Visionary Aponte: Art and Black Freedom takes as its point of departure an extraordinary—and now lost—historical artifact: a so-called “book of paintings.” Its creator was José Antonio Aponte, a free black carpenter, artist, and former soldier who was also the leader of an ambitious antislavery conspiracy in Cuba in 1812. Following his arrest for conspiring to plan these rebellions, Aponte was put on trial and forced to describe each of the “paintings” in his book. Colonial Spanish officials viewed the book with suspicion, and they were especially concerned with how Aponte used it in his organizing. The book’s images portrayed a wide array of subject matter, from Biblical scenes to Greco-Roman gods and goddesses to episodes in the history of Africa, Europe, and the Americas. Throughout the book, Aponte represented powerful images of black men and women in lands near and far, from Havana to Ethiopia. Aponte’s vision of a black history connected a diasporic and transatlantic past to the possibility of imagining a sovereign future for free and enslaved people of color in colonial Cuba.
Using Aponte’s testimony from the trial record, more than a dozen contemporary artists have reimagined Aponte’s book for our present, inviting us to think about the role of art and history in making social change. Among the featured artists are: José Bedia (Miami), Leonardo Benzant (New York), Sanford Biggers (New York), Juan Roberto Diago (Havana), Édouard Duval-Carrié (Miami), Alexis Esquivel (Havana), Teresita Fernández (New York), Emilio Martínez (Miami), Nina Angela Mercer (New York), Clara Morera (North Carolina), Glexis Novoa (Miami), Vicki Pierre (Miami), Marielle Plaisir (Miami), Asser Saint-Val (Miami), Jean-Marcel Saint-Jacques (New Orleans), Renée Stout (Washington, D.C.). A second, smaller part of the exhibition includes a video and panels with historical research on Aponte and his world.
Visionary Aponte opened in Miami’s Little Haiti Cultural Center during Art Basel 2017 and will be on display at the King Juan Carlos I Center at New York University from February 23 through May 4, 2018.
Thank you to the following institutions for their support: New York University Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, New York University Provost’s Global Research Initiatives, Green Family Foundation, Art Basel Miami Beach, Knight Foundation, Little Haiti Cultural Complex, The Haitian Cultural Arts Alliance, Miami-Dade County, New York University King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center, and Duke Forum for Scholars and Publics.
Bomb, Reanimating History:Visionary Aponte: Art and Black Freedom, January 2018
Okay Africa, These Artists Re-Imagined the Artwork of an Afro-Cuban Revolutionary, December 2017
Black Art in America, Visionary Aponte: Art and Black Freedom at the Haitian Cultural Arts Alliance, December 2017
Photograph courtesy Yolanda Navas.
José Bedia is an internationally acclaimed Cuban painter whose art is inspired by many sacred sources, including initiation into the Brillumba lineage of the Afro-Cuban religion, Palo Monte. Bedia’s work often critiques colonial histories through combining myths, symbols and ritual elements with references to nature and global warfare. His time in Angola as part of the cultural brigades who supported the Angolan-Cuban War against Namibia and South Africa (1985) amplified his quest for the African and indigenous roots of American cultures. He has since conducted extensive research in Peru, Mexico, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Zambia, Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania and Laos. Bedia studied at the San Alejandro Art Academy and the Instituto Superior del Arte. He participated in the first Havana Biennial (1984) and first showed abroad in Paris in Magiciens de la Terre (1989). He represented Cuba at the 1990 Venice Biennale and received a Guggenheim Fellowship (1992). Bedia and his family moved to Mexico in 1991 and settled in Miami in 1993. His art has since been exhibited in the Havana, São Paulo, Venice and Beijing Biennales, where he has received several awards. His work is featured in numerous collections, including the Museo Nacional Palacio de Bellas Artes (Havana); MoMA, Metropolitan Museum, Whitney Museum, Solomon R. Guggenheim (New York); Tate Modern (London); Hirshhorn Museum (Washington, DC); La Colección Daros (Zurich), MEIAC, DA2, IVAM, CAAM (España); and MOCA and PAMM (Miami).
