In New York, 1968 was the year pop art lost its fizz, after Andy Warhol was shot and hedonistic nights at The Factory came to an end. But, as the ‘World Goes Pop’ show at Tate Modern (now in its last weekend) has shown, by 1968 repressed populations around the world – from Latin America to Eastern Europe – were already getting serious about pop. Less interested in the form's glamour, they had caught on to the potential power behind its wide-reaching aesthetic.

In Brazil, 1968 was the year a forceful protest movement began to seriously challenge the military dictatorship. Claudio Tozzi, one of the artists included in ‘The World Goes Pop’, now has his first solo show in London. It explores how he adopted – and adapted – the language of pop to serve the people’s political cause, through powerful images of crowd scenes and heroic pictures of Che Guevara.

Tozzi was an architecture student at the time of the São Paulo protests. He considered himself a journalist, collecting images and information from the movement. The question was: how to get the information out there? And the answer: pop.

'[Pop artists] used a language very similar to the visual solutions employed by mass media and advertising, resources used in comic strips, images in black and white contrasts, and urban signaling elements that enabled a direct and objective identification with the viewer,' he says.

Tozzi started to explore silkscreen printing and to work with Liquitex, an acrylic resin broadly used by pop artists. He showed his work in public spaces – theatres, trade union headquarters – and the message was immediately communicated.

Giving up architecture, Tozzi adopted this practice, which came to be known as 'New Figuration' in Brazil, to further explore wider social-cultural issues, charting changing relationships between men and women and space travel. His ‘Astronauts’ series is a fantastically bold super-hero archetype, yet also a strangely uncanny formal exploration of the weightlessness of space.

W*: What was it that made you take the crowds of the May 1968 protests as your subject?
Claudio Tozzi: Crowds were 'visual reportage' of student protests against the regime of political and cultural oppression we lived at the time. Students and the people went to the streets to protest. There were interventions from the police forces that caused the expressions of fear and anger portrayed in my paintings. The intention was to expand awareness to a broader portion of the population about the student protest movements.

In A Conversa and Encontro you present some complex, ambiguous scenarios between men and women. What was going on there?
The political movements of the 1960s, hatched with the protests of May 1968 by young people around the world, contained, in addition to local political issues, a universal proposal for new social relations and power that manifested from affective relationships. The texts by Marcuse illustrate the issue. The emergence of the contraceptive pill and a very broad participation of women in society, active in the development of intellectual thoughts and in the composition of the labor force, contributed to greater freedom in their actions. These works register an existential moment of these encounters and conversations that proposed a reflection on these facts.

Did you paint the astronauts because they were heroes? 
The series of astronauts was a 'visual reportage' that recorded formal elements of slow physical movement, determined by the absence of gravity. They were universal heroes who represented the power of their country. The astronaut is the archetype of the hero.

What, in your opinion, makes an image good, yet able to speak to the masses?
The constructive process of the work, structuring the visual field with a correct relationship between the elements of painting: the shape, the lines, colours and the textures allow a visual result that contributes to the beauty of the picture. The public perceives the beauty, which facilitates the communication.