Unidentified artist, detail, Calle Tacón 12, c.1762-1768, fresco or semi-fresco[?]
The Book Is Here
The book is here, just as Aponte intended. He imagined, after all, that the book would not just recount a history but also help create a new one. In ways he probably couldn’t have predicted, it has, again and again.
His interrogators and executioners were afraid of the book. They wanted to bury it and the project it represented. They used his art to condemn him. They succeeded, in a way. He was executed and his art was disappeared, too. In the process, however, his executioners left behind traces that allow us to revive Aponte, in our way. As historians, we are sustained by the fact that we can turn such sources against themselves, seeking to undo their intent. That is what Ada Ferrer does in her book Freedom’s Mirror, the magical work at the basis of this exhibit.
Aponte understood that he was part of a subterranean history, that telling that history — a history of the black world, a black history of the world – was to remake that history, and the world. His book was pedagogy, exploration, pastiche, interpretation. He knew that images could tell that history perhaps better than text, for an image is always an invitation, a portal of sorts — an invitation to travel, and to dream.
“What does this image mean?” his interrogators wanted to know. Did Aponte tell the truth? Did the interrogators understand the answer? And what can we, now, glean from what they wrote about what they heard?
His book was pedagogy, exploration, pastiche, interpretation. He knew that images could tell that history perhaps better than text, for an image is always an invitation, a portal of sorts.
That is the question this exhibit begins to answer. Lines of text, traces of distant work, turn out to be seeds. Planted in the minds of the artists gathered here, they have created bursts, visions, layers of color, echoes, new pages in an old book, old pages of a new book. When we look at them, gathered together — like those who gathered together at Aponte’s house, around the book — we see into that past, and into the future.
We are invited to tell stories, to make history. We are made ready — to travel, to dream. The book is here, and it is a wonder.
Laurent Dubois is Professor of Romance Studies and History and Founding Director of the Forum for Scholars and Publics at Duke University. He is the author of six books, including Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution and The Banjo: America’s African Instrument.