A report by Mike Christen for The Oak Ridger.
A collection of artworks on display at Vanderbilt University’s Cohen Gallery celebrates the overlooked history of an Afro-Cuban carpenter and artist who paid with his life after being accused for masterminding a rebellion more than 200 years ago.
In 1812, José Antonio Aponte was accused of a major a conspiracy and rebellion against slavery in Cuba. The same year, he was publicly hanged for his participation in the revolutionary effort. His head was then severed from his body and placed at a crossroads as a warning to others.
At the time, the Carribean island was home to one of the most-profitable sugar plantation economies in the world. An industry fueled by the work of black slaves.
Before the public execution, as the Spanish authorities investigated Aponte, they found his collection of 63 images, a series of paintings and drawings along with collage cutouts from books and engravings.
Named by the Spanish inquisitors as the “Book of Paintings,” the collection was the work of the 19th-century Afro-Cuban revolutionary. Although he testified that the project was made as a gift to the king of Spain, the collection was used as a tool to plan the uprising. Aponte showed his co-conspirators battle scenes contained within the personal anthology to illustrate how the rebellion should be organized.
With images of powerful black men ruling as kings, the work likely became a symbol and a promise of what the rebellion would bring.
As the original work remains lost, a group of artists have recreated what the collection of oral histories would have likely contained.
“Visionary Aponte: Art and Black Freedom,” on exhibition from Jan. 9 March 8 at Vanderbuilt University’s Cohen Memorial Hall, brings together 20 contemporary artists working across a range of media to interpret the lost historical artifact.
Curated by Édouard Duval-Carrié and Ada Ferrer, the exhibition was first presented in the Little Hatti Cultural Center of Miami and then New York University. In 2019, the show was on exhibition in Santiago, Cuba before coming to Middle Tennessee.
“The victors tell their stories how they want to,” Duval-Carrié told The Daily Herald after hosting a discussion at the Nashville gallery. “The history of slavery has so many omissions. When you put everything in context, it is one story and this one is very touching. This is a very touching history that encompasses centuries, continents and a very human tragedy.”
Aponte created a visual document that collected spanning centuries, from visits to the Vatican by the ambassadors from the Congo about 200 years before his time to paintings of Biblical stories and scenes from Egypt, Ethiopia, Rome and Spain.
“This had a historical and a cultural agenda beyond anything that we have heard of,” Duval-Carrié said. “He was very knowledgeable about his time and gathered the whole history of the black world. He would visit ports and talk to sailors. That is how he knew, by hear-say. He was determined to show that the black world had a serious history.”
One three-dimensional piece featured in the exhibition is a section of hollowed oak covered with an iron gate. Upon closer inspection, it is discovered that within the stump rests a pile of black sand.
“Aponte for me meant this strong figure that worked to liberate the class,” said Emilo Adán Martínez, the artist who created the piece. “It deals with slavery, captivity and prison. It has black sand inside in defense to the sugar business. I went with oak because it is a very strong wood and I thought he was a very strong person to give his life for a cause.”
Born in Cienfuegos, Cuba, Martínez lives and works in Miami.
Duval-Carrié said all of the artists included in the exhibition did their research when working on the project using sources and reference material connected to the revolutionary.
“Everywhere people are very touched by this story,” Duval-Carrié said. “In the black world, a lot of history have been silenced. If you are not the victim, you cannot claim anything except that you have lost. For the Caribbean and for the New World, this is a story that needs to be known.”
“Visionary Aponte” will serve as the centerpiece for several upcoming events for Vanderbilt University.
Here is a full list of upcoming events associated with the exhibition:
Curator’s Talk with Paula Covington, Found in Cuba: The Ingenuity and Artistry of Ediciones Vigía
Thursday, January 23, 4 to 6 p.m.
Special Collections Gallery, Central Library
Paula Covington, Latin American & Iberian bibliographer and senior lecturer in Latin American Studies at Vanderbilt University, will deliver a curator’s talk on her concurrent exhibit “Found in Cuba: The Ingenuity and Artistry of Ediciones Vigía.” This display, on view at Central Library’s Special Collections Gallery through March 2020, will spotlight handcrafted books originally produced by an artist collective and publishing house in Matanzas, Cuba. An opening reception will follow the talk.
Alejandro de la Fuente: New Perspectives on the Black Atlantic
Thursday, February 20, 4 to 6 p.m.
Community Room of the Jean and Alexander Heard Libraries
Alejandro de la Fuente is the Robert Bliss Woods Professor of Latin American History and Economics, professor of African and African American Studies and of History, and director of the Afro-Latin American Research Institute at Harvard University. A historian of Latin American and the Caribbean who specializes in the study of comparative slavery and race relations, de la Fuente will deliver the 2020 Black Atlantic Speaker’s Series Lecture. His works on race, slavery, and Atlantic history have been published in Spanish, English, Portuguese, Italian, German, and French. He is also the curator of two art exhibits dealing with issues of race: Queloides: Race and Racism in Cuban Contemporary Art and Grupo Antillano: The Art of Afro-Cuba.
Closing Lectures and Reception
Thursday, February 27, 2020, 4 to 6 p.m.
Ada Ferrer, Aponte: A Black Kingdom of this World and Jane Landers, An Untapped Source for the History of José Antonio Aponte: The Slave Societies Digital Archive
Cohen Memorial Hall, Room 203 & Atrium
At this closing event, exhibition co-curator and NYU Julius Silver Professor of History and Latin American and Caribbean History Ada Ferrer will present on her historical research—which ultimately inspired the creation of Visionary Aponte as a contemporary art exhibition. Jane Landers, Gertrude Conway Vanderbilt Professor of History, director of the Slave Societies Digital Archive and lead faculty for the International Initiative for the Study of Slave Societies, will also speak on historical sources for the life and death of José Antonio Aponte recently discovered in the Slave Societies Digital Archive. A closing reception for the exhibition will follow.