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José Bedia, Júbilo de Aponte, 2017, mixed media on mixed papers Courtesy of the artist

These Artists Re-Imagined The Artwork of an Afro-Cuban Revolutionary

'Visionary Aponte: Art and Black Freedom' is a new exhibition bringing a lost book of paintings to life.

To date, the court testimony of José Antonio Aponte, a free black man thought to be of Yoruba origin and eponym of the doomed 1812 anti-slavery rebellion in Cuba that bears his name, is the only evidence of an unusual historical artifact, a so-called libro de pinturas or "book of paintings," found hidden in his home by colonial authorities.


Though the book remains lost, the 72 images that Aponte describes, many of which depict an evocative vision of black history, continue to exist in the imagination of scholars and artists alike. Now, more than two centuries later, a group of artists have attempted to recreate Aponte's revolutionary "book of paintings," as part of a new exhibition entitled, "Visionary Aponte: Art and Black Freedom."

15 artists were invited to participate to "pay homage to the singularity of Jose Antonio Aponte's world vision," explains Édouard Duval-Carrié. The Haitian-born artist and Miami resident is one of several curators of the exhibit, as well as one of its featured artists. In fact, it was Duval-Carrié that approached fellow curator Ada Ferrer with the idea to do an exhibit after coming across her book, Freedom's Mirror: Cuba and Haiti in the Age of Revolution.

Édouard Duval-Carrié, Prester John's Emissaries, 2017, mixed media on paper in artist's frame Courtesy of the artist

"Édouard's idea, I think, also intersected with scholarly interest in broadening our understanding of Aponte as the artist behind this lost work of art," says Linda Rodriguez, an Aponte scholar and another of the exhibit's curators. She and Ferrer also helped to organize a symposium in 2015 which in turn led to a project entitled Digital Aponte, a recently launched website dedicated to the life and work of Aponte.

In a way, "Visionary Aponte: Art and Black Freedom" expands upon at least one of the aims of the symposium, which Rodriguez describes as "thinking deeply about Aponte as a creator, in addition to his role as an organizer of slave rebellions." The result is a wide-ranging exhibit of artwork by mostly Caribbean artists, as well as the more general African diaspora of the Americas, in which Aponte's book becomes what Rodriguez hopes viewers will recognize as a "living object."

"Some like Marielle Plaisir (Martinique) and myself went to great lengths to reconstruct the images (laminas) as they were interpreted in the trial's transcripts," Duval-Carrié explains. "Others such as Jose Bedia (Cuba) and Renée Stout (USA) were more interested in conveying the general spirit behind the the book itself particularly their understanding of Kongo cultures as they expressed themselves in the New World and as they understood it. While many others just had gut reactions to the story itself."

Marielle Plaisir, Lámina 23, 2017, inks, gold pigment, pencils on paper Courtesy of the artist

It certainly helps that the "book of paintings" is itself a rich source of imagery. "Aponte represented figures and scenes that spanned centuries and continents, including Greco-Roman mythological figures, scenes from Bible, personages from Ethiopian history, buildings and locations in Havana, depictions of Europe and Asia, and members of his own family," says Rodriguez. (For a full list of the book's subject matter, go here.)

Still, there is an almost inscrutable quality to Aponte's book. "Likely, colonial authorities used the word "painting" as they had no other way to succinctly describe what they were seeing," says Rodriguez. Moreover, the book was perceived to be a subversive threat. "Colonial officials believed Aponte's book to be central to his organizing and they focused a lot of their energy on trying to understand it," according to Rodríguez.

In Ferrer's opinion, "The exhibit provides a tangible example of the ways art and politics can each inform the other." "Aponte used his art to imagine other worlds, and that process of imagining other worlds was also part of his revolutionary politics," she continues.

"It resonates in a lot of ways with our contemporary debates on the politics of representation," adds Rodriguez. She cites the #OscarsSoWhite campaign by April Reign as one such example: "She [Reign] has talked about how she wanted her campaign to question the structural reasons behind the lack of inclusive storytelling. In similar ways, Aponte recognized the importance of the visual to write known and new histories at the service of an imagined and more equal future."

