José Bedia, “Júbilo de Aponte” (2017) mixed media on mixed paper 106 x 143 inches (all photos by Danny Lieberson unless otherwise noted)

The ruling Spanish authorities could not have known when they publicly hanged José Antonio Aponte on April 9, 1812, and then cut off his head, that thirteen more heads would sprout in its place. They likely thought they were doing precisely what needed to be done to properly subjugate populations in Cuba, the people (like me) who had dark skin. They accused him, a free black man, an artist and carpenter, a soldier, of devising a rebellion against slavery. According to the wall text penned by the curators of Visionary Aponte: Art and Black Freedom, Spanish authorities cut off his head and stuck it on a post, placing it in a cage near his house (a rather overdetermined gesture). This public execution was a warning: the colonial powers sought to kill an idea.

Edouard Duval Carrié, “The Elder Aponte” (2017) mixed media on Arches watercolor paper in artist’s frame, 36 x 26 inches

The symbolic essence of decapitation is a decisive, summary removal of the thinking part of the human animal so that the body is rudderless, left without volition or direction. They cut off his head and displayed it in this way to cut off the thinking that there could be such a thing as a revolution on the island of Cuba, when profits from the colonial outpost were at their peak and subjugated populations were being controlled through a sinister mix of violence and the threat of violence. They beheaded Aponte because dangerously egalitarian ideas were indeed embedded in him. They discovered in his possession what authorities described as a “book of paintings” — a bound collection of 63 images that combined painting, drawing, and collaged cutouts. The book imagined dark skinned women and men like him as emperors (the top of the social order), warriors (those who generate the social order or enforce it), and librarians (those who guarantee the institutional memory necessary to reconstruct this order when it has broken down). He imagined a world that defied the social order created by an elite whiteness. He imagined having agency, and putting an end to being defined by whiteness. They cut off his head and left it as warning — likely because the paintings convinced the authorities that a kind of revolution was brewing in him and those who looked like him.

Installation view of Visionary Aponte: Art and Black Freedom at NYU’s King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center

Aponte’s book was lost. But through the subsequent study of his trial testimony, scholars and researchers, artists and critics, writers and curators, pieced together the crucial cargo of that mind: a narrative, a vision that black people who had been colonized were up to the task of fighting off their oppressors. (The majority of scholarly research for this exhibition was conducted by NYU Professor Ada Ferrer, and art historian Linda Rodríguez, who is the curator of the digital humanities website Digital Aponte.) This vision roused 13 contemporary artists to reinterpret Aponte’s book of paintings and extrapolate from his vision.

Installation view of Visionary Aponte: Art and Black Freedom at NYU’s King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center

There are several avenues of meaning that Visionary Aponte explores. There are works, like “The Elder Aponte” (2017) by Édouard Duval Carrié that rewrite his story, depicting Aponte a soldier guided by a brown-skinned, heavenly deity in a kind of dreamscape. Using various media on watercolor paper Carrié carries on the imagined adventures of a deathless Aponte and also takes a birds-eye view of the process of Cuba’s colonialization: the involvement of Christian religious influence, alternative spiritual traditions that countermand that influence, and alternative origin stories. José Bedia  in his “Júbilo de Aponte” (2017) distills the story of Aponte into a series of painted images containing visual symbols, such as hands and feet and ears. On the bottom of this piece are connected images that form an overall picture of riders on dark horses stretched across a span of time and space — the horse’s forelegs reach a bell with “1812” written on it, and its back legs launch from where a rooster crows. This narrative and symbol-laden scheme suggests that a revolutionary wake-up call sent some inspired fighters galloping towards the subversive, imaginative, and emancipatory struggles taken up by Aponte and those like him.

Renée Stout, “Book of Paintings” (2017) acrylic on wood panel, 24 x 18 inches with nine folios, each 22 x 15 inches

Renée Stout in particular creates an historical through line between Aponte and the revolutionaries that arrived before and after him. Her “Book of Paintings” (2017) has maps of the Caribbean and diagrams of weaponry such as knives, machetes, and guns, and a list of leaders who bucked the colonialist order, among them: Harriet Tubman, Toussaint L’Ouverture, Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, and Marcus Garvey. One of the enduring tensions in black liberation movements from the 18th century onwards has existed between those advocating for violent opposition and those who prescribe nonviolent resistance. Stout does not shy away from the idea that armed violence was (and perhaps is) indeed one of the tools by which colonized people can throw off the oppressor. Jean-Marcel St. Jacques makes weaponry part of the structure of a revolutionary household with his “Portal for Aponte / Door for Black José” (2017), which is a set of French doors with five different kinds of cutting and binding weapons embedded among the multicolored, collaged wood pieces that comprise the entryway. His piece suggests the way through to ending colonial domination must include using the tools of violence.

Detail of Renée Stout, “Book of Paintings” (2017) (photo by the author)

Mounting this exhibition at NYU’s King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center is a clever way of twisting that revolutionary knife: to place emphasis on the vitality of Aponte’s revolutionary idea in a space dedicated to promoting research on the once dominant, enslaving colonial power. That the center allowed this show to be exhibited is perhaps an acknowledgment of the culpability of Spain in that failed colonialist project. While the exhibition overall is very strong,  there are problems with the layout in this space, such as the placement of Marielle Plaisir’s work near the stairs leading up to the second floor — it is difficult to see the work properly.

Despite these limitations Visionary Aponte relays the fervor and adamance of the revolutionary spirit. This spirit cannot and will not die. The exhibition also demonstrates to dominant powers that sometimes when you win you lose, and for those fighting, struggling with forces seemingly larger than them, sometimes when you lose, you win.

Visionary Aponte: Art and Black Freedom, continues at NYU’s King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center (53 Washington Square South, Greenwich Village, Manhattan) through May 4.

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a former senior critic and Opinion Editor for Hyperallergic, and is now a regular contributor to it and the New York Times. In 2020, he won the Rabkin Arts Journalism prize and in...