- Visual Rhetoric and Oppositional Consciousness:Poster Art in Cuba and the United States
The mid-1960s and early 1970s saw an explosion of poster art across the globe as oppositional movements sought to communicate anti-colonial ideologies to populations characterized by high levels of illiteracy. Spurred by the iconic posters of the Cuban revolution, which were financed and promoted by the revolutionary Castro government and spread through popular Cuban publications like the magazine Tricontinental, leftist posters across the globe embraced pop art sensibilities to promote oppositional politics in the service of rebellion and revolution. These posters meditated on citizenship and nationalism in Cuba and abroad. Drawing on new cultural signifiers, revolutionary Cuban posters created a visual rhetoric that had worldwide impact on the countercultural and the postcolonial Left, especially in the United States where oppositional groups, particularly Chicana feminists, both rejected and appropriated some of these strategies in building their own visual gender culture.
This essay considers the development of Cuban poster art alongside the emergence of Chicana poster art in the United States to chart the aesthetic similarities and differences between the two movements as they sought to interpolate citizenship at midcentury. In analyzing the visual rhetoric of these two movements, I seek to understand how representations of gender functioned in these new discourses of nationalism. Visual rhetoric refers to a large body of visual and material practices ranging from the visual arts and architecture to interior design, cartography, photography, museums and public memorials. I contend that the visual rhetoric of both aesthetic and political movements pivoted on the production of citizenship idealized in gendered bodies in poster art. In the case of Cuban posters, those bodies were overwhelmingly male and in the case of feminist poster artists, particularly in the Chicano movement, there was a conscious self-representation of female bodies. However, while it is tempting to place Chicana poster art in opposition to Cuban poster art simply because of the prevalence of heroic men in Cuban posters, such a move is would be simplistic and misleading, since the complexity of visual gender in Cuban posters is remarkable. Rather, Cuban poster art asserted a new masculine identity for the island in the wake of persistent American domination. And while this hegemonic masculine identity permeated visual art during the period, it also influenced and contributed to the emergence of North American Third World feminist poster art, particularly among Chicanas. The connection between the exploitation and oppression of Chicanas in the U.S. as women of color and the repression of anti-colonial movements in Cuba and Vietnam, specifically, and Latin America, generally, was emphasized through explicitly political art after 1968 in posters as well as murals, which helped Chicanas reclaim public space. [End Page 71]
Posters in both contexts used visual gender codes to help unpack the mechanisms of power operating during the Cold War as anti-colonial revolutions spread. Coined by R. W. Connell in 1983, the term “hegemonic masculinity” emerged in dialogue with sex role theory to understand the emergence of gender roles within frameworks of power. Hegemonic masculinity relies upon the production of gender ideals that find their ultimate expression in fantasy figures of the culture or in lives totally removed from the majority. Often, hegemonic masculinity functions as a building block of citizenship and nationalism as rhetoric emerges to encourage participation in hegemonic behaviors (Donaldson 646). Consequently, naturalizing and institutionalizing hegemonic masculinity necessitates an exploration of what it means to be a heroic man, including a valorization of qualities like “courage, inner direction, certain forms of aggression, autonomy, mastery, technological skill, group solidarity, adventure and considerable toughness in mind and body” (Carrigan et a1.75). Examining the role of hegemonic masculinity in Cuban political posters from 1965 to 1975, the period widely acknowledged to be the golden age of the poster, as well as how Cuban posters influenced Chicana poster art following the golden age, provides a wide range of comparative texts that explore how visual masculinity shaped a rhetorical tapestry of oppositional ideology. The visual rhetoric of Cuban poster art deployed the oppositional images of heroes and villains to simultaneously assert and challenge hegemonic masculinity, fertilizing visual rhetorical practices among...