Whether intentional or not, art is always an echo to the past. A memory, an evolution, a tribute — visual art at once owes itself to our collective memory while also propelling it into the future. As seen in one notable show now on display in Nashville, it can even grant new life to artifacts once thought to be lost forever.
In its latest exhibition, “Visionary Aponte: Art and Black Freedom,” Vanderbilt University Fine Arts pays homage to the relatively-unsung 19th century Afro-Cuban revolutionary and artist José Antonio Aponte. It features the work of 20 contemporary creators across a range of media, inspired by Aponte’s “Book of Paintings,” which served as a key piece of evidence when Aponte was put on trial for his alleged role in a Cuban antislavery campaign in 1812.
“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,” according to a press release from the gallery. “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.”
The show, which hosts its closing lecture on February 27, 2020, includes work that reimagines Aponte’s book for today and, as a result, considers the role that contemporary art can play in grappling with racial violence, colonial history and social change. Participating artists — who are based around the world, including in Cuba, Haiti, Miami and Nashville — used Aponte’s trial testimony as the only surviving record of his work for their inspiration. The exhibition incorporates scholarly research on Aponte’s plight and Latin American and Caribbean history to add context to the exhibition.
Cinco Apariciones by Nashville’s María Magdalena Campos-Pons is a particularly powerful lens through which to view Aponte’s artistic legacy. As part of her “Un Pedazo de Mar” (“A Piece of Sea”) series, the work highlights the ocean as an incubator of Caribbean heritage and memory, with dark figures seemingly suspended deeply within it. The exhibition brochure provides transcript text from Aponte’s trial alongside Campos-Pons’ work, tying the contemporary piece to the historical figure.
“The figure printed with blue ink located high between Nigero and Cojímar pulled by two eagles means [the agora] of Air: the other between Santelmo and Cabaña is Neptune that surfaces from the sea,” Aponte said of his own work in 1812.
Cinco Apariciones (translated as Five Apparitions) clearly connects to this entry in Aponte’s “Book of Paintings” through its use of color, representation of the ocean and mythical imagery. But it builds on Aponte’s inspiration with a thoroughly contemporary use of watercolor and inclusion of figures that appear to be far outside the Greek lexicon. While ethereal and dreamy, the painting conveys a weight and sobriety in line with Aponte’s own history.
Campos-Pons was born in Cuba and is of Nigerian ancestry. She studied at the Escuela National de Arte and Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana before conducting post-graduate studies at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Her work has included photography, performance, audiovisual media and sculpture.
“Her polyglot heritage deeply influences her artistic practice, which combines diverse media,” according to the exhibition program. “She researches themes of history, memory, gender and religion, and how they all inform identity. Through deeply poetic and eerie images, Campos-Pons evokes histories of the transatlantic slave trade, the indigo and sugar plantations, Catholic religious practices, Santeria and revolutionary uprising.”
Campos-Pons is a professor of fine arts at Vanderbilt Unversity.
Before reaching Vanderbilt, “Visionary Aponte” opened in Miami during Art Basel 2017 and has traveled to New York, North Carolina and Cuba.
Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery is located at 1220 21st Avenue.