The Billboard Art of Revolutionary Grenada

The dreams of the Grenada Revolution were crushed in October 1983 by a quick succession of dramatic coups, starting with a power struggle between competing factions of the People’s Revolutionary Government. Maurice Bishop, the popular leader of the 1979 socialist revolution and subsequent Prime Minister, was first placed under house arrest, after a takeover by his deputy, Bernard Coard. But Coard only ruled for three days, before he himself was deposed by the army led by General Hudson Austin, who executed Bishop and other leading politicians. A week after Bishop’s murder, the United States unleashed Operation Urgent Fury to remove Austin’s military junta. The decision by US President Reagan to invade Grenada was unpopular with many of his allies at the time and remains controversial.

Espionart has previously told how a comic book produced by the CIA was airdropped over the Caribbean island during the invasion, portraying the US army as liberators. Others continue to claim that Operation Urgent Fury was instead a calculated move to strengthen US influence in the region after several neighbouring countries had fallen into the Soviet sphere. In just three days, an American victory heralded the establishment of a conservative government with a strong alliance to the US, marking the end of Grenada’s revolutionary years.

The new government began to wipe out the memory and artistic traces of the ‘Revo’, as the 1979 revolution to end the authoritarian rule of Eric Gairy was known locally. In the summer before the overthrow of Bishop’s government, American university professor Betty LaDuke visited Grenada to assess the impact of the revolution. Her enthusiastic paper, Women, Art, and Culture in the New Grenada (available through JSTOR), paints a picture of an island full of hope, promise and creativity. LaDuke describes “strikingly beautiful” wall graffiti, murals and posters dotted around both town and countryside: “Throughout the country the manifestation of Grenadian solidarity with Prime Minister Maurice Bishop’s government is visible in the spontaneous paintings on brick and rock walls and sides of houses.”

 Also evident were brightly-coloured billboards, the results of a state-funded artistic project. In a speech of late 1980, Bishop had declared that “Education is a Must!” At the same time, the Center for Popular Education (CPE) was launched, sending over a thousand volunteer tutors to mainland Grenada and the Grenadine Islands to teach the largely-illiterate adult population to read. To support this literacy movement, the government sponsored artist Gordon Hamilton to lead a team of designers and painters in producing billboards, encouraging the population to pursue the collective goal of self-betterment.

Many billboards bore popular revolutionary slogans such as “Forward ever, backward never!”, as well as motivational statements expressing the new government’s egalitarian spirit: “Never Too Old to Learn”, “Education is Production Too”, “Every Worker a Learner”, “Women, Committed to Economic Construction”, and more. The CPE billboards were constructed from galvanised sheeting and decorated with oil-based house paint, with up to thirty a year placed in strategic positions among rural communities.

Grenada’s CPE billboards mirrored the contemporaneous revolutionary murals of neighbouring Nicaragua – which would likewise be later destroyed in a wave of political iconoclasm – as well as the murals and posters produced in support of radical political movements, from the Soviet Union and Cuba to Ethiopia and the United States.

 Despite this, Hamilton did not consider the billboards to be artworks, and they were neither signed nor photographed to document for posterity. Today, only a handful of amateur photographs exist to record this vibrant moment of public art in Grenada, before the billboards were painted over or reclaimed as housing materials. However, as part of the 2011 exhibition Grenada 1979–1983, Revolution: An Art Perspective, held in the Grenadian capital of St George’s, Hamilton recreated in watercolour one of his revolutionary billboards, this time proudly displayed as a work of art.

The 2011 exhibition was unpopular with many Grenadians, who were keen to avoid stirring up bad memories. As local artist and the exhibition’s curator, Suelin Low Chew Tung, recalls in her essay Painting the Grenada Revolution (also available through JSTOR), “images of the revolution years were deliberately erased from the landscape … Three decades later, as far as local visual art records are concerned, it is as if the Grenada Revolution never happened.”

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Weaving War in Afghanistan

The political instability that has blighted Afghanistan in recent decades was sparked in July 1973, when a coup d’état swept from power Zahir Shah, the last King of Afghanistan. Daoud Khan, the king’s cousin who staged the plot, established himself as the first President of Afghanistan – ruling over the new republic until he, in turn, was overthrown during the Saur Revolution of April 1978.

During his 40-year reign, Zahir Shah had managed to maintain neutrality in a war-torn world, establishing friendly relations with East and West during the first three decades of the Cold War. But as competing political factions tore the country apart, Afghanistan’s strategic location between Soviet and US spheres of influence made the country increasingly vulnerable. Following the establishment of a pro-Soviet government in the late 1970s, the United States, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan began to covertly train and arm Afghanistan’s Islamist rebels. Today, the world is all too aware of the catastrophic results of that fateful decision. Fearing the collapse of the pro-Soviet government, under attack from the mujahideen insurgents, the USSR invaded Afghanistan at the end of 1979, starting a brutal 10-year Cold War proxy war.

The ongoing turmoil has decimated many aspects of Afghan culture, including its once thriving handmade carpet industry. Prior to the Soviet invasion, this centuries-old artistic tradition supported a fifth of the population. With their livelihoods under threat, Afghanistan’s weavers began to incorporate strange symbols into their intricate geometric designs. In place of flowers and birds, there appeared guns and grenades, missiles, tanks, battleships and helicopters. Likened to the Bayeux Tapestry and as a form of modern history painting, these intriguing and disquieting objects have become known as ‘war rugs’.

