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Latin American Poster Art

Brigid Mangano | Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Most people living in the United States take for granted the ability to read and write. In many parts of the world, however, illiteracy is a persistent problem. This presents great challenges to government agencies when they need to communicate important messages to citizens.

In the past, a common solution has been to hire graphic artists to convey the information using a visual language that is easily understood. The Snite Museum of Art offers an excellent example of such didactic art with its exhibition “Art at the Service of the People: Posters and Books from Puerto Rico’s Division of Community Education (DIVEDCO).”

The exhibit was organized by Marisel Moreno-Anderson and Thomas Anderson, professors in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, the exhibition is comprised of 28 posters and 10 book covers from their private collection.

These artworks were created in conjunction with a sweeping public education campaign launched in 1949 by Puerto Rico’s newly-elected governor at the time, Luis Muñoz Marín. Over the next 40 years, DIVEDCO commissioned local artists to help teach the largely illiterate, rural populations about public health issues, community-building, agrarian subsistence and their unique cultural heritage.

A recurring theme is the importance of continuing to cultivate the land, rather than moving to urban centers in search of jobs. Thanks to an American initiative known as Operation Bootstrap, which aimed to modernize and industrialize Puerto Rico, the island witnessed a massive relocation of its populations to San Juan and other cities. This crisis takes center stage in a poster advertisement for the 1953 film “Pedacito de Tierra” (“A Small Plot of Land”), in which a farmer pushes a wooden plow in the foreground. The image strongly recalls Jean-François Millet’s “The Sower,” a famous nineteenth-century painting of a monumental figure scattering seed in his fields. Both pictures depict agriculture as a heroic, worthwhile enterprise.

Several of the posters and books strive to spread awareness about easy preventive measures that can be help eradicate disease. In the dramatically titled “Sucedió en Piedras Blancas” (“It Happened among White Stones”), three young boys gather around a man who is testing the water in their habitual swimming area. Meanwhile, a large freshwater snail hangs ominously over the stream. This mollusk is the key to unlocking the image, because snails were frequent carriers of a parasitic disease called bilharzia. Children who swam in contaminated waters were the most frequent victims.

The front cover of the booklet “Bilharzia” features an even more urgent health message. A cracked skull that occupies almost half of the picture stares menacingly out at the viewer. This image of death suggests the fatal nature of the disease, even though its mortality rate was quite low relative to other diseases. At the bottom of the page, the capitalized title appears in a font reminiscent of the warning labels on medicine bottles.

Other artworks draw attention to Puerto Rico’s disappearing cultural traditions. In “El Santero” (“The Carver of Wooden Saints”), an elderly artisan hand-paints a wooden religious icon. The poster is an advertisement for a 1956 film about a craftsman whose business is threatened by the increasing availability of mass-produced plaster saints. The man’s bare feet, small stature, immaculate clothing and head bent in concentration all suggest a person of humble character. In the background, a shrine-like arrangement of figurines tower over their maker.

“Art at the Service of the People” will remain on view through March 11. Students and faculty should take advantage of this unique opportunity to find out more about the social uses of art in mid-20th century Puerto Rico.

On campus

What: “Art at the Service of the People: Posters and Books from Puerto Rico’s Division of Community Education (DIVEDCO)”

Where: Snite Museum of Art

When: Jan. 22 – Mar. 11

How Much: Free

Learn More: sniteartmuseum.nd.edu