José Antonio Aponte was a free Black carpenter, soldier, and artist in Havana.
In 1812, Aponte was accused of masterminding a major conspiracy and rebellion against slavery in Cuba, then one of the most profitable sugar plantation economies in the world.
Read more about Aponte and the Book of Paintings on the Digital Aponte humanities project website.
As the island’s Spanish authorities investigated Aponte, they found hidden in his house an unusual work of art, made by Aponte himself.
Authorities called it a “Book of Paintings,” though the term is somewhat misleading. It featured 63 images that combined painting and drawing with collaged cutouts taken from decorative fans, engravings, and books. His intricate compositions portrayed Biblical stories and lush landscapes; Black men as emperors, warriors, and librarians; scenes from Egypt and Ethiopia, Rome and Spain, Havana and the heavens.
Though Aponte testified that he made the book for the King of Spain as a gift, in the run-up to the rebellion he used the book for a very different purpose. He showed his co-conspirators the book’s battle scenes to illustrate how they should organize their own rebellion in Havana, and he pointed out pictures of powerful Black men and of himself as would-be king to show them that other worlds were possible.
José Nicolas de Escalera, Uniform of the Batallón de Morenos de la Habana, 1763, drawing. Courtesy the Archivo General de Indias (Fondo Mapas y Planos, 25).
“Expediente sobre el declarante José Anotion Aponte y el sentido de las pinturas que se hayan en el L. Que se aprehendió en su casa. Conspiración de José Antonio Aponte, 24 de marzo de 1812,” Archivo Nacional de Cuba, Fondo Asuntos Políticos, legajo 12, expediente 17. Courtesy of Archivo Nacional de Cuba.
During his trial, Aponte was forced to describe the pictures in his “Book of Paintings.”
Convinced of his guilt and the threat he posed to slavery, authorities hanged Aponte in public on April 9, 1812. His head was severed from his body, secured on a post, and placed in a cage about a block from his house, at an important crossroads in the city. There, it would serve as warning to other potential rebels. Then sometime after his execution, the “Book of Paintings” disappeared.
Aponte’s trial testimony is thus all that remains of his fascinating book. A transcription of his testimony, prepared by Jorge Pavez, is available on the digital humanities website Digital Aponte. The site includes other important information about the book, Aponte, and his Havana.
Aponte’s story did not end in 1812.
Well into the twentieth century, the phrase “más malo que Aponte” (more evil than Aponte) was widely used as an insult. At the same time, people in Black and working-class Havana neighborhoods drew inspiration from Aponte and kept his memory alive over many generations. In the 1930s, a group of Spanish Civil War veterans petitioned for the street named after Aponte’s executioner — Someruelos — to be changed to Aponte. In the 1940s, a commemorative plaque was dedicated to him, though it was stolen in the 1990s. Today in Cuba, two Aponte Commissions develop antiracist cultural programming, and a monument to Aponte — a sculpture of Aponte breaking out of a cage — has been proposed.
Commemoration in Havana on the anniversary of Aponte’s execution, 2013 (photo courtesy Amílcar Ortiz Cárdenas).
Aponte Vive banner at Misterios de Vudú performance, 2017 (photo courtesy Caridad Diez).
The Visionary Aponte exhibit is a living monument to Aponte — one that strives to envision, as Aponte himself did, Black history and freedom beyond a single place and time and to consider the role of art and history in imagining and making social and political change.