Ramon Tejada, 2022–23 Graphic Designer in Residence, muses on the multiplicity of perspectives on Latin American graphic design represented within the Institute for Studies on Latin American Art (ISLAA) Library and Archives, drawing upon printed matter and ephemera produced by artists and organizations, including Centro de Arte y Comunicación (CAYC), Galería Lirolay, and Ulises Carrión.
This text is part of ISLAA’s Online Editorials series, which was launched in 2021 to bring international visibility to works from the organization’s collection and to foster novel research by historians, curators, and artists working in the field of Latin American art. By inviting collaborators who range from scholars to artistic practitioners, the multilingual series acknowledges that the history of art is written both in the academy and on the ground.
As a graphic designer, diggingDigging is used here as a nod to Gloria Anzaldúa and James Baldwin, who speak in their works and writings about the idea of excavating one’s lineage. through the ISLAA Library and ArchivesArchives are complicated spaces with limited scope, a selection that is determined by many factors. They are also full of possibilities, discoveries, and joy. was inspiring yet overwhelming, due to the sheer wealth of printed matter, graphic design works, and what I refer to as “artes graficás.”Artes gráficas means graphic arts in Spanish. For the purposes of this text, I am using this term to indicate more inclusive, community-based artistic practices. What emerged was a picture of the beauty, breadth, and complexity of the Latin American art and design communities. As I reflected on my findings, a loose array of ideas, questions, and observations about works of graphic design began to take shape. These thoughts (words, sentences, strands of ideas, histories) have prompted me to reflect on what I thought I was going to find and what I actually found. The graphic designer in me was intentionally looking for works that spoke about community, colonization, revolution, and politics in the continent. I ultimately found that and much more.
As I anticipated, I encountered a good deal of modernist-influenced graphic art in the archives. What I did not anticipate was the breadth of work that I would find, its many sources—cooperatives, communities, artists, designers, craftspeople—and the panorama of themes and narratives it addressed in relation to the daily lives of the peoples of Latin America. Each archival box presented a plurality of perspectives, beautiful possibilities, and gifts.
My archival adventure emphatically confirmed that graphic work from Latin America defies distillation into a single essence. The landscape of the Latin American context is vast, rich, and varied, spinning beautifully toward pluriversalHere, I am referencing the work of Arturo Escobar and the many Latin American scholars who have helped shape the field of decolonial studies and challenged design to shift toward more open, communal, and respectful practices. ways of being.
1. It is impossible to talk about Latin America (and its artistic and design production) without considering its history and the confluence of factors that played a vital role in the continent’s artistic development:
Colonialism → Politics → Power grabs → Religious interventions → Revolutions → Social and political uprisings → Migration and immigration → The disappearance, erasure and marginalization of the Indigenous and local histories → The conflict between la gente/el pueblo(the people) and the bourgeoisie
These are all key motivators and influences that are present in the efforts of many artists and designers whose works originate in the complex societies of Latin America.
2. The influence of European ideas, either through colonization or, later, through migration, has left an undeniable and indelible imprint on the work of artists and designers from Latin America.
3. Historically, the field of graphic designThe term “graphic design” is credited to the US designer W.A. Dwiggins, who used the phrase to describe his work as an illustrator, advertising artist, calligrapher, typographer, type designer, and book designer in an interview with the Boston Evening Transcript in 1922. has focused on and elevated the work and thinking of the Global North. Like much of art and design, the fields of graphic design and typography emerge from the European Renaissance and modernist movements in Europe (such as the Bauhaus and its progeny). These ideals and ways of seeing and making have been codified as accepted or “universal” norms.
4. Graphic design should be referred to as Western European graphic design.
5. Graphic design in the contemporary Latin American context has been deployed for commerce and capitalistic endeavors—“Buen diseño para la industria” (good design for industry)—such as branding for multinational corporations and state-owned entities).Felipe Taborda and Julius Wiedemann, eds. Latin American Graphic Design (Hong Kong: Taschen, 2008).
6. Local culture, el pueblo, and la gente are expressed through artes gráficas (graphic arts).
7. Artes gráficas move through communities; they are more inclusive, pluralistic, and localized; and they maintain a fluid way of being that mirrors the continent’s cultures, histories, and geographical landscapes. They consider the interdisciplinary movement of artists and communities through artistic mediums, ways of making, gestures, ideas, and perspectives.
