How Art Served Fidel Castro to Support Revolutions in Africa

An exhibition of Cuban posters and propaganda magazines in London shows Fidel Castro's support for the African liberation movements during the Cold War.

The artworks were produced by the Fidel Castro Solidarity Organization with the People of Asia, Africa and Latin America (OSPAAAL) - which was born from the Tricontinental Conference held in Havana in 1966 - to combat American imperialism. "Many of the African countries had delegations at the Conference, including the liberation movements. And Castro got in touch with some leaders, particularly Amílcar Cabral from Guinea-Bissau, "Olivia Ahmada, curator of the exhibition at the House of Illustration in London, told to BBC .

The exhibition "Designed in Cuba: Cold War Graphics" features portraits of many African leaders of the independence movements and Cuban icons such as Castro or Guevara. The artworks were produced by 33 Cuban illustrators, many of them women.

According to the curator, Cuba had planned to hold more three continental conferences but they never happened because OSPAAL's artistic publications have become an important vehicle for keeping in touch and sharing information. And the propaganda posters were inserted into the political magazines.

A poster from Guinea-Bissau, showing a woman holding a machine gun has the signature of designer Berta Abelenda Fernandez, "one of the women who made some of the most iconic illustrations for OSPAAL". Actually, one of the most recurring illustration motifs by Cuban artists in this organization were women with guns, showing that they had an active role in the African revolutions. The organization's political magazine had "a series of women's contributions and articles on women on the fronts of African guerrillas."

The most famous of the Cuban revolutionaries, Argentine Ernesto "Che" Guevara was "probably the most portrayed in the entire universe of OSPAAL publications," said Olivia Ahmada. "But there are also many portraits of the equally celebrated African leaders."

Che Guevara was in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1965 on a failed mission to foster a revolt against the pro-western regime four years after the murder of Congolese independence hero Patrice Lumumba. The blames of Lumumba's murder, four months after being elected as the country's first head of democratic government, were pointed out to the US and British secret agencies.

Fidel Castro played a very important role in the struggle for independence of Angola against the then colonial power that was Portugal. Before Angola's independence, in 1975, Castro sent elite troops and 35,000 soldiers from Cuba to assist the Angolan People's Liberation Movement (MPLA) in their struggle to prevent pro-apartheid South African troops from setting up pro-American movements in power.

"Portraits are particularly interesting because they have all the influences of pop art, which we would not expect to see. They celebrate people but in a genuine way and not because they are part of a socialist-realistic aesthetic. "

According to Alçex Vines of the Chatham House strategic office, at least 4300 Cubans have died in the independence conflicts in Africa, half of them in Angola, where the civil war lasted until 2002.

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