Leonardo Benzant’s art draws upon his Afro-Dominican/Haitian-American heritage. His practice includes painting, performance, sculpture, sound and installation as he investigates deeply personal experiences of identity, ancestry, family, community and spirituality. Benzant, at times, metaphorically refers to his practice as a form of Urban Shamanism that enfolds information from the uniquely shared histories of code switching, double-consciousness and multiple narratives that people of African descent inherited or adopted as survival strategies for daily life. As a result, his work straddles two worlds— bridging the visible and invisible—while embodying the dynamics of being both sacred and secular. Benzant was recently an artist in residence at Galveston Artist Residency in Texas. His work was featured in the solo exhibition, Afrosupernatural (Aljira, a Center for Contemporary Art, Newark, NJ). He has participated in group exhibitions, including notable shows at Jenkins Johnson Gallery (New York, NY), The Third Line (Dubai, UAE) and 101/EXHIBIT (Los Angeles, CA). His art is featured in numerous private collections as well as the permanent collection of The Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts+Culture (Charlotte, NC). He is a recipient of the 2017 Joan Mitchell Foundation Painter’s and Sculptor’s Grant. Benzant attended Pratt Institute.
Sanford Biggers is an internationally celebrated artist whose solo exhibitions include MOCA Detroit, the Brooklyn Museum, Sculpture Center and Mass MoCA. His installations, videos and performances have appeared at the Tate Britain (London); the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (San Francisco), in Prospect 1 New Orleans Biennial, Illuminations, Tate Modern (London), in New York at Performa 07, the Whitney Biennial, and Freestyle at the Studio Museum in Harlem as well as in China, Germany, Hungary, Japan, Poland and Russia. His art is featured in the Museum of Modern Art, Walker Art Center, Whitney Museum, Brooklyn Museum and Bronx Museum collections. Noted fellowships and residencies include: Akademie Schloss Solitude (Stuttgart); Ujazdowski Castle (Warsaw); Headlands Center for the Arts (Sausalito); ARCUS Project Foundation (Ibaraki); the Art in General/Trafo Gallery Exchange (Budapest); the Creative Time Global Residency. Biggers’ has received the American Academy in Berlin Prize, Greenfield Prize, Creative Time Travel Grant, Creative Capital Project Grant, Art Matters Grant, New York Foundation for the Arts Award, Lambent Fellowship in the Arts, Tanne Foundation Award, Rema Hort Mann Foundation Award, the Rome Prize in Visual Arts and RUSH Art for Life has recently honored him. Biggers is Associate Professor at Columbia University’s Visual Arts program and on the board of Sculpture Center, SoHo House and the CUE Foundation. He taught at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Sculpture and Expanded Media program and was a visiting scholar at Harvard University’s VES Department (2009).
Juan Roberto Diago graduated from the San Alejandro Academy in Havana (1990) and began to exhibit his artwork soon after. Diago comes from a family of artists and the work of his grandfather, after whom he is named, was a big influence. The senior Roberto Diago, despite his short life, was one of the pivotal voices of Cuban art in the 1940s. From the beginning of his career, Diago has been preoccupied with the theme of identity, which he renders and conveys through social inferences. Thematically, the unifying thread in his oeuvre has been his critique of racism in Cuba; something that does not “officially” exist but is present in daily life. His early pieces were distinguished by the use of materials such as discarded wood and metal, as a reference to the living conditions of black people. Although black people do not exclusively endure these conditions, they have historically lived in the poorest neighborhoods and thus subjected to the worst overall living situations. This inspired Diago to make numerous installations that represent scaled-down houses that look like real. Since the 1990s, Diago has participated in numerous exhibitions in Cuba and abroad. He represented Cuba in the 1997 Venice Biennale. His art is represented in prestigious collections globally, including the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana, Cuba; the CIFO (Cisneros Fontanals) Art Foundation in Miami, Florida; and the Rubin Foundation Collection, New York.