8. In a local context, artes gráficas are deployed to create works that speak to the community in languages specific to those being addressed: Diseño que ayuda a facilitar la creación de una comunidad social y política, llena de ideas y felicidad, manifested through espacios públicos, acciones, acciones gráficas, y lo colectivo. In this approach, local production methods are used in collaboration with community members to make work that speaks directly to the community. The artists and designers who create artes gráficas experiment with the “standards” of graphic design in localized ways, using what has been left behind by colonialism writ large.This is a reference to Oswald de Andrade, “Manifesto Antropófago.” Oswald de Andrade, “Manifesto Antropófago,” Revista de Antropofagia 1 (May 1928): 3, 7. The digitized text can be found via the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing of the Uniiversity of Pennsylvania, https://writing.upenn.edu/library/Andrade_Cannibalistic_Manifesto.pdf. A Spanish translation of the text is also available on the Education section of the official website for the City of Buenos Aires, https://buenosaires.gob.ar/areas/educacion/cepa/manifiesto_antropofago.pdf.
9. Latin American artists and designers deploy artes gráficas to gather, join, develop, and support communities. In these communities, conversations and ideas about cultures and politics emerge from a multitude of perspectives.
10. These communities are making “designs [and art] that foster convivial reconstruction beyond the cultures of expertise and that promote a pluriverse of partially connected worlds in which all worlds strive for justice and craft autonomous relational ways of being while respecting the ability of other worlds to do the same.”Arturo Escobar, “Autonomous Design and the Emergent Transnational Critical Design Studies Field,” Strategic Design Research Journal 11, no. 2 (May–August 2018): 139–46, quoted in Design Struggles, eds. Claudia Mareis and Nina Paim (Amsterdam: Valiz, 2021), 37.
11. When we speak of typography in the context of design, we are generally referring to a tradition that is primarily defined by the Latin alphabet.
12. In the words of designer and curator Ellen Lupton, “Typography is what language looks like.” For the purposes of this text, we are speaking primarily of giving the Spanish and Portuguese languages—holdovers of colonialism in the continent—a visual form. This linguistic homogeneity is in stark contrast to the lingual wealth that preceded colonization. Some studies estimate that more than two thousand languages were spoken throughout the Americas.Marc Becker, “Indigenous Languages in Latin America,” Yachana. Despite the devastation caused by the European conquest, there are currently more than four hundred languages spoken in Latin America—some quite widely, such as Quechua and Guaraní, which are respectively used by ten million and six-and-a-half million people today.
13. Since the invention of the letterpress in 1455, printed matter—such as announcements, newspapers, and flyers—has become an important and accessible mode of communicating and sharing ideas.Although graphic design history gives much credit to Gutenberg, block printing or movable type was invented in China centuries earlier by the artist Bi Sheng (990–1051) and was subsequently revolutionized and developed by artists in Japan and Korea before arriving in Europe.
14. The first traditional printing press in the Americas appeared in Mexico City around 1539.Gerald A. Padilla, “First Printing Press in the Americas was Established in Mexico,” Latino Book Review, February 19, 2017. The history of printed matter and its use in disseminating ideas (artistic, social, and political) has deep roots in Latin America. An example is the work of the “Taller de Gráfica Popular,” founded in Mexico City in 1937.The Art Institute of Chicago holds a significant collection of work by Taller de Gráfica Popular and has produced important resources on the workshop’s history. “Taller de Gráfica Popular,” Art Institute of Chicago. The collective’s printed matter dealt with various subjects, including history and political and social themes.
15. Digging through the ISLAA Library and Archives, one encounters various iterations of modernism. The works in the reading room present extensive incorporation of the codified gestures of Western European graphic design and typography: the exacting use of grids and typographic conventions of the European Modernists (see the press announcements and catalogues from the Centro de Arte y Comunicación [CAYC]); a sharp focus on order, hierarchy, clarity, and reduction (especially apparent in the work created in the second half of the twentieth century); and the abandonment of maximalist and ornamental gestures in favor of functional, reductive ones.
16. Of particular prevalence in this period is the use of sans serif typefaces, particularly the Swiss Helvetica,Helvetica is also ubiquitous within corporate branding. which were readily accessible to printers and used extensively in work created for corporations, business, and industry. Helvetica and the associated design approach and philosophy became the “good” way to communicate visually worldwide: the universal style. This approach was believed to provide the work with authority and legitimacy. The visual language of forms created in Europe thus became cemented as the norm.
17. These forms (graphic gestures such as Helvetica, which were associated with hierarchy and order) carry centuries of baggage. They are part of colonization’s legacy of brutalization of the land, the Indigenous peoples, and their ideas, customs, and language. These typographic artifacts have become a manifestation of centuries of atrocities and erasure.