The inspiration behind the war rugs and their exact origins remain a mystery. Some have linked this phenomenon to a series of map textiles on the theme of the Six-Day War, commissioned from Afghan weavers in 1971 by the Italian conceptual artist, Alighieri Boetti. The creation of war rugs from the early 1980s has alternatively been defended as a cathartic response, expressing anger and defiance at the Soviet invasion; while some have viewed the carpets from the outset as tourist items, cynically produced to sell to the invaders. Indeed, priced between several hundred to thousands of US dollars, depending on quality and complexity, the war rugs are typically too expensive for the domestic market. As a result, the designs of the rugs have become increasingly commercial over the decades, developing from ‘hidden’ references to the apparatus of war, to explicit military images alongside English-language text.

The designs have also changed in response to the shifting history of conflict in Afghanistan. As Cold War moved to War on Terror, depictions of Soviet Kalashnikov assault rifles gave way to images of American drones and F-16 fighter jets. After the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, carpet designers appeared to lift imagery from propaganda leaflets airdropped over the country by the Americans. Scenes of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, offered as justification for the invasion, have often been weaved in refugee camps and sold back to Westerners. Indeed, this subject matter has proved particularly popular with overseas buyers and foreign aid workers.

Made from knotted wool and vegetable dye, the war rugs typically take between six and nine months to produce. Most are made by rural or displaced women, who risk damaged eyesight and back pain for little compensation. Yet for carpet dealers, the war rugs have becoming a small but vital part of an industry that still faces huge challenges.

NATO’s Mystery Sculpture

nato sculpture65 years ago today – on 4 April 1949 – the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was founded. Over the next 40 years, this intergovernmental military alliance between the Western powers would at times contain and exacerbate the Cold War.

At the entrance to the NATO Headquarters in Brussels stands a large, savage-looking sculpture in cast iron. This sculptural rendition of NATO’s logo is a familiar sight in the Belgian capital but its origins and creator appear have become unknown.* The confused provenance of the sculpture is matched by NATO’s emblem. Although approved on 14 October 1953, the organisation admits that it is unclear as to the exact origins, although the basic design was conceived by a member of the International Staff.

natologoOriginally set against a blue background, said to represent the Atlantic Ocean which bridges the United States and Western Europe, the four-pointed star symbolises “the compass that keeps us on the right road, the path of peace”, while the circle signifies “the unity that binds together the [original] 14 countries of NATO.” Read more about the known history of the NATO logo here.

* If you have further details about the provenance of the NATO sculpture please get in touch via About.Me or Twitter.

Sculpture at the entrance to NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. Photo courtesy NATO.

Secret Operation 610

Last September a groundbreaking new design project was unveiled at Soesterberg Air Base in the Netherlands – Secret Operation 610. Intended as both a sculptural art piece and mobile research laboratory, this object was created over the course of 18 years in a collaboration between Dutch architects and artists at Rietveld Landscape and Studio Frank Havermans.

secret operation 610

Described by its creators as a ‘monstrous black behemoth’, its menacing appearance takes inspiration from the brutal aesthetic of military weaponry to convey the tense atmosphere of the Cold War. But its ominous exterior belies the idealistic vision housed within: as Secret Operation 610 crawls across the former NATO air force base, it currently houses a group of students researching silent, carbon-free aviation technology.

You can watch Secret Operation 610 in action here:

Image: Secret Operation 610 by Rietveld Landscape and Studio Frank Havermans. Photography © Michiel de Cleene. Courtesy of Rietveld Landscape

Polish Cold War Neon

In 2007 British-Polish photographer Ilona Karwińska launched a pioneering project to record the disappearing world of Poland’s Cold War neon signs. Over the last 6 years the initiative has grown ever larger as Karwińska’s work has tapped into the zeitgeist for Cold War culture.

Her photographs recount post-war Polish city streets bathed in the light of dazzling socialist messages and whimsical illustrations. Under Poland’s Communist regime, the state-run advertising company Reklama held a monopoly on exterior advertising and maintained up to 1,000 signs across the country. Often created by renowned designers, artists and architects to form an integral part of the buildings, the mesmerising and playful neons were sparkling ornaments that decorated otherwise drab and oppressive cities.

Polish Cold War Neon

Since May 2012 Karwińska’s photographic collection has found a permanent home in the Neon Muzeum in Warsaw. Here Karwińska continues her work to photographically document the history of Poland’s illuminated advertising. The museum also currently holds 50 signs that have been rescued from destruction.

Alongside Karwińska’s dramatic photographs, the book Polish Cold War Neon contains archival images, original designs and interviews with the designers, to chart the fascinating history of this unique urban typography. Some examples of the Karwińska’s photographs are also available to view online in galleries at Retronaut and The Guardian.

Image: The Orbis Globe from a travel agency on Jerozolimskie Avenue in Warsaw. Photograph by Ilona Karwińska, 2007. Courtesy Ilona Karwińska

Recommended Read: Cold War Modern: Design 1945–1970

Supermen, cover image for Opus Magazine, by Roman Cieslewicz, Paris, 1968

David Crowley and Jane Pavitt (eds.). Cold War Modern: Design 1945–1970. London: V&A Publishing, 2008.

The V&A’s outstanding exhibition Cold War Modern: Design 1945–1970 may be a thing of the past, but the exhibition catalogue lives on! In this glossy tome, design historians David Crowley and Jane Pavitt chronicle the effect of the Cold War on culture, from architecture and film to cars and kitchens. It’s a great place to begin your discovery of the art of this world-changing era.

On sale at the V&A Shop.

Image: Supermen, cover image for Opus Magazine, by Roman Cieslewicz, Paris, 1968