Visionary  Aponte: art and freedom quarter note / Collective exhibition / I Center of Development of the Visual Arts / Calle San Ignacio No. 28 esq. Teniente Rey, Old Square,  Old Havana / September-October of 2019  




Aponte visionary: art and black freedom takes as its starting point an extraordinary - and now lost - historical object: the Book of paintings by José Antonio Aponte. Black free, craftsman and soldier. Aponte was the leader of an anti-slavery and anti-colonial conspiracy in 1812. When the insurrection failed, he was arrested, tried and forced to describe the images in his book. From these descriptions, 20 contemporary artists from the Caribbean, Cuba and the United States have reimagined Aponte's book for our times.

Aponte visionary first opened at the Little Haiti Cultural Center in Miami and later traveled to New York Universrty and Duke University in North Carolina. In 2019, it is inaugurated in Santiago de Cuba and in Havana, the birthplace of Aponte, which this year celebrates the fifth centenary of its foundation.

Grettel Arrate
José Bedia
María Magdalena Campos Pons
Juan Roberto Diago
Édouard Duval Carrié
Alexis Esquivel Bermudez
Teresita Fernandez
Alberto Lescay
Emilio Martinez
Emilio Adán Martínez
Tessa Mars
Clara Morera
Nina Mercer
Glexis Novoa
Vickie Pierre
Marielle Plaisir
Asser Saint-Val
Jean-Marcel St. Jacques
Renée Stout

Curators: Édouard Duval Carrié and Ada Ferrer

José Antonio Aponte, Creole habanero, black and free, was also a carpenter, soldier and artist.

In 1812 he was accused of leading a great anti-slavery conspiracy, precisely at a time when Cuba was emerging as one of the richest sugar and slave economies in the world. While investigating the conspiracy, the Spanish authorities discovered in Aponte's house an unusual work of art: a handmade book, whose author was Aponte himself.

Called by the Spanish authorities Book of paintings, the work contained 63 images combining original paintings and drawings, with a collage composed of cuttings taken from decorative fans, engravings and illustrations from books. His elaborate and varied compositions represented biblical stories and fertile landscapes; scenes from Egypt, Ethiopia, Rome, Spain, Havana and celestial images. Blacks also figured as emperors, warriors and librarians.

Although Aponte declared that he had created the book as a gift for the king of Spain, during the conspiracy he used it for very different purposes. With the book he taught his collaborators battle scenes that could serve as models for the rebellion in Havana. By showing them images of powerful blacks, or himself as future king, he revealed to them the existence of other possible worlds: black worlds that were, at the same time, free worlds.

Convinced of his guilt and the threat he posed to Cuba's slave economy, the colonial authorities condemned him: he was hanged in public on April 9, 1812. After he died, he was beheaded. His head, nailed to a spike and placed inside a steel cage, was exhibited near his home (on the corner of today's Belascoaín and Carlos III Streets) as exemplary punishment and warning - After Aponte's execution - we do not know exactly when - the Book of Paintings mysteriously disappeared.

Aponte's own testimony during his trial is all that remains of his fascinating book. This page (above) is a reproduction of a fragment of Aponte's testimony, preserved in the National Archives of Cuba. The interrogator's questions are marked in yellow. When answering the researcher's question, he asked him why he had drawn certain pages in this or that way. Aponte stated: "for reasons of history, like everything else in the book".

A transcript of Aponte's testimony about his book of paintings, by Chilean researcher Jorge Pavez, is available on the website Digital Aponte, sponsored by New York University. The website also contains additional information about Aponte, the book, his library and Havana of the time.

Aponte's story doesn't end in 1812.

In 20th century Cuba, the phrase "meaner than Aponte" was a common insult. Despite this, many people were inspired by Aponte's example and kept his memory alive over time. In the 1930s, the old Someruelos Street was given the name of Aponte, the name of the Spanish governor who had condemned him to death. In the 1940s, a commemorative plaque was unveiled in Havana. The Aponte Commission is currently developing cultural programmes to combat discrimination.

The renowned Cuban sculptor Alberto Lescay has designed a monument to the memory of José Antonio Aponte, which will be erected near Peñas Altas, the site of the slave rebellion conceived by Aponte and his companions. Entitled Aponte's Return, the sculpture seeks to symbolically deny his violent execution in 1812. With a height of more than nine meters, the piece represents Aponte escaping from a cage and raising his decapitated head.

Visionary Aponte is another kind of monument to the memory of José Antonio Aponte. Inspired by the descriptions of the book's images made by Aponte during his trial, the artists in the exhibition seek to re-imagine, as he did, the history of the black population and of freedom conceived beyond a single time or place. Through this act of re-imagination, the artists underline the role of art in the constant struggle for freedom and justice.