Among other things, Ferrer hopes that those who see the exhibit will develop "a knowledge and appreciation of Aponte as both an antislavery revolutionary and as an artist and creator." Yet it is a much broader perspective on display, as Rodriguez notes: "Aponte's vision of the African diaspora, and black history provided his viewers with a vision of belonging."

"Visionary Aponte: Art and Black Freedom" opens on December 8th at the Little Haiti Cultural Complex in Miami, FL. Afterwards, the exhibit will be on display at the NYU King Juan Carlos of Spain Center in New York from February to May 2018, before making its way to Duke University in the Fall of 2018.

Juan Roberto Diago, Tarraco, 2017 Courtesy of the artist

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Photo: Dancers of the Asociación Cultural Afro Chincha Perú via Wikimedia Commons

After Decades of Erasure, Afro-Peruvians Will Finally be Counted in the National Census

Despite an Afro-Peruvian cultural resurgence not a lot has been done to increase the population's visibility on a political level.

In 2009, Peru became the first Latin American country to issue an official public apology to its afrodescendiente population for centuries of "abuse, exclusion, and discrimination." Since then, many have criticized it as more of a symbolic gesture, especially for its failure to mention slavery. It was also seen as a way for the government to highlight Afro-Peruvian culture over making any substantive improvements to the material conditions of Afro-Peruvian communities.

Enter the census, which can play an important role in compelling the Peruvian government to address systemic inequality related to education, poverty, and health. Unfortunately, the last time Peru made a formal attempt to keep track of its African descended population via the census was in 1940.

"In regards to the [actual] number of Afro-Peruvians, there has always been speculation," says Monica Carrillo, an Afro-Peruvian activist, performer, and founding director of the LUNDU Centro de Estudios y Promoción Afroperuanos, a non-profit organization that works on behalf of Afro-Peruvians.

The results of the 1940 census showed that less than 0.5% of the population identified as Afro-Peruvian. Yet the presence of Afro-Peruvians along the Pacific coast of Peru, both in rural and urban areas, has been both historically and culturally significant for centuries. "There was actually a time during the colonial period when Lima was majority Afro-Peruvian," says Carrillo.

Afro-Peruvians also share a unique experience, according to Carrillo, when compared to that of black communities that formed on the Atlantic side of the continent. The latter was able to maintain a closer connection to African religions and languages, while the latter were further displaced, both literally and figuratively, from their traditions.

Nevertheless, Peruvian culture has strong African influences that became more apparent during the second half of the 20th century, when figures such as Nicomedes and Victoria Santa Cruz led a revival of Afro-Peruvian folklore and footballers such as Teofilo Cubillas, considered Peru's greatest player, led the national team through its first golden era. This movement has carried over to the present, with Afro-Peruvian folklore reaching international audiences via Latin Grammy-winning artists Susana Baca and Eva Ayllón.

Victoria Santa Cruz- Me gritaron negra/ They called me black (woman)- Poem with english subtitles

Yet for all this recognition, something as basic as census data has been overlooked in the same way Afro-Peruvian culture was nearly erased. Since 1940, no official data had been collected by the Peruvian government and the question of race was essentially removed from the census.

This finally changed in 2017, when, for the first time in the history of the national census, Peru's National Institute of Statistics and Informatics (INEI) included a question about race and/or ethnicity that gave respondents an option to identify as African-descended. The latest results released by the INEI this past September represent the first official data on the Afro-Peruvian population in 78 years.

According to those results, roughly four percent of the total population identified as Afro-Peruvian, or about 828,800 individuals. "In general, I think that in some way, this [number] corresponds with what was expected," Carrillo says. Prior to the 2017 census, for example, a national survey conducted by the INEI estimated that Afro-Peruvians represented between five and ten percent of the total population.

