Cristiano Berti (1967) is a visual artist from Turin, Italy, who began to work as a painter and sculptor in 1987. His current works often use different kinds of language and media in order to construct systems of signs and meanings in which formal appearance becomes more complex, contradictory, or ambiguous.
After five long years of research, he has released Boggiano Heirs, an artist’s book in the form of a historical essay, that highlights the deeply entrenched system of slavery that existed in Cuba during the 19th century. It focuses on the figure of Antonio Boggiano, a wealthy and influential Italian merchant who lived in Trinidad, Cuba, during the first half of the 19th century. His wealth and status allowed him to become a hacendado – or plantation owner – purchasing enslaved individuals for his coffee and sugar plantations.
Under Antonio Boggiano’s ownership, the slaves were subject to poor treatment and harsh living conditions. Slaves who attempted to flee from captivity, also known as cimarrones, formed communities in remote areas. Unfortunately, these communities were often raided by slave hunters. As the book lays out, “Running away, though, was not for everyone. One was compelled to hide in wild places, with the risk of being discovered and returned to slavery after having suffered terrible punishments. Revolts were ferociously repressed. Macabre death symbols were spread in warning of black people, like when the head of one of the leaders of the 1838 rebellion was placed in a hanging cage; nailing the hands of his mates on the corner walls of Trinidad’s main roads.”
On the other hand, slaves could purchase their freedom by compensating their master all at once or in instalments, which was the most secure means of obtaining freedom as it was a customary law practiced in Spanish America. Slaves could put money aside for the carta de ahorro by working Sundays and feast days. Those who lived in the city could provide services and run small businesses. Living in the countryside, one could sell the fruit grown on the small patch of land right at the edge of the plantation, that the owner usually left for subsistence farming. While not all enslaved people had the opportunity or means to purchase their freedom, it’s almost empowering to consider that those residing in Cuba who possess the surname Boggiano appear to originate from the lineage of those who were able to win their freedom.
Boggiano Heirs closes with a conversation with American art critic and author Seph Rodney, who is quoted as saying, “You [Cristiano Berti] turned toward the mystery of the Boggianos to see what they could tell you about the wider developments within the Caribbean. I think it’s valuable that you have uncovered a hushed history of entrepreneurship, travel, exploitation, enslavement, aspiration, intermixing of cultures and ethnicities, and laborious self-possession.”
While it is difficult to write history from the point of view of enslaved people, Berti speaks about how he protects the authenticity of the stories found in Boggiano Heirs: “If these narratives did not exist, constructing them would have been not only inappropriate for a historical essay but also highly manipulative. I have therefore chosen a more subtle approach, taking care of minimal stories and recomposing them into a larger picture that gives them greater meaning — always basing it on written sources, though.”
Boggiano Heirs explores what remains of Antonio Boggiano’s existence — industrious and full of success and wealth yet found in the shadows are the hundreds of Cuban citizens who bear this bizarre, foreign-rooted surname today. The book is part of a larger project entitled Futile Cycles: Boggiano, which include two other works developed by the artist: a wall installation depicting two large family trees, in which the people born in Africa stand at the apex, branching out through marriages that took place in the first half of the 19th century, and a video in which some stories collected by the author in the area where Antonio Boggiano’s coffee plantation once stood intersect with the conversation with a family of Afro-Cuban Boggianos.