Unidentified artist, detail, Calle Amargura 65, early 19th c., fresco or semi-fresco[?]

 

Aponte and the Possibilities of Art

by LINDA RODRÍGUEZ

The loss of Aponte’s “Book of Paintings” felt like a weight. Its absence seemed to limit what we could know of him as an artist. How did he use color? What was his approach to composing each of his pages? Did figures overlap for some kind of textural effect?


Aponte tells us, though, exactly what kind of artist he was. On the first day of his testimony about the “Book of Paintings,” a Spanish judicial official asked him if the book was indeed his work. Aponte’s response reads almost like a declaration of his artistic intent. “Not being a painter, he bought different prints and paintings to take from them, or from used fans, that which fulfilled his idea.”

Aponte introduced a completely innovative method of aesthetic creation that transformed fragments into a whole. He considered his audience to be, yes, the Spanish king, but also networks of enslaved and free people of color in Havana.


 

In colonial Havana, Aponte placed a new vision of an African diaspora in the hands of those who held and viewed his book.

 


For all who saw his book, Aponte’s novel technique matched the revolutionary content of its pages, in which he visualized black militia members like his grandfather Joaquín Aponte along with black princes and queens in faraway and historic lands like Ethiopia.

In colonial Havana, Aponte placed a new vision of an African diaspora in the hands of those who held and viewed his book. Aponte’s actions as an artist suggest a need to invent, to move beyond known models of artistic practice and aesthetic form.

That spirit has triumphed over loss as new imaginings of his “Book of Paintings” emerge in this exhibit, centuries later. Aponte’s legacy reverberates in our contemporary world and asks us to imagine the possibilities of art in advancing freedom for all. Indeed, Aponte’s legacy demands that we recognize artists as central to that goal.


Linda Rodríguez is Visiting Scholar at the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at NYU. An art historian, she is lead scholar on the digital humanities website Digital Aponte and writes about Aponte and other artists of color in colonial Havana.