The masterful work of Cuban artist Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, 2021 Pérez Prize recipient, reflects on our shared modern condition while evoking memories of the past and ancestors that came before us. Images of Black people, histories, and experiences are represented through fragmentary reflections of the artist’s own autobiographical experiences that serve to rupture persistent visual and historical erasures. In this essay, Dr. Yanique Hume reflects on the ways in which the silences of the past become visible and memories become ritualized through Campos-Pons art practice. In exploring how she routinely centers Blackness, Dr. Hume argues that the work of Campos-Pons connects to the experiences of the hybridity that define the Black experience in the Americas.
“Where are my people? Where is my grandmother? Where is my mother?” Where is my uncle? Where are they? I don’t see them here.”1 These were the words uttered by a young Maria Magdelena Campos-Pons upon visiting the National Museum of Fine Arts in her native Cuba. Walking through those hallowed halls and viewing the works of masters was humbling and inspiring but at the same time deeply unsettling, profoundly imprinting on her consciousness the magnitude of representational absence. The omission of the Black body and in particular the Black female body from the space of artistic contemplation at that time was not simply a matter of oversight but indeed revealed a broader systemic violence of accumulated erasure which rendered Black lives and histories invisible. This paradoxical exclusion of Blacks from belonging to a place, time, and space was contradictory to the social world which Campos-Pons inhabited, where in fact Black women stood as foundational pillars in the community of which they were a part and to the many that they served. This early defining encounter with the lack of representations of Blackness in the arts became a central catalyst animating the work of Campos-Pons. Whether through painting, photography, sculpture, video/film, installations, or performance art, the urgency to render visually legible the lives and experiences of the Black female subject has been an enduring ideological and aesthetic stance from which she has seldom wavered. It is thus a most suitable place of departure from which I frame my ensuing meditation.
Born in 1959 in the town of La Vega—a former sugar plantation in the Cuban province of Matanzas—Campos-Pons was intimately immersed in what Christina Sharpe has called “living in the wake of slavery,”2 meaning that the slave past makes its presence felt in the spatial, cultural, and spiritual dimensions of Black existence and modes of resistance on the island. As a central port city for the transshipment of enslaved Africans and a home to African-based religious and cultural practices and social institutions, Matanzas became a tangible site where fragmented histories and memories were refashioned anew under the violent conditions of colonial encounter. Once a bustling center of sugar production, the skeletal remains of this industry that structured the lives of its inhabitants marks the landscape and reminds its residents of this past. While the after effects of slavery emanate through these ruins, the hybrid cultures that emerged from these in/voluntary migrations from Europe, Africa, and later Asia enriched the very cultural fabric of the space. These migratory waves also became part of Campos-Pons’ own genetic legacy and serve as a blueprint for engaging this interconnecting web of history, identity, diaspora, and memory.
Campos-Pons found cultural grounding from the vantage point of this hybridity, being a product of what Fernando Ortiz has called “multiple transmigrations.”3 Growing up in the sugar fields of her birthplace—a shadow of a former capitalist machine in which her ancestors lived and labored—structured her interior conception of home. A homeland that was inherently hybrid from its inception, where identities were always understood in relation to somewhere else and in dialogue with other narratives of belonging that coalesced in the Caribbean. By embracing hybridity as a thematic thread in her work, Campos-Pons was not only making a semantic reference to a particular kind of cubanía, but in fact reflecting a structuring principle that is embedded in the reality of the Cuban and broader Caribbean experience. The hybridity endemic to the Caribbean finds multiple expressions through the aesthetic practices that have come to define both Cuba and the region at large. In centering Black lives, Campos-Pons is remarking on the ways in which modern history and the specific cultural encounters in the hybrid spaces of the Americas pivot around the Black experience. One cannot truly understand this Atlantic basin without confronting the Black body and its place in the making of the contemporary world.
Outside of this broader epistemological thrust, debunking the primacy of purity and instead endorsing an unapologetic celebration of mixture, Campos-Pons’ work goes beyond questions or expressions of national and cultural identity. Indeed, this positionality becomes instructive in framing Campos-Pons’ art-making practices and her training at the Escuela Nacional de Arte (ENA), National School of Art, and, later, the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA), Graduate Institute of Art, which she attended between 1980 and 1985. These prestigious art institutions emphasized formal training and the mastery of specific disciplines while at the same time disrupting disciplinary silos: students were regularly exposed to a multiplicity of forms and to content beyond the visual, from music to theatre and dance. Interdisciplinarity was thus seamlessly embraced and taken up by many as a practical position to adopt. Campos-Pons was immersed in this creative environment that came on the heels of the effervescence of the First Havana Biennial and the transformative Volumen I exhibition.4 Her generation of Cuban artists came of age during the increasing sovietization of the island and developed art that was valiantly nonconformist in relationship to official cultural policies.5 In a sense, Campos-Pons came into her art-practice unencumbered by the demands of creating within the strictures of a revolutionary aesthetic. This chapter in the history of Cuban art also opened up the possibilities for artists to travel beyond the shores of their island-nation. Campos-Pons traveled first to Boston to further her studies at the Massachusetts College of Arts in 1988, and subsequently returned to Cuba before emigrating permanently in 1991 to embark on her professional life as an international artist.
