The art works were produced for Castro’s Organisation of Solidarity of the People of Asia, Africa and Latin America (Ospaaal), which was born out of the Tricontinental Conference, hosted in Havana in 1966, to combat US imperialism.
“A lot of African countries were represented as part of the delegation there, including liberation movements. And Castro connected with a few leaders, particularly Amílcar Cabral from Guinea-Bissau,” Olivia Ahmad, the curator of the exhibition at the House of Illustration.
Ms Ahmad says more Tricontinental Conferences were planned, but never happened so Ospaaal’s publishing arm became an important way to keep in contact and share information – and posters were folded up and put inside its publications.
Latin America’s most recognisable revolutionary, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, was “probably the most depicted across the whole output of Ospaaal”, she says.
“But there are recurring ones of these African leaders being celebrated in the same way and commemorated as well.”
Lumumba’s killing, four months after he had being elected the country’s first democratic prime minister, was widely blamed on US and UK intelligence agencies.
The works showcased in Designed in Cuba: Cold War Graphics exhibition were produced by 33 designers, many of them women – who made some of those most enduring images.
A poster about Guinea-Bissau showing a woman holding a machine gun is by Berta Abelenda Fernandez, “one of the women who made some of the most iconic designs for Ospaaal“, says Ms Ahmad.
Ahead of Angola’s independence from Portugal in 1975, Castro sent elite special forces and 35,000 soldiers to support the Marxist MPLA movement to stop apartheid South African troops installing pro-US movements to power.
The posters carrying messages of solidarity to liberation fighters usually did so “using bold visual metaphors or quite simple visual propositions”, says Ms Ahmad.
They tended to have captions at the bottom, usually in four languages – English, Spanish, French and Arabic – “to help them be more universal because they were intended for circulation rather than to be seen in Cuba”, she says.
Much of Ospaaal’s output was directed towards the fight against white-minority rule in South Africa, which did not end until 1994 when anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela was elected president.
The images on the Ospaaal posters were just as blunt:
It is not always clear what some of the stylised sculptures were based on. “I think they’re basically just trying to relate contemporary struggle in a long history,” says Ms Ahmad.
“I think the context for those international movements has really changed, so you can see why,” says Ms Ahmad.
But the curator says Ospaaal’s work and diversity of output has been impressive and its ability to sum up complex messages in an engaging way.
“Also it’s interesting to see what is essentially propaganda executed with humour and often levity,” she says.