18. Modernist typographic forms (Helvetica) and structures (grids and other comparable compositional approaches to “organizational clarity”) gave this printed matter authority and legitimacy while often bypassing established local vernaculars.Here, I found the work of Cecilia Vicuña and the writing of César Paternosto (in particular his 1996 book The Stone and the Thread: Andean Roots of Abstract Art) incredibly prescient and potent.
19. Designer, researcher, and editor Silvia Fernández writes, “This modernity—or, better, ‘proto-modernity’—brought the period of ‘good taste and good speaking’ adopted from the Spanish colonizers to an end. Nevertheless, it was connected to Europe: travelers, immigrants, and exiles carried in their luggage testimonies of modernity in the form of books, magazines, works of art, and above all, ideas, which—along with the local ‘Criolla’ [lo cotidiano] culture—formed the new imaginary.”Silvia Fernández, “The Origins of Design Education in Latin America: From The HfG in Ulm to Globalization,” Design Issues 22, no. 1 (Winter 2006): 3–19.
20. Of the printed matter that I encountered in the ISLAA Library and Archives, I gravitated particularly toward invitations and records of gatherings and meetings. These objects are examples of design and artes gráficas in the service of and as a conduit for community—they create spaces for engagement, gathering, and discussion. These “communities” included galleries and pop-ups that functioned outside of institutional spaces.
21. Printed matter and typography are conduits for building local communities.
22. Printed matter and Mail art are forms of decentered, communally created art and design. The networked and multireferential nature of these forms co-opt systems of power and put them to novel and anti-institutional use. Regarding Mail art’s relationship with state institutions such as the postal service, Mexican artist and publisher Ulises Carrión said that the art movement “knocks at the doors of the castle where the Big Monster lives.”Powerfully democratizing printed matter, Carrión’s work is exuberant, created in community with local printers and makers (albeit in Amsterdam, not his native Mexico), and deviates with pride from the prevailing modernist and institutional approaches that were so prevalent in art and design in the 1970s and 1980s.
SOME ADDITIONAL WORKS FROM THE ARCHIVES
Founded in Buenos Aires in 1968, CAYC was a multidisciplinary space that created a platform for the development of new and experimental art. The group’s visual identity aligned with the prevailing gestures of European modernist graphic design at the time, employing Helvetica in their logo and systematizing their printed matter (including invitations, press releases, and catalogues) through the use of a grid. It is not without irony that this controlled, hierarchical visual language was used to present the work of artists who critiqued colonial power in Latin America.Ella Ravilious, “Centro de Arte y Comunicación (CAYC)," Victoria and Albert Museum Blog, July 8, 2016.
Galeria Lirolay (1960–81) is credited with giving a home to the countercultural Argentine artistic movements of the 1960s. Several of the graphic works that the gallery produced were created by the designer Edgardo Giménez,“Lirolay, la galería que inventó los años 60 en la Argentina,” Clarín, September 2, 2005. then considered an enfant terrible, at times in collaboration with the designer Ricardo Blanco. These invitations to group shows and gatherings veer from templated formulae toward more expressive, colorful, and daring typography. For example, the invitation for an exhibition of textiles by the artist Nora Agrest uses the typeface Cooper Black, departing from the prevailing use of sans serif gothic typefaces in this kind of printed piece. The invitation’s design is pushed further by the inclusion of hand drawings, creating a surface on which Agrest’s local language meets more rigid modernist design gestures.
Ulises Carrión is often considered one of the key figures of Mexican Conceptual art. He was born in San Andrés Tuxtla, Mexico, in 1972, and, after finishing his studies, he moved his practice to Amsterdam, where he opened the highly influential Other Books and So, a distribution center for artists’ publications and multiples. He is one of the key figures and proponents of Mail art. Carrión’s highly fluid production style (which spans typography, handwriting, typewriting, stamps, and ephemera) removes itself from the neatly organized and minimalist conceptual works of many art and design “heroes.” It is idiosyncratic, maximalist, exuberant, and humane in its ways of engaging, talking, and opening to fluidity.
Ramon Tejada is a DominicanYork (of Dominican American and Afro-Caribbean descent) designer and educator based in Providence, Rhode Island, and occasionally in Southern California. He works in a hybrid design/teaching practice focused on collaboration, inclusion, unearthing, and the responsible expansion of design, a practice he has named “puncturing.” Tejada is an assistant professor in the graphic design department at the Rhode Island School of Design.
It has not been possible to locate the copyright holders of the ephemera from Artemúltiple and Galería Lirolay, despite having carried out a diligent search. ISLAA makes itself available to rights holders to agree on the content of the legal notice.