Posters by (left to right) David Gallo of Seattle, Darwin Fornés of Havana, and Shahrzad Changalvaee of Tehran, at Bumbershoot 2015.
Posters by (left to right) David Gallo of Seattle, Darwin Fornés of Havana, and Shahrzad Changalvaee of Tehran, at Bumbershoot 2015. COURTESY THE ARTISTS

People aren't governments. And so Daniel Smith's entire point was to unite ground-level urban cultures in nations that are politically or officially separated. Over the last decade, the Seattle designer traveled to Havana, Tehran, and Moscow, and collaborated with poster designers in each city to create exhibitions that would originate at Bumbershoot and then travel to those cities, if political conditions allow it. This year's rich and thoroughly engaging show is the biggest yet—a blockbuster pairing not two cities but three. Smith and his two co-curators from Havana and Tehran (Moscow is not included here) are kiddingly calling it The SHT Show.

I interviewed Smith last week, and got to see the show this morning at the Fountain Pavilion at Seattle Center (opening tonight). It includes 69 posters divided into 23 groups of 3. Each triptych has one poster from each city—Seattle, left, Havana, center, Tehran, right.

Sex in the cities: Chad Lundberg, Edel Rodriguez (Mola), and Iman Raad.
Sex in the cities: Chad Lundberg, Edel Rodriguez (Mola), and Iman Raad. Courtesy of the artists

Seattle's posters are the messiest, with visual static and fuzzy lines. They're detailed, ironic, nostalgic, and sometimes cartoonishly infantile, throwing back to funk and pop art. Havana's are mostly what you might associate with classic Latin American graphic design: bold, with solid forms, hard edges, and saturated colors. They're detailed, too, and the most straight-faced. Tehran's layered posters are the hardest to categorize. They have range and aesthetic ambition; they weave together script, photographic material, flat imagery, and 3D illusionism.

But Smith and his fellow curators, Pepe Menéndez and Iman Raad, would like you to notice similarities as much as differences. Their reason is simple. We don't really know each other yet as peoples. This is the first time Menéndez is traveling to the US; he couldn't get a visa for the Seattle-Havana show in 2006. In 2007, when Smith did the first Seattle-Tehran show, the exhibition itself was not able to travel to Iran after its Bumbershoot appearance. The political situation had gotten too dangerous. The SHT Show is scheduled to go to both cities in 2016, and "it's a huge deal to be hosted by an institution [in Tehran]," Smith said. The host will be a design school.

"Most people haven’t imagined what people do in Iran, versus, 'Oh, they’re an enemy,'" Smith told me. The lives of ordinary Iranians, and Cubans for that matter, don't "show up in our news. When you actually show up and meet people, it’s different. You would never think about bombing them. We’re the same on this basic level."

Similarities appear in subject as well as style. Seattle's fuzziness and detail was attractive to Cuban designers back in 2006, so they began incorporating it along with their new technological experiments.

"In the past, they’d use hand-cut screens, so they didn’t have the texture," Smith explained. "Now they’re getting more of the digital or photographic screens. If you see the first set at the top [of the show's web site, where all the posters are visible], see the masked wrestler? All of the texture in that red—that’s a thing they would attribute to seeing the show from Seattle. If you scroll down, to the Oliver Stone film [the poster for South of the Border], that’s more traditional Cuban design, those solid colors."

In Cuba, Smith said, it's not legal to post posters on the streets. They're shown in galleries or theaters, traded, or sold to tourists. In Tehran, as in Seattle, posters proliferate on streets, where the designs respond to "the scale of the city: huge boulevards, monstrous overpasses, huge pillars."

One triptych demonstrates three approaches to naked bodies and to sexuality.

The Seattle contribution, by Chad Lundberg, is a poster for a pop band called Nude, playing at Capitol Hill Block Party. The whole poster is a single color—Crayola's white-people-flesh color—except the bottom center tip of the paper, where a patch of wiry pubic hair rises in a flare, and spells out the band name. The sex is peekaboo, hippie and puritan at once.

From Havana, there's a black, masculine-looking body on its knees by Edel Rodriguez (Mola), with lines that suggest the movements of every fiber of muscle. Bright white text crowds at the genitals, forming the fan shape of a vaginal V. Those letters spell En el cuerpo equivocado, a documentary about the first transgender woman to have reassignment surgery in Cuba in 1988. The design is clear, political, and beautiful.

Tehran curator Raad worried that the Nude poster from Seattle would be too overtly genital to show in Tehran. But meanwhile, Raad's contribution to the sex-and-nudity triptych is a completely unmistakable evocation of a vaginal V with a labial gap at the center. The shape of the gap is so irregular that it's delightfully obscene. Yet it's also perfectly abstract for deniability purposes. The poster advertised a feminist art show, Raad explained, and as long as the naked parts were clothed in the code of abstraction, they were just fine.

This fall, Raad began graduate school in art at Yale. Maybe, someday, global culture will be so soupily mixed up that everything will look more or less the same. But for now, The SHT Show is the best of both worlds of separation and connection.