Cuban-American artist and illustrator Edel Rodríguez's work has been on the covers of Time, Newsweek, and more. He believes art is a tool for social change.

Chances are, you’ve seen his work. Bold, bright colors and clean lines — his simple, straight-forward depictions of President Trump’s featureless face are instantly recognizable. Other presidential images of late include Donald Trump’s melting cameo, reminiscent of a Dalí clock. Trump as a toddler. Trump holding up the severed head of Lady Liberty. Behind these images depicting the symbol of an America in crisis is Cuban-American artist and illustrator Edel Rodríguez.

Edel credits Cuba as an influence, particularly its revolutionary iconography and propaganda, as well as the impact that advertising had on him as a child and upon arrival in the United States. 

Edel Rodríguez’s art is punchy, full-bodied, and vivid. His subjects often address hot-button issues that are very much of the moment, such as immigration, democracy in peril, gun violence, free speech, and racial inequalities. Edel told Startup Cuba “there is always a place for art in any movement for social change. That doesn’t mean it makes all the change or all the difference. The impact of art is hard to calculate, but at minimum, art marks a point in time.”  

edel rodríguez
Photo credit: Deborah Feingold

Edel was born in Havana in 1971 and raised in the small farming town of El Gabriel. When he was nine, his family left for the United States during the Mariel Boatlift of 1980 and settled in Miami, bringing little with them but the clothes on their backs. Edel quickly caught up academically, winning a Spelling Bee within a few years of learning English, and graduating from Hialeah-Miami Lakes High School. 

edel rodríguez
Photo credit: Deborah Feingold

His migratory trajectory continued northward to New York, where he attended college at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and then began working in magazines. In 1994, Edel became the youngest art director to work on the Canadian and Latin American editions of Time magazine, where he stayed for thirteen years before departing to focus on his own work and his family. 

“Cubans are Cuban and no one can take that away from us.”

Edel Rodríguez

Edel has illustrated hundreds of magazine covers, theatrical and film posters, and book covers, including for classics by Chinua Achebe and Sandra Cisneros. He also designed the covers for the English translations of the science fiction trilogy by the Cuban writer who goes by YOSS. Like art, science fiction lends itself to a safer way for writers to communicate their thoughts on contemporary society and government. 

edel rodríguez
Artwork courtesy of Edel Rodríguez

Edel has also written and illustrated his own children’s books, Sergio Makes a Splash (2008) and Sergio Saves the Game (2009). In 2012, he received the Gold Medal in the category of Books from the Society of Illustrators. In 2016 he was named one of 50 Most Creative People of the Year by AdAge, and he received the Best Cover Winner award from the American Society of Magazine Editors.

Edel likes to take to the streets, tack up a couple of his prints with masking tape, and wait to see people’s reactions.

Edel credits Cuba as an influence, particularly its revolutionary iconography and propaganda, as well as the impact that advertising had on him as a child and upon arrival in the United States. 

Graphic design and illustration as art forms have had a place in Cuba since long before the 1959 Revolution, particularly evident in the covers of magazines such as Carteles, and, later, in revolutionary posters since 1959 and the remarkable collection of film posters designed for the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC).

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Today, some contemporary artists on the island manage to make bold and thought-provoking statements, such as José Toirac, through his depiction of iconic Cuban revolutionary figures or international advertising campaigns, that are “upcycled” and presented in new ways. During the recent pandemic, muralists and graffiti artists in Cuba have used street art to express their reaction to current events, such as the collection of murals comprising “Ciudad Corona” (Corona Town) by artist Yulier Rodriguez in Southern Havana, or the larger-than-life black-and-white mural of a child wearing a face mask, called “Coraje” (Courage), painted by the artist known as “Mr. Myl” last month in Havana.

“I’ve followed Cuban art since I was a child. I tend to be most interested in the painters and sculptors on the island, and those who have left. Artists like Alexandre Arrechea, Manuel Mendive, Jose Bedia, and Tania Bruguera, to name a few. There are many. Some of the artists in Cuba are commenting on the issues that are going on there and doing it to the best of their ability considering the censorship and restrictions that are in place,” says Edel.

edel rodríguez
Photo credit: Deborah Feingold

Edel is an artist of the people and for the people, and this extends to the way his work is distributed. His art is just as likely to hang in prestigious galleries or in the homes of collectors as it is to be found on a street corner in New York. 

“There are many voices and separate jurisdictions in this country… [Art] gives historians and future generations ways to understand what occurred during a past era.”

Edel Rodríguez

Perhaps the centrality of government to his early life helped inculcate imagery as a tool for resistance through art. Edel has expressed his desire for his cover art to serve as a tool to instigate difficult conversations, particularly in the case of magazines — when it’s on your coffee table or in the newstand, you’re going to talk about it with your family, with your friends. He described his provocative images as non-violent means of resistance. 

Edel likes to take to the streets, tack up a couple of his prints with masking tape, and wait to see people’s reactions. Many of his pieces are available for sale through his studio, as silkscreens or giclee prints. 

edel rodríguez
Last month, T-shirts featuring Edel’s images went up for sale on the website Agit Pop Shop

Though he doesn’t mind when people are inspired to create variations on his art —he recently came across a photo of a wall in Amsterdam where someone had painted one of his images, and he shared it on Twitter— reproducing it without permission is a different story. It must have come as a surprise to see his recent image of Trump ingesting Clorox reproduced in Juventud Rebelde, the Cuban newspaper of the Unión de Jóvenes Comunistas (Union of Young Communists). “I wouldn’t have given permission to them to publish my work because I don’t believe in what they stand for and don’t want my work published for propaganda purposes.” Edel was proactive about the situation, contacting the writer directly and appealing to shared cultural connections on a personal level. “I reached out to the writer and she apologized,” he says. “She had just downloaded the image from the internet and didn’t realize there was an author behind the work. It had already been published in the paper version but they removed it from their website immediately. I had a nice exchange with her, Cubans are Cuban and no one can take that away from us. I have good relations and great friends in Havana. I believe in communication as a catalyst for change.”

In December 2014, Edel came full circle, with a solo exhibition at the famed Galeria Latinoamericana at the Casa de las Américas in Havana. 

Edel has been called both a Cuban American and an American Cuban, but his art is indisputably universal.

“I think we can all agree that the ‘Black Lives Matter’ graphic in front of the White House has made an international impact,” says Edel. “It shows the world that the United States is not run by a tyrant or by a single ideology. There are many voices and separate jurisdictions in this country… [Art] gives historians and future generations ways to understand what occurred during a past era.”

edel rodríguez
Artwork courtesy of Edel Rodríguez. 

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