Sunday, 11 May 2008

Interview with Reese Erlich

Reese Erlich is an independent journalist, reporter and radio producer. For four decades he has documented world politics and events from a liberal perspective. He is a jazz enthusiast, former University of California at Berkeley (where he was suspended for organising anti-Vietnam War demonstrations) student and an outspoken member of the San Francisco counter-culture movement of the 1960s. His books include Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn't Tell You (co-authored with Normon Solomon) and The Iran Agenda: The Real Story of U.S. Policy and The Middle East Crisis. He has travelled extensively in Cuba and has written about and reported on the country's political and social situation.

I first came across his name in Ramparts Magazine's feature on Cuban posters. The magazine, published in 1968, contains the first mention of Cuban posters outside Cuba and the article features some great designs. Although the article is by Dugald Stermer, who was art director at the time and would go on to write the classic book on Cuban posters, a footnote mentions that the posters are from the collection of Reese Erlich. I asked him how he came by the posters:

"In 1968, at 21, I travelled to Cuba as a reporter for Ramparts magazine, with a group of students to experience the country. At the time the embargo prevented travel directly from the US to Cuba so we had to fly to Mexico City then on to Havana. In Cuba, I saw these incredible posters all over the place promoting solidarity, movies, plays and cultural events."

Hailing from San Francisco Reese was impressed by the Cuban's appropriation of artistic styles. "They had it all going on. Pop art, op art. They were using so many artistic styles, some of it like the Fillmore and Avalon posters that I saw at home." The Cuban government used the poster, and public art generally, as the primary medium for conveying the message of the revolution. "I was impressed at how beautiful and funky the art was, and how different to political graphics from the Soviet Union and other [socialist] countries."

Havana 1970

Havana 1970

Public art in Cuba mixed socialist ideology with funky graphics. Two images from 1970 and 1971 showing examples of political graphics in Havana.

During the trip Reese visited the poster workshops of the ICAIC and OSPAAAL and although his memory of the trip is hazy he remembers the atmosphere. "They were staffed by enthusiastic people in their 20s, very busy and with a real sense of purpose." He also encountered in the young revolutionaries an interest in the US. "Where I was asking them all about the politics of Cuba they were very keen for me to tell them about the situation in the US."

Havana 1968

A 1966 speech by Fidel in Plaza de la Revolution in Havana. Note the Soviet style graphics which were soon to be replaced by a distinctly Cuban style.

In 1968 Cuba's revolution was nine years old. Major changes had taken place and the country was becoming reliant on Soviet support. Reese was a fan of the country: "I had a very romantic view of Cuba. Even though I was only 21 I had a world view. Here was a country that had actually had a revolution. And it was a cool revolution." Although the revolution had made big claims and Fidel was in the midst of a drive for a record sugar harvest Reese noticed a number of problems in Cuba. "There were shortages even then. The stores had very little for sale and if you went to buy something and it wasn't in the store you did what the Cubans did and came back tomorrow."

Havana 1968

A 1968 parade in Cuba shows the revolution's typically fun use of images. Note the massive political mural in the background.

Reese collected a number of posters direct from the workshops before returning to the US. He showed his boss at Ramparts magazine Dugald Stermer who was impressed at the quality of the posters and put the article together. A year later in 1969 Dugald Stermer and Susan Sontag wrote the classic Art of Revolution which featured 96 of Cuba's best posters. I spoke to Stermer some time ago and he told me that he left the posters that were used for the book with the book's publishers, from where they have disappeared. Luckily Reese still owns the posters he collected. "In the past I have had them on my walls in my apartment but now they are in a portfolio. Maybe it's time to get them out and look at them again."

Havana 1968

Havana 1968

Layouts from Ramparts magazine featuring Reese's collection.

Reese Erlich is now researching and writing his next book, Dateline Havana, which looks at his 40 years of reporting from Cuba. It will be published in the U.S. in January 2009.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Two images from 1970 and 1971 showing examples of political graphics in Havana."

The banner that reads "Señores imperialistas..." (Imperialist gentlement, we have absolutely no fear) was created in the early 90s. It faces the American interest section in Havana. I lived nearby for more than 30 years. That's how I know. The second, "Libertad para Angela Davis" (Free Angela Davis) is more likely to be from the 70s.

Anyway, great blog. Keep up the good work.