Édouard Duval Carrié was educated at the École Nationale Superieure des Beaux Arts, in Paris, France; and at the University of Loyola Montreal, in Quebec, Canada. Duval Carrié’s art belongs to many prominent museum and private collections globally, including the Davenport Museum of Art (Davenport, Iowa, USA); Pérez Art Museum Miami (Miami, Florida, USA); Musee des Art Africains et Oceaniens (Paris, France); Musée de Pantheon National Haïtien (Port-au-Prince, Haiti); and Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Monterrey (MARCO, Monterrey, Mexico). In his work, Duval Carrié portrays a “Marvelous Reality,” as defined by Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier in the prologue for his book, The Kingdom of this World, a story about Haiti that strongly influenced the artist. As a result, Duval Carrié enfolds into his art the fantastic world of his country—by rendering its illustrious myths and legends—in ways that clearly critique the prevailing social and political order within Haitian society. Duval Carrié’s art also features important aspects of Haitian history, including revolutionary heroes and other relevant figures. He references them to comment on the vital impact of Haitian history on contemporary society, including the legacy of slavery and independence and its weighted imprint on the country’s development up to the present. Duval Carrié and his art also emphasize the neurological affects of immigration, exile and displacement on daily Haitian life, at home and abroad.
Alexis Esquivel is a prominent Cuban painter and performance artist who curated the first three exhibitions on racism and racial identity in Cuba: Queloides I (1997), Ni músicos ni deportistas (1997), and Queloides (1999). He has also participated in several shows devoted to this theme: Queloides, Raza y racism en el Arte cubano contemporáneo (2010, 2011, 2012); Without Masks: Contemporary Afro-Cuban Art (2010, 2014, 2017) and Drapetomanía, Homenaje al Grupo Antillano (2013, 2014, 2015). In his recent work and bodies of art, Esquivel has had interesting experiences convincing Cubans of the validity of discussing issues of race and identity. He found that one of the best ways to break down resistance on the part of lighter-skinned Cubans was to discuss the confusion that simultaneously exists on the black Cuban side, too. Esquivel’s position is that once people see that race is a universal problem, they are more willing to discuss it. Alexis Esquivel holds memberships in the following organizations: la Unión Nacional de Escritores y Artistas de Cuba (UNEAC) and la Asociación Nacional de Jóvenes Artistas Hermanos Saíz. He has been featured as an independent artist at the Fondo Cubano de Bienes Culturales since 1994. In 2000, Esquivel was a Visiting Fellow, Tufts University, Medford, Massachusetts, USA.
Teresita Fernández is best known for her prominent public sculptures and unconventional use of materials. Her work is characterized by an interest in perception and the psychology of looking. Fernández’s experiential, large-scale works are often inspired by a rethinking of the meaning of landscape and place, as well as by diverse historical and cultural references. Her sculptures present spectacular illusions that evoke natural phenomena and engage audiences in immersive art experiences and conceptual way-finding. Fernández is a 2005 MacArthur Foundation Fellow and the recipient of numerous awards including a Guggenheim Fellowship, an NEA Artist’s Grant, and a Louis Comfort Tiffany Biennial Award. Appointed by President Obama, she is the first Latina to serve on the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. Fernández’s works are included in many prominent collections and have been exhibited both nationally and internationally at MASS MoCA, North Adams, MA; The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA; The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA; The Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C.; and Castello di Rivoli, Turin, Italy, among others. Fernández received her MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University and her BFA from Florida International University.
Emilio Martínez is an Honduran-born American artist who embraced painting as a means of expression. He was born in Tegucigalpa, Honduras in 1981. He immigrated with his family to Miami in 1994, where he has resided since. His work comes to life through his persistence of the dream realm – created through the constant repetitive dreams from his childhood memories. He has ongoing contact with the spiritual world through icons, symbols and texts from an unknown past of ancient primitive indigenous descendants. His work comes to life through the bicultural puzzle, which he decodes. On a daily basis, he uses a sketchbook where he records his obsessions, passions, and fears.
Martínez’s work has been exhibited at the University of Syracuse, the Purvis Young Museum of Art (Miami), the Little Haiti Cultural Center (Miami), and the Instituto Cultural de México (Miami), among others.
