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In Gratitude: A Choreography of Freedom

November 10, 2020

Maya J. Berry remembers a student-driven choreography project inspired by the Visionary Aponte: Art & Black Freedom exhibit at the Power Plant Gallery and performed at the exhibit closing.

By Maya J. Berry

Visionary Aponte: Art & Black Freedom

Maya J. Berry (center, in white) and Yanique Hume (right) lead students in Berry's Afro-Cuban Dance: History, Theory & Practice course in a performance inspired by the Visionary Aponte: Art & Black Freedom exhibit at the Power Plant Gallery. The art exhibit and accompanying series of conversations, screenings, performances, residencies, and workshops were organized by Duke's Power Plant Gallery and the Forum for Scholars and Publics. The exhibit was curated by Édouard Duval-Carrié and Ada Ferrer and is based on the digital humanities project, Digital Aponte.

In the shift to Zoom University, I hope we don't forget the lasting value of live encounters like this one.

In Fall 2018, students in my Afro-Cuban Dance: History, Theory & Practice course at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill created movement-based projects inspired by the Visionary Aponte: Art & Black Freedom exhibit organized by Duke's Power Plant Gallery and Forum for Scholars and Publics. Several of the students premiered their work at the exhibit’s closing celebration and we are very proud to have been part of this collaborative effort. I think I speak for my students when I say that we are all grateful to see our embodied memory of our closing-night performance amplified in this space.

Inside and outside the classroom, my students were immersed in art made to energize Black social movements and inspire social transformation.

The traveling exhibit was inspired by the lost "Book of Paintings" by Jose Antonio Aponte, a free Black, Cuban-born artist and leader in the early nineteenth-century antislavery movement in Havana, Cuba. For the exhibit, a collection of contemporary artists re-imagined Aponte's vision for the present day.

In the spirit of Aponte, who, like others of his time, used art as a tool for free and enslaved Blacks to conspire against plantation elites, my students were tasked with using the movement they learned in class and a specific piece of art from the exhibit as source materials for their own creations.

Like the Afro-Cuban dances my students studied all semester, like Aponte's own art, the pieces in the Visionary Aponte exhibit were not meant for passive display. Inside and outside the classroom, my students were immersed in art made to energize Black social movements and inspire social transformation.

Their engagement with the exhibit was strengthened by a close collaboration with the Ackland Art Museum, where, over a series of visits, my students learned techniques of visual art literacy and their translation into the body.

Thanks to the Forum for Scholars and Publics, students had two encounters with Afro-Caribbean dancer-scholar Yanique Hume (University of the West Indies). Dr. Hume taught a session of dance technique and offered artistic direction for the staging in the Power Plant Gallery. The students’ own interpretations gave renewed meaning to the history of Afro-Cuban rebellion against slavery and the themes of art and Black freedom.

We were especially pleased to see and hear the reactions of the artists, scholars, and attendees at the Visionary Aponte exhibit closing. It was such a special and enriching experience for both my students and myself. For many of them, it was their first time going to Durham, their first time at an art gallery, and their first time performing. For those of us fortunate to have taken part, the Visionary Aponte exhibit will have many after-lives in the years to come.

Watch the full performance that took place at the Power Plant Gallery on November 16, 2018.

Maya J. BerryMaya J. Berry is an Assistant Professor of African, African-American, and Diaspora Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her writing and teaching focus on the politics of race, gender, and performance, with a special emphasis on Blackness, the sacred arts, and spiritual epistemologies in contemporary Cuba. Berry earned her Ph.D. in Social Anthropology (African Diaspora Program) at the University of Texas at Austin and her MA in Performance Studies from New York University. Her scholarship has been supported by the Ford Foundation, the John L. Warfield Center for African & African American Studies at UT Austin, the Instituto Cubano de Investigación Cultural Juan Marinello, the Afro-Latin American Research Institute at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center, the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale University, and the Woodrow Wilson National Foundation. In 2015, she was honored with the Zora Neale Hurston Award from the Association for Feminist Anthropology. She was the 2020 recipient of UNC's Office of the Provost Engaged Scholarship Award in the category of Engaged Teaching.