Unidentified artist, detail, Calle Amargura 56, mid-18th c., fresco or semi-fresco[?]
A Lost Book and the Historian’s Archive
by ADA FERRER
I first encountered José Antonio Aponte not as an artist but as a revolutionary. The Aponte I first learned about from the seminal work of Cuban historian José Luciano Franco was the leader of the island’s principal antislavery and anticolonial conspiracy during the Age of Revolution.
But because Franco transcribed and published the trial testimony about Aponte’s “Book of Paintings,” he also allowed us to glimpse Aponte the artist.
I remember vividly my surprise on first reading Aponte’s descriptions of his book. Image 6-7, which showed a black army defeating a white one, seemed potentially subversive and revolutionary in a slave society. But what of everything else in the book? What about the popes, saints, and kings; the Ethiopian Eunuchs and Greek philosophers and Roman goddesses; the heavenly constellations and lush landscapes? What, if anything, did they have to do with revolution?
Aponte showed the book to his fellow conspirators as they organized their revolution. So we know that he and his companions drew connections between the images before them and the revolution they were plotting. But what were those connections? And where was the book?
To paraphrase C.L.R. James, what historians most want to see in order to understand a revolution — the diary of an obscure rebel leader or, in this case, a book of paintings that served as guide for an antislavery revolution — seems forever out of our reach. For years I held out the hope of finding Aponte’s book. On a research trip to Spain in 2002, my then 7-year-old daughter greeted me every afternoon with the question: Did you find the book today? The answer was always no.
Using other sources to help read Aponte’s words about his pictures, I was able to glimpse not only Aponte’s epic histories of Ethiopia, but other more subterranean histories that linked Havana and Haiti in 1812.
I learned to work around that absence, comparing the way Aponte described the book to inquisitioners to how he spoke about it with co-conspirators. For example, Aponte testified that lámina 37 was Rome, yet he told a companion that the picture showed Henri Christophe, King of Haiti, commanding people to execute what he ordered. Describing 8-9, Aponte mentioned the San Lorenzo without elaborating.
But we know that the ship had spent time in revolutionary Haiti, once transported Haitian revolutionaries to Cuba, and even housed some of Aponte’s own co-conspirators. Using other sources to help read Aponte’s words about his pictures, I was able to glimpse not only Aponte’s epic histories of Ethiopia, but other more subterranean histories that linked Havana and Haiti in 1812.
By the time I finished writing about Aponte in Freedom’s Mirror in 2014, my daughter, by then a young woman, had stopped asking me if I’d found the book. Instead, she kept insisting that a group of artists needed to collectively reimagine Aponte’s book. I am forever grateful to Édouard Duval-Carrié for setting that plot in motion, to Laurent Dubois for bringing us together, to Tosha Grantham for helping it materialize, and to Linda Rodríguez for co-conspiring.
The artists of Visionary Aponte have offered me new and surprising insight into Aponte’s vision and new ways to think about the “everything else” in the book as part of Aponte’s artistic and political vision. I hope the show that has resulted from our collective effort honors Aponte’s creativity and intellect, as well as his conviction that those things were — and remain — vital to making freedom real.
Ada Ferrer is Julius Silver Professor of History and Latin American and Caribbean Studies at NYU. She is the author of two prize-winning books: Insurgent Cuba: Race, Nation, and Revolution, 1868-1898, and Freedom’s Mirror: Cuba and Haiti in the Age of Revolution.