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Why designers in Havana, Seattle and Tehran are ‘more alike than different’

Video produced by Stacey Jenkins and Laila Kazmi for KCTS.

When artists in Seattle, Havana and Tehran get together, there are “no politics [and] no prejudices.” That’s the premise for a new traveling exhibit displaying the work of graphic designers in all three cities, co-curated by artists from each city.

The idea began with a collaboration between Seattle-based designer Daniel Smith and Cuban designer Pepe Menéndez, who met when Smith was in Havana 10 years ago to participate in an exhibition there. Smith said the trip made him consider the similarities between artists in Seattle and Havana.

“I got to meet curators and designers and saw the work that was happening there,” Smith said. “It was very personal, very raw, and it sort of felt [similar to] what was happening in Seattle.”

Menéndez and Smith decided to co-curate a poster show featuring designers based in both cities. “I felt like it was important as a citizen to do something, to be engaged with people from other countries and to travel, and especially to places like Cuba,” Smith said. The Seattle-Havana show debuted at the 2007 Bumbershoot festival at Seattle Center.

At the time, the U.S. and Cuba did not have a diplomatic relationship, but Smith said collaboration across borders was still possible. “No one along the way ever said, ‘Why are you working with the Cubans?’” Smith said.

After Seattle, the duo displayed the poster show in Havana and donated the work to a museum. But Smith wanted to expand the project and began researching graphic designers working in Iran’s capital. He traveled to Tehran, where he met designer and eventual co-curator Iman Raad. They collaborated to produce a Seattle-Tehran poster show in 2008.

For the current exhibit, Smith, Menéndez and Raad joined forces to showcase the work of all three cities in a poster display. “When we see what the other is doing — and recognize ourselves — we arrive at the truth; we are more alike than different,” the group said in a statement on their website.

The show is educational for designers in each of the cities, Menéndez said.

“For me, and for my colleagues and friends in Havana, this show … allows us to learn more about Tehran, because it’s very far away; it’s a different culture, different language, different tradition,” Menéndez said. “What you are doing is learning more about yourself when you look at the other reality.”

The poster show premiered in Seattle in September and will travel to Tehran in January 2016 before finishing in Havana in April.

Local Beat is an ongoing series on Art Beat that features arts and culture stories from PBS member stations around the nation.