Art and Black Freedom exhibition opens at Vanderbilt

Alexis Esquivel Bermudez, Como fuego arde en vivas llamas, 2018, acrylic on canvas, 55 x 79 inches. Courtesy of Afro-Latin American Research Institute, Harvard University.

The Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery is hosting a unique exhibition around the theme of Black Freedom, just in time for the annual celebrations of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Black History Month. Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery is located at 1220 21st Avenue South, Nashville, Tennessee 37203. Their regular hours are 11 a.m. – 4 p.m. Monday – Friday and 1 – 5 p.m. Saturday & Sunday. The exhibition runs January 9 – March 8, 2020, with an Artists’ Talk and Opening Reception on Thursday, January 9, from 4­:00 – 7:00 p.m.

Visionary Aponte: Art and Black Freedom brings together twenty contemporary artists working across a range of media to interpret an extraordinary—and now lost—historical artifact: a so-called “Book of Paintings” created by José Antonio Aponte, a nineteenth-century Afro-Cuban revolutionary and artist.

Authorities found the “Book of Paintings” in 1812 during the investigation into a major antislavery conspiracy in Havana. During the trial, Aponte was forced to describe his book in detail. Its pages portrayed lush landscapes and Biblical stories; Roman goddesses and Spanish kings; black men as warriors, emperors, and librarians; Rome and Ethiopia; Havana and the heavens. Shortly after testifying, Aponte was publicly executed, his head severed from his body, and placed on a pike inside a cage in a well-travelled crossroads in the city. Then, his “Book of Paintings” disappeared.

Using Aponte’s trial testimony—which is all that is known to remain of the “Book of Paintings”—the artists included in Visionary Aponte have reimagined Aponte’s book for the present day. They experiment with ways to mitigate the violence of the colonial archive and invite us to think about the role of art in envisioning and making social change.

Artists whose work will be on display include Grettel Arrate (Santiago, Cuba), José Bedia (Miami), María Magdalena Campos-Pons (Nashville), Juan Roberto Diago (Havana, Cuba), Édouard Duval Carrié (Miami), Alexis Esquivel Bermudez (Cuba/Spain), Jöelle Ferly (Guadalupe), Teresita Fernández (New York), Alberto Lescay (Santiago), Tessa Mars (Port-au-Prince, Haiti), Emilio Mártinez (Miami), Emilio Adán Martínez (Miami), Nina Mercer (New York), Clara Morera (North Carolina), Glexis Novoa (Miami), Vicki Pierre (Miami), Marielle Plaisir (Miami), Asser Saint-Val (Miami), Jean-Marcel St. Jacques (New Orleans) and Renée Stout (Washington, D.C.).

The exhibition incorporates scholarly research on Aponte and his world by NYU Julius Silver Professor of History and Latin American and Caribbean History Ada Ferrer, author of the prize-winning book Freedom’s Mirror: Cuba and Haiti in the Age of Revolution, and art historian Linda Rodríguez, curator of the digital humanities website Digital Aponte. Visionary Aponte: Art and Black Freedom, which originally opened in Miami’s Little Haiti Cultural Center during Art Basel 2017, has traveled to King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center at New York University, Power Plant Gallery at Duke University, Centro de Desarrollo de las Artes Visuales in Havana, and Galería Arte Soy in Santiago, Cuba.

A program of lectures and events across Vanderbilt’s campus accompanies the exhibition, find more at: vanderbilt.edu/gallery.

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