I recently returned to the House of Illustration for the first time since 2016 to see two new exhibitions: “Designed in Cuba: Cold War Graphics”, which runs until January 2020, and “W.E.B. Du Bois: Charting Black Lives”, which runs until March 2020. My main complaints about the House of Illustration on my first visit (because you know I gotta have some complaints) were that it was too expensive for the size and it had a strange layout that required you to keep hold of your ticket the entire time (rather than immediately shoving it in my bag and losing it amongst the general chaos, as I usually do), because the galleries have separate entrances that lead off the shop. As the layout remains the same, and the museum has gotten even more expensive since my first visit (now £8 instead of £7), I guess those complaints stand. Fortunately, I got in for half price with National Art Pass (sorry to mention it all the time – they’re definitely not paying me or anything, as I’m fairly sure they’ve never heard of me and I have to order and pay full price for my pass like everyone else – but the discounts are what allow me to see as many exhibitions as I do), and £4 ain’t bad.
Because all exhibitions at the House of Illustration are temporary, admission covers the whole building. I started with “Designed in Cuba,” which I was intrigued to see as I’ve always been keen on Soviet art, and I wanted to see how the art produced by their communist counterparts in Cuba measured up. The pieces in this exhibition was produced by Fidel Castro’s OSPAAAL (the acronym for the unwieldy Organisation of Solidarity of the People of Asia, Africa and Latin America) in the years following the revolution and included posters and magazines, primarily Tricontinental, which was used to disseminate communist propaganda around the world.
Cuban communist art was certainly much more exuberant than the Soviet variety, mixing in elements of Cuban culture as well as multiculturalism from around the world (many of the posters were for Days of Solidarity with [insert country here], and it frankly seemed like there were more days of solidarity than days in a year!), but I’m happy to report that I liked it just as much as the Soviet stuff. There was a bit of Castro themed art but most of the work here was either celebrating other Asian, African, or Latin American countries, as one of the aims of OSPAAAL was to foster cooperation between non-Western countries; or was anti-American propaganda, which made me laugh, like the evil Nixon-eagle shown below.
The art here was also noteworthy because much of it was produced by female artists, who were given a more equal standing in OSPAAAL than female designers had received in pre-Castro Cuba. All in all, I think this was a very different and fascinating perspective on Cuba and mid-late 20th century Cuban art. None of this is to dismiss the way many of the Cuban people suffered under the Castro regime, but it is interesting to look at things from this angle rather than the one I was taught at school.
Before heading into the W.E.B. Du Bois exhibit, I had a quick look in the Quentin Blake Gallery, which features (you guessed it) pieces of work by Quentin Blake. Though it is always Blake’s work on display, the pieces and themes change every few months. This one had sketches from his studio, and my favourite ones were the series of people talking to animals. I have definitely had some earnest conversations with birds, so I can relate!
And on to “Charting Black Lives”. This contained the infographic charts produced by W.E.B. Du Bois (pronounced du boys rather than du bwah), an African-American scholar and activist who was one of the founders of the NAACP, for the 1900 Paris Exposition. Du Bois’s aim was to prove to a world that was still deeply imperialist that black people were equal to white ones, through charts showing their improving education, employment, and ownership of property despite Jim Crow laws and other prejudice against them, particularly in the American South.
Because these were reproductions of Du Bois’s actual charts, some of the terminology on them would be considered offensive today, and many of the charts were in a rather “experimental” format, such as his use of bar graphs that had bars that curved around at the end to fit all the numbers in, which made some of them difficult to read. Nonetheless, they made for interesting viewing. The charts were displayed on wall mounts that you could flip through, so it was lucky the gallery wasn’t crowded, as it would have been annoying to keep having things you were looking at flipped over by someone at the other end. One of the walls contained charts specifically about Georgia, the state with the largest black population in America, and the other wall was about the US more generally, and although Du Bois tried to paint a positive picture, the effects of discrimination still made for deeply depressing reading.
Although the charts themselves were informative and interesting to look at, as were the photographs of ordinary African Americans that Du Bois displayed alongside them, there wasn’t much other context provided in the exhibition, other than explaining Du Bois’s background and why he made the charts. I would have been very interested to know what their reception was at the Paris Exhibition. Did people actually read them? Was it a popular exhibition? Did it alter anyone’s way of thinking? None of this was covered here, and it felt like a rather glaring omission.
On the whole, I think I enjoyed this visit to the House of Illustration more than my first one, even though I obviously loved all the drawings of the BFG that I saw on my first visit. The nature of the Du Bois charts meant that I lingered longer reading them than I might have done just looking at artwork, and the Cuban art was visually appealing and also contained some interesting commentary, though I think this could have likewise been improved with more analysis on the signage. 3.5/5 for these exhibitions.