From featuring polemic work on its cover to becoming an art director at Time Magazine, Edel Rodríguez certainly has a way with imagery. You might have seen his Trump in flames, Mao in a Louis Vuitton suit or Che Guevara in the Nike tick beret. Fellow art director at Time, Arthur Hochstein, locates Rodriguez’ work as transcendent of illustration due to its timeless quality, and we couldn’t agree more. We talk to the Cuban-born artist about truth, censorship and the danger of, albeit unintentionally, satirising some of the most powerful men alive.
Moving from communist Cuba to capitalist America at 9 years old sparked your interest in politics. What was it about your childhood that inspired you?
When we arrived in the United States, I was surrounded by regular family conversations about what had happened. My family’s friends would gather and talk about the journey from Cuba to America, things they had been through, how much they missed our hometown, and the families they left behind. All of those conversations made an impact on me and made me interested in political topics at a young age. I became interested in stories about migration, about World War II, the Holocaust, and so on. Politics was a topic that was ever present in my family’s life, something that affected us in a real way, so it was natural to want to deal with the issues via my work.
Talking to Time about the motivation behind your work, you say, “I always feel someone is being victimised, someone is being taken advantage of and I feel like I need to speak about that”. Is speaking about it enough?
Having conversations about the issues is one way to make change, and art can start discussions. There are other ways to bring attention to a subject, like investigative journalism or getting into politics, but making art about the issues is where I feel my experience and talent can make the most impact.
Your cover for Time of a furious Trump in flames ended up being received by a larger audience than expected, as the Internet jumped on it. Do you think this was thanks to the political moment or does this illustration possess a unique characteristic, compared to previous pieces?
I’ve noticed that what creates a deep connection between an image and a viewer is a combination of both the image’s graphic impact and proper timing. I think that was the case with this cover.
Wikipedia calls your work “socialist propaganda”, which made me smile. Do you identify with that label?
I don’t believe Wikipedia calls my work “socialist propaganda”. The website states that my work is informed by many things, including Western advertising, socialist propaganda, island culture, and city life. These are aspects of the places I’ve lived, they are part of those societies, so they naturally show up in my work in one way or another. I don’t identify with the words ‘socialist’ or ‘propaganda’. I vehemently oppose those things. If I reference those two things in my work, it is to subvert their meaning and criticize them.
Intersectional feminism and equality are themes that come up in your art. What can the privileged do to support required changes in society?
We should all work toward an equal and just society for all sexes and races. If you see something that is not equal or fair, you should work to make it so, by voting for candidates that support equality, helping those groups gain a footing in your chosen field, and by backing up members of those groups when they seek help.
You discuss the importance of truth and honesty in your illustrations, but some galleries have been forced out of fear to censor what they choose to exhibit. In a way, does this type of censorship alter what the collective understands as truth?
Yes, any kind of censorship distorts the truth. Fortunately, we now have the power to self publish our work online. There are new ways to get around censors and institutions and get your work to the people. Many times, institutions are just trying to avoid controversy, but that is where the conversations and change occur.
Have you ever felt like you are putting yourself at risk through your political commentary?
There is always some sort of risk when you speak your mind but censoring oneself is a higher risk. Self censorship is a large burden to carry for an artist.
In your travel illustrations of Cuba, citizens slump indifferently next to proud symbols of political change, e.g. graffiti reading ‘viva la revolución’. What is your intention with these pieces?
My intention was to show the reality of the Cuban revolution. These drawings were done on trips to my hometown in Cuba. There are upbeat slogans of support for the Revolution in the streets, propaganda put up by the government. The conversations in the back rooms of people’s houses are very different. Most foreigners or visitors don’t understand what happens on the island on a daily basis.
Che Guevara wears a Nike tick on his beret and headphones in Brand CAChe, your 2006 cover of Communication Arts magazine. Today, I see so many de-politicised Che Guevara and Frida Kahlo images for sale. Is your art a criticism of disturbing capitalist appropriation of communist images?
It is that, but it is also a critique of the commercial ways the image is used by the Communist party to sell merchandise in Cuba. It is on everything, sold at airports, tourist shops, and so on. Che has become a commodity of the state.
What can we expect from your up-and-coming talk at OFFF Festival, Barcelona?
I’ll be speaking about how my work has developed, sometimes in unexpected ways. My family and I have taken risks, both personal and creative, that in due time, end up bearing fruit. With so much knowledge at our fingertips nowadays, we sometimes lose a sense of what it is to go with your gut, to take a leap of faith. These are some of the aspects of being an artist I will be talking about in Barcelona.