Nina Angela Mercer is a cultural worker. Her plays include GUTTA BEAUTIFUL; RACING MY GIRL, SALLY; ITAGUA MEJI: A Road & A Prayer; GYPSY & THE BULLY DOOR; and MOTHER WIT & WATER BORN, a trilogy, including BETWEEN WHISPERED BLOOD-LINES. Her work has been shared at the former Warehouse Theatre and The Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company (Capital Fringe Festival, Washington, DC); Rutgers University-Newark and New Brunswick (New Jersey); and in New York at Wings Theatre, Brecht Forum, The Classical Theatre of Harlem, Dr. Barbara Ann Teer’s National Black Theatre, The Nuyorican Poets’ Café, Abrons Arts Center/Henry Street Settlement, Dumbo Sky and The Little Carib Theatre. Mercer’s writing is published in: The Killens Review of Arts & Letters, Black Renaissance Noire, Voices Magazine #SayHerName Edition and Continuum: The Journal of African Diaspora Drama, Theatre, and Performance. She has performed in collaboration with Betty’s Daughter Arts Collaborative, Angela’s Pulse, Abigail DeVille and Charlotte Brathwaite, BWA for BLM and others. Mercer is a co-founder and co-director of Ocean Ana Rising: www. oarinc.org. She is currently a doctoral fellow of Theatre and Performance at The Graduate Center-CUNY. She holds an undergraduate degree from Howard University and a MFA from American University. She currently teaches at Brooklyn College. Find updates on Mercer’s work at http://windowsdoorsclosetsanddrawers.blogspot.com.
Clara Morera studied at the National School of Visual Arts and graduated from the San Alejandro Academy, both in Havana. Throughout her studies she focused on painting. She has also worked for many years in a range of disciplines including tapestry, soft sculpture, drawing and multimedia installations. Morera is a member of the Afro-Cuban Art group and Grupo Antillano. Her work was featured in the Grupo Antillano exhibition, Drapetomania, at the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD, San Francisco, CA). Morera has also exhibited in noted public collections such as the Museum of the Americas in Washington, DC (1992); the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana (1970); and recently at Castle Galleries, New Rochelle College (NY); the Lyman Museum (CT); Newark Museum (NJ); the Lowe Museum of Art, University of Miami (FL); and Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African American Art, Harvard University, Cambridge (MA).
Glexis Novoa was born in Holguín and grew up in Havana. He received a degree from the National School of Arts (1984). While Novoa has lived in Miami since 1995, he maintains a studio in Vedado (Havana) and works on site specific murals and ephemeral projects globally. Since 1987, Novoa has had solo exhibitions at the Cheekwood Museum, (Nashville); in Miami at the Lowe Museum of Art (University of Miami), Locust Project and the former Miami Art Museum; at the Worcester Art Museum (Worcester, MA); the Snite Museum of Art (University of Notre Dame, IN); and in Havana at Espacio Aglutinador, Castillo de la Real Fuerza, El Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes and La Galería Habana, among others. Novoa’s work has been featured in many group exhibitions globally, including Lost in Landscape, Museo di Arte Moderna e Contemporanea (Trento, Italy); Politics: I do not like it, but it likes me, Center for Contemporary Art Laznia (Gdansk, Poland); Perder la forma humana, Museo Nacional Reina Sofia, (Madrid, Spain); Caribbean: Crossroads of the World, El Museo del Barrio (New York, USA); Crisis | América Latina | Arte y Confrontación (1910-2010), el Museo Del Palacio de Bellas Artes (Mexico City); and Arte ≠ Vida: Actions by artists of the Americas, 1960-2000, El Museo del Barrio (New York, USA). Novoa’s awards include grants from The Joan Mitchell Foundation and Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation. His work is featured in important private and public collections. He has also completed several notable public art commissions.
Vickie Pierre is a Haitian-American, mixed media artist born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, where she studied at the School of Visual Arts. Pierre’s practice includes various techniques and materials such as painting, drawing and collage as well as assemblage and installation. Her continued focus is on the exploration of self-identity, with references to feminine tropes and historic and contemporary cultural politics, while concurrently observing and considering latent associations to Haitian culture and mythologies. Pierre has participated in exhibitions worldwide, including National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington D.C.; Miami Art Museum (Perez Art Museum Miami), Miami, FL; White Box, NY, NY; Boca Raton Museum of Art, Boca Raton, FL.; Musée International des Arts Modestes, Sete, France and Museo Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico, San Juan, PR, among others. Her artworks can be found in private collections as well as public institutions, including Progressive Art Collection, Cleveland; Millennium Partners Collection of Contemporary Art at The Four Seasons, Miami, Polk Museum of Art, Lakeland and the Liza and Arturo Mosquera Collection, Miami. In 2017, Pierre was a recipient of the South Florida Cultural Consortium Award for Miami-Dade County. The artist lives and works in Miami.
