Artistic Production, Race, and History in Colonial Cuba, 1762-1840

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Artistic Production, Race, and History in Colonial Cuba, 1762-1840

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Title: Artistic Production, Race, and History in Colonial Cuba, 1762-1840
Author: Rodriguez, Linda Marie
Citation: Rodriguez, Linda Marie. 2012. Artistic Production, Race, and History in Colonial Cuba, 1762-1840. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University.
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Abstract: This dissertation addresses the works of art of two free men of color, Vicente Escobar (1762-1834) and José Antonio Aponte (date of birth unknown-1812), who lived in late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Havana. I offer the first consideration of these two artists together in order to illuminate the scope of visual artistic practice of free people of color prior to the foundation of the fine arts academy, the Academia de San Alejandro, in 1818. Creole and Spanish elites who supported the foundation of the school expressed concern that blacks had been “dominating” the arts and excluded them from studying there. I posit that both Escobar and Aponte worked as self-aware artists prior to the elite project of the fine arts academy, which followed an unclear path after its foundation. Escobar painted the portraits of colonial society’s Spanish and creole elites. The works span the dates from 1785 to 1829. Aponte’s only known work of art – a so-called libro de pinturas (book of paintings) found in 1812 – no longer exists. However, a textual description of the book survives in the court record that documents his trial for conspiring to plan slave rebellions across the island. Aponte collaged together an array of images to depict a “universal black history” that we are now forced to imagine as the original work of art has been lost. I argue that both artists, through their artistic practices, embodied a self-awareness as artists that they directed to transformative ends. These artistic practices – as advanced by the works themselves as well as how they were produced and received – involved the articulation of two axes. The first axis moved from the representation of the visible, in the case of Escobar’s portraits, to the representation of the invisible, in the case of Aponte’s book of paintings. The second axis measures how the works themselves could be “historically effective” – following T.J. Clark – and transform a colonial black identity, operating on the scale of the individual to that of a larger community. For Escobar, his artistic practice was personal; for Aponte, his artistic vision extended beyond himself.
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