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Visionary Aponte: Art and Black Freedom

Alexis Esquivel Bermudez

Alexis Esquivel Bermudez,  Como fuego arde en vivas llamas,  2018. Acrylic on canvas, 55 x 79 inches. Courtesy of Afro-Latin American Research Institute, Harvard University.

Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery
Curated by Édouard Duval Carrié and Ada Ferrer

January 9–March 8, 2020*

*The gallery will be closed for Spring Break from March 2–7. We will be open for the last day of the exhibition on Sunday March 8.*

View Exhibition Catalog

Visionary Aponte: Art and Black Freedom brings 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 have 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 include: 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.).

The exhibition also incorporates—and the art engages—scholarly research on Aponte and his world by NYU Julius Silver Professor of History and Latin American and Caribbean History  Ada Ferrer, author of the prize-winning book Freedom’s Mirror: Cuba and Haiti in the Age of Revolution, and art historian Linda Rodríguez, curator of the digital humanities website Digital Aponte.

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. 

Vanderbilt University co-sponsors include 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 by 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.



Thursday, January 9, 5:00–7:00pm
Artists’ Talk and Opening Reception for Visionary Aponte: Art and Black Freedom 
Cohen Memorial Hall Atrium

5:30pm A gallery wall-through with co-curator Edouard Duval Carrié
6:00–7:00pm Batá drums by Yosvany Cordero 


Thursday, January 23, 4:00–6:00pm
Curator’s Talk with Paula Covington, Found in Cuba: The Ingenuity and Artistry of Ediciones Vigía
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.


Thursday, February 20, 4:00–6:00pm
Alejandro de la Fuente: New Perspectives on the Black Atlantic
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.


Thursday, February 27, 2020, 4:00–7:00pm
Closing Lectures and Reception
Ada Ferrer, Aponte: A Black Kingdom of this World 
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.



Grettel Arrate Hechavarría, Lamina No. 42 Testimonio de Aponte, 2019, mixed media on board, 104 x 84 cm. Courtesy of the artist.


Jose Bedia

José Bedia, Júbilo de Aponte, 2017, mixed media on mixed papers, 106 x 143 inches. Courtesy of the artist.


 Magdalena Campos Pons

María Magdalena Campos Pons, Cinco Apariciones, 2019, from the series Un Pedazo de Mar, watercolor, ink and gouache on paper, 56.5 x 76 cm. Courtesy of the artist.


Teresita Fernandez

Teresita Fernández, Aponte (Láminas 10-11), 2017, pyrite, oil, graphite on wood panel, 21.5 x 36 x 2 inches overall. Courtesy of the Artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York; photograph by Yolanda Navas.


Tessa Mars

Tessa Mars, Goddess of Memory, 2018. Acrylic on canvas, 101.6 x 127 cm. Courtesy of the artist.


Clara Morera

Clara Morera, The Preboste Juan (King Juan), 2017, mixed media on canvas, 72 x 48 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Dorfsman Fine Arts, Miami; photograph by Yolanda Navas.