published by the Organisation in Solidarity with the people of Africa, Asia and Latin America (OSPAAAL), 1974, Cuba. Museum no. E.353-2018. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Angela Davis, poster by Alfredo Rostgaard, published by the Organisation in Solidarity with the people of Africa, Asia and Latin America (OSPAAAL), 1972, Cuba. Museum no. E.455-2018. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Borne out of the Tricontinental conference of 1966, the Organisation of Solidarity with the People of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, or OSPAAAL, produced a bimonthly magazine. The magazine, Tricontinental, perpetuated the spread of radical writing and news worldwide and was a call to arms for those seeking to remove imperialist rule. However, the ideas presented were not the only revolutionary aspect of the Tricontinental magazine. Many issues contained an innovatively designed poster insert summarising the key themes of the magazine. These posters came to represent the organisation through their recognisable graphic style and proud representation of the anti-imperialist causes outlined within the magazine.

Consisting of around 50 designers, both freelance and contracted women and men, OSPAAAL designers used their unique circumstances as a catalyst for their experimental designs. Though OSPAAAL conformed to the longstanding process of review and approval by editors in charge, the artists were given almost complete freedom of creativity in their designs. This, in combination with the shortage of artist materials due to US restrictions placed on revolutionary Cuba, encouraged the use of pioneering experimental techniques such as Cartel Maqueta, which involved creating small set-like arrangements of found objects for photography, and pre-digital photo manipulation.

The 'Folding Nixon' poster, designed by OSPAAAL's first creative director, Alfredo Rostgaard, is a prime example of how liberation from artistic rules allowed the artist to create a unique and engaging piece. When folded, the poster presents a portrait of former US president Richard Nixon, however, when unfolded the full poster depicts Nixon as a vampiric monster. This not only creates a playful design which delivers a powerful message, it also does so using the minimum amount of material.

'Folding Nixon', poster by Alfredo Rostgaard, published by the Organisation in Solidarity with the people of Africa, Asia and Latin America (OSPAAAL), 1972, Cuba. Museum no. E.454-2018. © Victoria and Albert Museum

As the first creative director of OSPAAAL, Rostgaard pioneered many of the techniques that became OSPAAAL trademarks. For instance, the use of photo montage made by collaging archival photos and other materials found in their offices. This method frequently involved using only two or three photos in a repeated pattern, often distorting the portrait of an enemy or highlighting the face of a hero. An example of this can be seen in Rostgaard’'s poster 'Create Two, Three…Many Vietnams, that is the Watchword'. A variation of this technique can be seen in the poster for 'Solidarity with the Japanese People'. This combines photo manipulation with a visual metaphor, using a map-like terrain to compose the left side of a child's face.

(Left to Right:) ‘Create Two, Three…Many Vietnams’, poster by Alfredo Rostgaard, published by the Organisation in Solidarity with the people of Africa, Asia and Latin America (OSPAAAL), 1967, Cuba. Museum no. E.310-2021. © Victoria and Albert Museum; 'Solidarity with the Japanese people', poster by Daniel Garcia, published by the Organisation in Solidarity with the people of Africa, Asia and Latin America (OSPAAAL), 1972, Cuba. Museum no. E.330-2021. © Victoria and Albert Museum

The use of visual metaphor was a common technique on OSPAAAL posters as an easy way to create simple but striking images using restricted materials. Due to the shortage of ink posters were often printed using a limited colour palette of only two or three colours. This meant that the artists could not rely on colour to convey their meaning, resulting in posters which were cleverly composed to communicate complex topics. For example, taking a simple shape such as the continent of Africa and creating a second meaning by translating it into the face of Patrice Lumumba (1925 – 61), independence politician and the first prime minister of the Republic of Congo. Another example of this technique is the poster celebrating 'The Day of the Heroic Guerrilla' by Olivio Martinez, which uses smaller sketches of soldiers and guerrilla fighters to create the face of famous revolutionary Ché Guevara.

(Left to Right:) ‘Day of the Heroic Guerrilla’, poster by Olivio Martinez, published by the Organisation in Solidarity with the people of Africa, Asia and Latin America (OSPAAAL), 1971, Cuba. Museum no. E.468-2018. © Victoria and Albert Museum; ‘Day of Solidarity with the Congo’ poster by Alfredo Rostgaard, published by the Organisation in Solidarity with the people of Africa, Asia and Latin America (OSPAAAL), 1972, Cuba. Museum no. E.354-2018. © Victoria and Albert Museum

The repeated use of these graphic devices allowed OSPAAAL posters to develop a coherent visual identity with few resources. The striking posters are cohesive and recognisable, delivering pertinent messages to audiences across the world. In extension to this the poster declares to the contemporary audience, art is not always just something you look at, it is a call to action.

All posters featured plus many more are available to view online on Explore the Collections or in person at our Prints and Drawings Study Room.

Background image: (Detail) ‘Create Two, Three…Many Vietnams’, poster by Alfredo Rostgaard, published by the Organisation in Solidarity with the people of Africa, Asia and Latin America (OSPAAAL), 1967, Cuba. Museum no. E.310-2021. © Victoria and Albert Museum