Unidentified artist, detail, Calle Obrapía 158, early to mid-19th c., fresco or semi-fresco[?]

 

Narratives of Freedom and Oppression

by ÉDOUARD DUVAL-CARRIÉ

Histories of the Caribbean are always full of surprises. European explorers and subsequent waves of colonists occupied and displaced locals almost to the point of extinction, while documenting their own advances against indigenous peoples. To this day, it is the conqueror’s voice that dominates, as that of the vanquished has all but disappeared.


Certain accounts did try to document the vast upheavals that resulted in the wake of the “discovery.” One such document is the long letter written to King Charles I of Spain by Friar Bartolomé de las Casas, denouncing the horrors that followed that first encounter. His The Destruction of the Indies described in detail the horrors inflicted on the “docile and gentle Indians” by the conquistadores. The document found its way to the enemies of the Catholic Church: reformists and Protestants who published it in a widely distributed, illustrated pamphlet.

What is of great interest to me is that the pamphlet in question was illustrated by an artist and engraver (Theodor DeBry) who, as far as we know, never set foot in the Americas. His fanciful and Europeanized visual depiction of the Taíno are still used today in contemporary representations of native Caribbean people.

Another example where art was used in defense of the downtrodden is the fantastic document sent to King Felipe III by one of his American subjects, Inca nobleman Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala. This extensively illustrated document aimed to inform the Spanish king about the injustices of colonial rule inflicted on Andean people and enslaved Africans. Guaman Poma described in words and images the humiliations to which he and his people were subjected. King Felipe never received the document.


 

The challenge today is to find a way to reach through those descriptions into this man’s vision, to recreate or interpret, more than a century later, Aponte’s visions of a black world where dignity, freedom, and intellectual complexity were a given, and where they served to challenge the abject conditions to which they were subjected.

 


As an artist, I have been interested in this particular document for the powerful visual language created by Guaman Poma to illustrate a world in transition and already subject to a hybrid vocabulary. Though referenced in a novel I had read and reread by Cuban author Alejo Carpentier, The Kingdom of this World, the name Aponte never truly piqued my interest until I read Ada Ferrer’s Freedom’s Mirror, in which José Antonio Aponte figures as a major protagonist.What became evident and surprising immediately is that Aponte, too, had created an illustrated book for the King of Spain. Again, the document not only did not make it to his highness; this time it was lost, and all that was left of it were the detailed descriptions Aponte provided during his trial and interrogation by Spanish authorities in Havana. Those descriptions reveal that this artist of African descent had created a new visual vocabulary that profoundly disturbed and confounded his European interrogators.

The challenge today is to find a way to reach through those descriptions into this man’s vision, to recreate or interpret, more than a century later, Aponte’s visions of a black world where dignity, freedom, and intellectual complexity were a given, and where they served to challenge the abject conditions to which they were subjected.

Visionary Aponte invited a group of contemporary artists to consult this particular story and see if they, as artists, could translate the spirit of Aponte’s “black worldview” into visual proclamations for our own time.


Co-curator Édouard Duval-Carrié is also one of the artists of Visionary Aponte. He is Artistic Director of the Haitian Cultural Arts Alliance (Miami) and curator of the Global/Borderless Caribbean Series.