Between the Lines

 Visionary Aponte: Art and Black Freedom


painting by Alexis Esquivel
Alexis Esquivel, Like fire burns in living flames, 2018, acrylic on canvas, courtesy of the Afro-Latin American Research Institute, Harvard University

The University Art Gallery’s spring 2020 exhibition, Visionary Aponte: Art and Black Freedom, was selected by the Nashville Scene as the Best University Exhibition of the past year. The show, curated by Édouard Duval Carrié and Ada Ferrer, was organized at Vanderbilt by Interim Curator Emily Weiner with Collections Manager and Registrar Kali Mason. Many hands went into the work on this exhibition. Vanderbilt University co-sponsors included the Department of Art, Department of History, Center for Latin American Studies, Jean & Alexander Heard Libraries and Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities. The exhibition was also made possible with the support of New York University Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, New York University Provost’s Global Research Initiatives, Green Family Foundation, Art Basel Miami Beach, Knight Foundation, Little Haiti Cultural Complex, The Haitian Cultural Arts Alliance, Miami-Dade County, New York University King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center, and Duke Forum for Scholars and Publics.

Exhibition catalog

Exhibition press

Visionary Aponte: Art and Black Freedom brought together twenty contemporary artists working across a range of media to interpret an extraordinary—and now lost—historical artifact: a so-called “Book of Paintings” created by José Antonio Aponte, a nineteenth-century Afro-Cuban revolutionary and artist. Authorities found the “Book of Paintings” in 1812 during the investigation into a major antislavery conspiracy in Havana. During the trial, Aponte was forced to describe his book in detail. Its pages portrayed lush landscapes and Biblical stories; Roman goddesses and Spanish kings; black men as warriors, emperors, and librarians; Rome and Ethiopia; Havana and the heavens. Shortly after testifying, Aponte was publicly executed, his head severed from his body, and placed on a pike inside a cage in a well-travelled crossroads in the city. Then, his “Book of Paintings” disappeared. Using Aponte’s trial testimony—which is all that is known to remain of the “Book of Paintings”—the artists included in Visionary Aponte  reimagined Aponte’s book for our present. They experiment with ways to mitigate the violence of the colonial archive and invite us to think about the role of art in envisioning and making social change.

Artists included: Grettel Arrate Hechavarría (Santiago, Cuba), José Bedia (Miami), María Magdalena Campos-Pons (Nashville), Juan Roberto Diago (Havana, Cuba), Édouard Duval Carrié (Miami), Alexis Esquivel Bermudez (Cuba/Spain), Jöelle Ferly (Guadalupe), Teresita Fernández (New York), Alberto Lescay (Santiago), Tessa Mars (Port-au-Prince, Haiti), Emilio Martínez (Miami), Emilio Adán Martínez (Miami), Nina Angela Mercer (New York), Clara Morera (North Carolina), Glexis Novoa (Miami), Vicki Pierre (Miami), Marielle Plaisir (Miami), Asser Saint-Val (Miami), Jean-Marcel Saint-Jacques (New Orleans) and Renée Stout (Washington, D.C.).

Visionary Aponte, which originally opened in Miami’s Little Haiti Cultural Center during Art Basel 2017, has traveled to King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center at New York University, Power Plant Gallery at Duke University, Centro de Desarrollo de las Artes Visuales in Havana, and Galería Arte Soy in Santiago, Cuba before arriving at the Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery.

A series of programs was organized by the Arts Gallery in conjunction with the exhibition:

  • Exhibition opening reception in Cohen Hall Atrium, featuring Batá drums by Yosvany Cordero
  • A Q&A with artists exhibition co-curator  and artist Edouard Duval Carrié and Cornelius Vanderbilt Endowed Chair of Fine Arts, María Magdalena Campos-Pons
  • Curator’s Talk with Latin American & Iberian bibliographer and senior lecturer in Latin American Studies at Vanderbilt University Paula Covington, “Found in Cuba: The Ingenuity and Artistry of Ediciones Vigía”
  • Alejandro de la Fuente, 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: 2020 Black Atlantic Speaker’s Series Lecture: “New Perspectives on the Black Atlantic”
  • Closing Lectures and Reception: exhibition co-curator and NYU Julius Silver Professor of History and Latin American and Caribbean History Ada Ferrer, “Aponte: A Black Kingdom of this World” and 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, “An Untapped Source for the History of José Antonio Aponte: The Slave Societies Digital Archive”