Marielle Plaisir is a French-Caribbean multimedia artist who spent her childhood and adolescence in Normandy (France), before settling in Guadeloupe (French Caribbean) and later in Miami. Her strong attachment to her island occurred after her studies during which time Plaisir searched for and from reading history learned more details related to her past and her identity. As a result, she combines painting, drawing and monumental installations with performance to present highly intense visual experiences. Plaisir’s art blends life and fiction in both autobiographical and historical narratives from the Caribbean that touch upon universal themes like power, domination, life and death. She is inspired by Italian quattrocento, Latin American and Caribbean literature. Plaisir incorporates textiles, fibers and fabrics that are socially meaningful into her work. She uses her daily practice to examine the many roles of the individual within society. Her art conveys a sense of humor and beauty while exploring any evidence of society’s humanity that she may discover in our increasingly digital world. Plaisir’s art is poetic. Her essence is theatrical. Her work may appear in many forms, including monumentally-scaled installations or itinerate in-situ performances within exhibitions. Her compositions have been used as children’s book illustrations and other publications and as drawings for animation. Since 2000, Plaisir has exhibited in numerous group and solo exhibitions worldwide. She has also participated in various international contemporary art biennials.
Asser Saint-Val is a painter, sculptor and installation artist. Cumulative and objective, Saint-Val’s pictures, objects and environments are a surreal fantasia based on the aesthetics and metaphors of melanin and neuro-melanin — organic compounds responsible for human skin, hair and eye color (the former) and the latter for certain brain functions. Saint-Val’s images are humorous and grotesque explorations of the metaphysical reality and materiality of melanin in relation to his identity and conscientious artistic voice. He sees melanin’s molecular structure and its workings in the human body as a source of poetic possibility. Saint-Val thus blends traditional art media with an array of unconventional, organic materials — coffee, chocolate, ginger, tea and chocolate. Saint-Val believes each person has within a universe beyond this galaxy that holds everything needed. Asser Saint-Val moved to South Florida in 1988. He earned BFAs in painting and graphic design from the New World School of the Arts. His work has been exhibited in Florida, New York and throughout the Caribbean. His art is featured in prestigious private collections, including: Francie Bishop Good, Dr. Arturo Mosquera, the Rubell Family and Carlos Sanchoo. Saint-Val has twice received the South Florida Cultural Consortium Fellowship Award. In 2012, he created The Philosopher’s Stone, a large-scale interactive public installation and his largest work to date, with support from the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs, the Miami-Dade County Mayor and Board of County Commissioners.
Jean-Marcel St. Jacques is a California-born self taught artist with deep Louisiana Creole roots and a couple of academic degrees in other subjects. His first love is music, and he spent much of his life as a poet and performing artist until Hurricane Katrina hit and sent him into a silent meditation from which emerged Jean-Marcel the visual artist. St. Jacques’s great-grandmother made patchwork strip quilts and his great-grandfather was a hoodoo man who collected junk for a living. As a visual artist, he works mainly with wood and junk. His wooden quilts represent a way of being with the spirits of his great-grandmother who quilted and his great-grandfather who collected junk. They are also a way of finding a higher purpose for the pile of debris left by Hurricane Katrina, to find beauty in the ugliness of one of this country’s worst human disasters and, on a more practical note, to save and rehab his house for him and his family. St. Jacques has pieces in the permanent collection of the American Folk Art Museum.
Renée Stout grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and received her B.F.A. from Carnegie-Mellon University in 1980 where her focus was on painting. However, in 1985, immediately after moving to Washington, D.C., she began to explore the spiritual and cultural roots of her African American heritage through her increasingly sculptural works, which found their early inspiration in the aesthetics and philosophy of Kongo ritual objects. Stout’s art attracted the attention of museum curators across the United States and led to her becoming the first American artist to have a solo exhibition in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art. Inspired by the African Diaspora, historical and current world events, as well as everyday life in her DC neighborhood, Stout now creates in a variety of media, including painting, drawing, mixed media sculpture, photography and installation. She has been the recipient of awards from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, the Joan Mitchell Foundation, the Bader Fund, the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation, the Gottleib Foundation and Anonymous Was A Woman. She was also the recipient of the Driskell Prize, awarded by the High Museum of Art (Atlanta, GA) and the Sondheim Award from the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts. Stout’s work is featured in many museum and private collections, nationally and internationally, including the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC.