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An Interview with show curator, Daniel R. Smith
A 2015 Kosmos Seed Grant ‘Project of Promise’, the Seattle-Havana-Tehran Poster Show is a city-to-city collaborative exhibit featuring over 60 recent contemporary arts and culture posters. The show serves as a survey of contemporary popular culture and cutting-edge design from the U.S., Cuba and Iran. Posters are organized into “triplets”—one from each city—that share something common, such as color, shape, or subject matter. This ambitious project seeks to unite three politically and geographically disparate cities through the arts and spark a lively exchange.
What is a ‘citizen diplomat’ and what does it mean to you personally to collaborate in this way?
Daniel R. Smith: I’ve always been compelled to verify what I hear before I make up my mind about other people, from interpersonal gossip to mass media characterizations of other countries. Base generalizations designed to score political points (i.e. “Axis of Evil”) don’t sit well with me. I prefer to find out for myself what people are like on the other side of the divide. I started traveling internationally when I was a teenager, including a foray behind the iron curtain, and what I found is that people are people. They want peace and they want better relations with those they are told to despise.
To me, being a “citizen diplomat” is to travel to places considered out of bounds, see what’s there that’s beautiful, interesting, human, all that counters the reigning narrative at home—and bring it back to share with others. It’s a small act, but one that can have a ripple effect, bringing both sides a little closer to understanding.
How has this experience changed you?
DRS: Before I went to Havana and Tehran the first time, my friends and family were absolutely afraid for me. They worried about what could happen in those “hostile” countries. But I’ve never been welcomed so warmly anywhere else as an American. The first time I visited Cuba it seemed everyone had relatives in the states, or wanted to visit the states, there was no animosity. And in Iran, people were unbelievably excited to meet an American. This happened over and over again walking around the streets of Tehran. Iranians loved the fact that I made an effort to visit and see them as they are. Because of this, I’ve never been more sure of my ability to go anywhere on earth, make new friends, and have an incredible adventure along the way.
It’s such a compelling blend of art and activism—how can other young artists benefit from what you have learned on this journey?
DRS: I don’t think what I do is limited to art. When people ask about my projects as though it’s something they can’t do, I ask about their profession, hobbies, interests. Whatever your passion is, there’s no better reason to connect with someone in a place you’re curious about. I’m a graphic designer and my interest in posters is an automatic “in” with other designers wherever I go. And going is a matter of believing. There’s always a way. When I first thought about Iran (in the middle of the US war in Iraq) I didn’t know if was possible to go, but I soon found a way. And being young is a distinct advantage. Do it now. When I was a teenager and in my early 20s I traveled with little or no money and a backpack. Now I need a bed at night! Park benches seem a lot harder when you’re older.
Also, the further you get away from home the more likely it is to meet with people influential in their field. When I went to Tehran in 2007 I met with Reza Abedini, arguably the most famous, living, Iranian graphic designer. The same goal wouldn’t have worked in Paris or London, because coming from the U.S. wouldn’t have impressed anyone. Also very important is having an interesting idea, a proposal. People who are busy will want to know you have something to offer—you’re not just there to take up their time. i.e. It’s cool that you made it to Iran, but what happens next?
Another thing to think about (for anyone interested in doing this type of project) is what’s the legacy? The actual exhibit in Seattle is only 4 days long. Thousands of people will see it in those 4 days, but it’s still extremely brief. One of my goals in working with partners is to create something lasting like a catalog or a website, that will live on beyond the exhibition.
Additional comments by Pepe Menéndez, Havana co-curator.
Mr. Mendez has been a Graphic Designer since 1989 (ISDi, Design University, Havana) and is Design Director at the cultural center Casa de las Américas since 1999.
I am passionate about poster art and have been collecting posters for almost 20 years. I very much enjoy curating exhibitions or collaborating in that work. I frequently present Cuban posters to the public in Havana and other cities worldwide. But I had never participated in an idea like SHT SHOW: posters from three cities so distant from each other! It’s been a challenge to find visual relations in the contemporary creations of Seattle, Tehran and Havana to create these ‘triplets’, but the challenge was great fun. And, in addition, all the work was done via e-mail with my colleagues Daniel [R. Smith] and Iman [Raad].
Geographic, cultural and political distances among our nations have suddenly disappeared. May the enjoyment of this exhibition create a more open mind in each one of us and make us realize that prejudices and mistrust can always be overcome.
If you go: Seattle, September 4-7, 2015
SEPTEMBER 4, 3PM-8PM (FREE PUBLIC PREVIEW)
SEPTEMBER 5-7, 1:30PM-9PM (FESTIVAL TICKET REQUIRED)
INTERNATIONAL FOUNTAIN PAVILION, SEATTLE CENTER
305 HARRISON STREET, SEATTLE, WA 98109