José Antonio Aponte & His World: Conference Report
Panel 1 — Foundations:
theory, text & history
Chair: Linda Rodriguez
"Aponte in the archive; the case for hermeneutics"
"Reasons of history, talking books and Black sovereignty; archive and enlightenment in Aponte's Book of Paintings"
Jorge Pavez Ojeda
"A tale of two Apontes"
"Promising perspectives, possible pursuits and persistent problems; what we knew, what we know and what we still don't know about the Aponte Rebellion and the Book of Paintings"
Comment: Jean-Frédéric Schaub
The first session's focus was the ambiguous portrait of Aponte reconstructible from official documents. The question was originally posed by the lead essay of Palmié's 2002 collection Wizards & Scientists; explorations in Afrocuban modernity & tradition whose contrarian lucubrations suggested that it would be just as "misleading… to construe Aponte into a creole revolutionary" as it would be to "reduce [William] Blake to Jacobinism" (p. 150). The same warning was repeated, nuanced and defended in Palmié's present talk, then countered in the following one by M. Childs — both discussions concentrating on readings of the record. Their vivid grudge-match of philosophical anthropology vs engaged history was however tempered by the opening pair of presentations wherein it was observed that the same problem arises quite systematically and generally in the relevant time period (Ojeda) and for the socio-literary imagination as a whole (Fischer). In other words, Aponte's mystery is neither special to Aponte nor is it specially mysterious. Such considerations aside — and without slighting the tangential illumination derived from comparing St. Augustine to FaceBook™ among other insights — the first panel conveyed an indelible impression of Aponte as a bricoleur-idéologue of genius, whose emblematic thoughts were already criminalized at conception in a totalitarian empire informed by the Spanish Inquisition (Schaub). Aponte's placement in the Cuban national pantheon was thus justly canonised in José Luciano Franco's 2006 book La conspiración de Aponte, 1812.
Panel 2 — Books of rebellion, books of freedom
Chair: Greg Grandin
"A Black kingdom of this world; secret histories of revolution in Havana"
"From the pen of a seditious subject; the notebooks of Luís Gonzaga in the 'Tailor's Conspiracy' of Bahia, Brazil, 1798" Greg Childs
"Circuitries of the incendiary imagination; making the case for insurrection in the Americas"
Comment: Steven Hahn
This conference being a consequence of Ferrer's recent book (see above), her presentation on the day closely followed her book's close exegesis (in chapter 7) of iconography in Aponte's clandestine compilation as described in police testimony at his execution trial. Similarly, G. Childs gave a précis of a chapter of his recent dissertation Scenes of Sedition; publics, politics & freedom in late 18th century Bahia, Brazil describing another, roughly contemporary example of literacy being construed by the slavocracy as intrinsic treason. Gómez further expanded G. Childs' point to include romantically redemptive imagery: insurgent appeal was not confined to verbal elements. Drawing on all these examples, Hahn indicted Eurocentric historians for overstating the leadership of the planter bourgeoisie in the era's decolonizing and anti-feudal movements while failing to notice more radical — and more realist — contributions by self-organized Afrodescendants.
Panel 3 — Envisioning race; representation & history
Chair: Awam Amkpa
"José Antonio Aponte and the artistic landscape in Colonial Havana"
"From redemption to abandonment; slave portraiture in the times of Aponte"
"Between civilization and barbarism; Víctor Patricio de Landaluze's paintings during the Ten Years' War"
"Saints, slaves and Madonnas; representation and reality in Nueva Granada"
Comment: Edward Sullivan
Day one closed with considerations of pictorial esthetics. Aponte articulated a "new visual language" (Rodriguez) so as to replace the trite neoclassicism favored by colonial settlers and to transform images of captive Africans into heroic portraits (Lugo-Ortiz). Anxious inversions of Aponte's shift appeared in late 19th century anti-independista social landscapes such as La Recogida de la caña de azucar (Ramos). Throughout Europe's absolutist imperial domains — and here is where I missed acknowledgement of Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's metaphysical satire — the violent contradiction between genocidal trade and Catholic sanctimony spawned an imagistic codependency between piety and torture (Cummins). By registering this visual angst, art history can contribute to general sociohistorical analysis (Sullivan).
Panel 4 — Historical memory & politics
Chair: Ada Ferrer
"Aponte's Legacy in Cuban popular culture"
"Politics of memory and the visual culture of rebellion"
Ana Lucía Araujo
"The memory and counter-memory of Indian sovereignty; Andean insurgency and colonial crackdown in the early 1780s"
Comment: Ana Dopico
Pinch-hitting for Fernando Martínez Heredia whose invited participation unfortunately did not materialise, Miller sampled firsthand observations of recopied notebooks and other historical graphics held in the continuous custody of Abacuá lodges in urban, western Cuba. These indigenous archives, rarely glimpsed by academic investigators, confirm Aponte's inspiration for anticolonial ferment throughout the 19th century and for popular consciousness among autonomous (i.e. non-state) actors throughout the postcolonial era. They also point back to Westafrican pictographic and ritual precedents, whose effective transmission to the Americas is tentatively supported by Miller's ongoing, transatlantic field research. As acknowleged in Dopico's response, the existence of such rich information outside official hands disarms the scrupulous doubts so scrupulously expressed in Panel 1 about the confidence level of certain historical inferences. The session's other two talks (Araujo, Thomson) ranged across the western hemisphere to illustrate how clerical and colonial crimes continue to resonate in varied visual and performance modes — demonstrating not just the obstinately indelible Américan memory of European sadism, but also the total failure of torture to eradicate unauthorized ideas.
Panel 5 — Concluding remarks/conversation
Jasmine Nichole Cobb
Moderator: Edgardo Pérez Morales
Aponte was no less revolutionary for being a legalistically 'free' person at the time. His own claim of personal autonomy being "internal" was to that extent even more threatening — and yet at the same time more stubbornly "illegible" i.e. unthinkable — to a premodern, monotheistic social order operating with a stunted notion of human subjectivity (Cobb). No less elusive to conventional historiography, envisioned from above, has been the notion of collective and multi-generational authorship and political agency, of the kind that Aponte's example so vividly demonstrates (Sartorius, Pérez Morales)
Update 19 June 2015
Grandin, who chaired a session of the NYU Aponte conference six weeks
notes in a left-liberal Manhattan magazine a possibly "cunning" historical
coincidence: that the premeditated massacre in Emmanuel AME Church of
Charleston SC on 17 June 2015 occurred on the precise anniversary of
Denmark Vesey's insurrection, planned in 1822 in the same building, which
was then razed down by the slavocracy in revenge. The Vesey insurgency was
itself a close and possibly conscious homologue to the Cuban events a
decade before (as observed by Prof. Gómez and other Apontistas discussing
anticolonial politics in the Salón Real Juan Carlos I). Grandin could well
have added that Cuban social reality today is—for whichever reasons that
critical comparison may reveal—far from lurching into similar spasms of
white supremacist terror. This fact in itself strongly justifies the
Afrocubanist impulse of Prof. Ferrer's historical project.
|Aponte plaque on Aponte St, Havana
© 2015, Ivor Miller
José Antonio Aponte
José Antonio Aponte and His World, NYU, May 8 - May 9, 2015
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