Still, Carrillo warns, "These results don't necessarily imply that there weren't a lot of people who didn't self-identify [as Afro-Peruvian]." Of the more than 31 million Peruvians counted in the last census, roughly one million either did not indicate any 'race' or 'ethnicity' or selected 'other.'

At the same time, neither word appears in the question. This was done on purpose, according to Carrillo. "There was more emphasis on your cultural background, traditions, and ancestral heritage—race was not asked directly." The same goes for the array of common terms associated with blackness in Peru; such as zambo, moreno, mulatto, and negro; that are listed alongside afrodescendiente and Afro-Peruvian. "It was left open-ended because for us and for the government, it's obvious that it's an ethnic and/or racial question when you see the options," says Carrillo. Similar tactics, it should be noted, were used in Colombia to improve the accuracy of the census question on ethnicity. As a result, the Afro-Colombian population jumped from 1.5% in 1993 to 10.6% in 2005, albeit with criticisms for omitting the term 'moreno' as an option for respondents.

Encouraging self-identification within the framework of the census, moreover, can be controversial for some respondents, if not confusing for others. "It's better to reduce the potential for conflict," says Carrillo. In the case of Peru, this included convening a group of experts to discuss the manner in which race and ethnicity should be incorporated into the census. State-sponsored outreach campaigns, on the other hand, are an area in need of improvement, according to Carrillo. "There wasn't a strong enough campaign on the part of the government so that people would understand why self-identification is important," she asserts. "And well, you know, that takes a lot of time, and they didn't go all in because the resources haven't been adequate."

For its part, Carrillo's organization, LUNDU, created a virtual census to help prepare Peruvians for the questions that would appear on the census. The organization also launched a public awareness campaign called Somos Afrodescendientes that encourages Peruvians to embrace their African heritage. This is in addition to LUNDU's work in combating negative and racist portrayals of Afro-Peruvians in media. Recently, for example, a mattress ad was criticized for implicitly portraying a black woman as unhygienic from the perspective of her condescending white roommate. Carrillo was quoted in a report from NBC News as saying, "The people who run these companies don't have the proximity, experience, or interest in understanding the multiracial public that is contemporary Peru."


Afro-Peruvian women at the El Carmen carnival, 2017 Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Visibility, however, is a byproduct of the census, one that reveals the contemporary Peru to which Carrillo makes reference. So in addition to providing official data on the Afro-Peruvian population, the census results from September showed that one-quarter or roughly six million Peruvians identify as indigenous. Visibility is also an essential feature of the broader regional movement of the past two decades to count the indigenous and Africa-descended populations throughout Latin America. The goals of the movement were highlighted by the United Nations as part of the theme of World Population Day in 2010, which encouraged countries to also improve the material conditions of their marginalized, underrepresented populations. The UN also declared 2011 the year for people of African descent and 2015-2024 the decade for people of African descent.

Since then, Mexico has recognized its population of African descent via the census for the first time ever, while Chile, on the other hand, removed the option for respondents to identify as Afro-Chilean just last year. "You make progress, you reach a certain point, but afterwards, you can't let your guard down," says Carrillo.

For Afro-Peruvians, more recently, displacement has emerged as a threat due to the growing agro-exportation industry, among other factors. "If you look at the discourse of the Afro-Latino movement in the region, it is very much associated with the topic of displacement," says Carrillo. In Peru, this has not always been the case. A major land reform in the 1970s is one such example. "A lot of Afro-Peruvians ended up owning their land, which is something you don't necessarily see in other parts [of Latin America]," explains Carrillo. That, however, is beginning to change—which is why she sees the census results as an opportunity to generate more discussion of collective rights. "Afro-Peruvians are losing their land, so yes, I think the possibility of discussing this topic is interesting."

Looking ahead, much of the advocacy and planning that preceded this last census in Peru remains pertinent to the outcome of the next census, which is scheduled for 2027. "We have to keep strengthening the campaigns so that ten years from now, we could perhaps have a greater number of people that self-identify as afrodescendiente," says Carrillo.

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