The sojourns of Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons resulted in her world-class acclaim as a multimedia artist. She has exhibited globally for nearly four decades in venues such as the Johannesburg Biennale, Dak’Art in Dakar Senegal, the Guangzhou Triennial in China, and the Venice Biennale. Her art is found in important public and private collections including the Museum of Modern Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art, the Polaroid Collection, the Museum of Fine Arts (Boston), The Victoria and Albert Museum, the MOCRA collection, the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery of Art, the National Art Gallery of Canada, the Guggenheim Museum, and the Peabody Essex Museum. In 2006, the Indianapolis Museum of Art presented a retrospective of her work surveying twenty years of practice. Most recently, Campos-Pons has embarked on a collaborative art and film project featuring seven female artists of color. When We Gather, which premiered in January 27, 2021, celebrates the achievement of women and the inauguration of Kamala Harris as the first woman and first woman of African and Asian descent to hold the position of Vice President of the United States. Numbering over thirty-five, Campos-Pons’ commissioned solo performances and exhibitions reflect the diverse range of her truly expansive and inspiring oeuvre which equally demonstrates her ability to traverse varying media with a sublime fluency and acumen. It is to precisely this dynamic visual landscape that I now turn.
Campos-Pons’ desire to connect disparate pieces into a whole translates into her aesthetic work, recalling the image of sutures joining together fragments of skin. Joining the past with the present, evoking ancestral presences to share space in the now of our present moment, Campos-Pons links generations across time, space, and locality. A certain poetics of nostalgia emanates through her work, evoking also the reality of her own exile and nomadism. These personal journeys serve as a springboard for her to connect to and reflect on other narratives of migration, departure, and dislocation. The longing that accompanies this experience, however, is not necessarily bound up with a sense of loss or permanent rupture. Instead, there is an excavatory process of recovery made possible through her work that disrupts any sense of finality. It is a deliberate and meticulous engagement with the past; Campos-Pons weaves together fragments to arrive at a sense of a transient totality or wholeness. In each of her works, memory takes on a distinctive materiality. Depending on the texture of that memory and the meaning she is trying to evoke, Campos-Pons chooses materials that help to structure the feeling she wishes to introduce. Individuals that are no longer of the flesh or not within reach become tangible through the various media she chooses to call forth their enduring presences. We see this for example in her installation, The Herbalist’s Tools (1994),6 which was done in homage to her late father, an herbalist, or as it is known in Cuba, an osainista.7 In this sensory-laden installation, herbs and trunks of potent trees are displayed to reference the wealth of the indigenous knowledge her father honed and shared with his community. The sculptural elements of this display helped to convey the majesty of the healing arts in Afro-Cuban religions, in which trees and bundles of herbs play a critical part.
Although sculpture is a critical medium for Campos-Pons, photography has been her most steady companion and one of her most intimate means used to bridge various temporalities referenced in her work. In this way, we can situate Campos-Pons with other Black women artists including Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson, and Deborah Willis, all of whom understand the recuperative and reconstructive power of photography for making visible, validating, and honoring Black women, families, and communities.8 However, what separates her from these women is the use of photography as a distinctively performative tool and an element of mixed media work. Her engagement with images is often situated within a broader complex of materials and media that construct a layered tapestry of meaning.
In 1998, Campos-Pons debuted Spoken Softly with Mama at the Museum of Modern Art.9 It was the second part of the series entitled History of People Who Were Not Heroes that began in 1994 as a visual chronicle of the former slave barracks in the region and municipality of the artist’s birth and ancestry. In this evocative multimedia installation, viewers are fully immersed in an interactive display that conjures the intimate presence of women projected (via four photographic images and three videos) on seven stylized ironing boards positioned in a semi-circle. Several of these totemic shields feature video-projected images of three generations of Campos-Pons’ matrilineage; in front of these images rests the material evidence of their labor as domestic servants. Cast-glass irons, wooden objects and fabrics situated in a circular and mandala-like patterns ritualize, adorn, and distort the otherwise banal quotidian expressions of their daily work. Their presence with these objects not only highlights the gendered dimension of their domesticity, but also links them to past generations of laborers who toiled in tobacco and sugar plantations and in the homes of white Creole elites. But beyond this, their meticulous placement translates a poignant message of attentive care—in a word, they conjure a sense of profound pride. Despite the historical context that frames parts of the work’s interpretation, the arresting sentiment that prevails is not one that dwells on trauma or victimhood. These are not women who are asking for our pity. There is no melancholy about the life of service they lived because they were suspended from the shackles of servitude. Audio recordings of their voices pierce through the silence, bringing them closer to the viewing audience, and adding to the multilayered textures of the installation that mirrors the equally multifaceted lives these women lived. Although implied, there is no overt reference to the after effects of slavery in the present. Instead, we enter this altar-space that commands our deepest reverence, an alternative consciousness that elevates these women beyond the banality of their individual and collective labor. Campos-Pons has remarked that her feminist sensibilities were not cultivated in the lecture rooms of the university or through sifting through critical texts or literature, but by being fully present in her own life where she witnessed and was suffused with the love, dedication, and commitment of the women she pays homage to in this piece. It was their sacrifice and work that set the stage for her to dream beyond the confines of her hometown, beyond a life of domestic labor. Although she was often away from home, these women were a constant reminder of the lessons, love, and security of home that she carries within her being. Their enduring presence would be her armor and shield with which she can confront challenges and later celebrate her successes.
The Polaroid is one of her preferred media; its instantaneousness and unpredictability provide an evocative instrument for playing with time and the past, allowing her to capture a single moment in time and “fix” it in a sense. Through these photographs, images of Black lives, histories, and experiences become reflected through fragments of her autobiography and disrupts the visual void to make connections to a broader, shared reality.
Keeping with this theme of ritualizing memories as well as photographing and locating Black lives as a central feature for aesthetic contemplation, I turn now to Replenishing (2001), a mesmerizing and deeply moving piece which brings together many of Campos-Pons’ most prominent themes. Made up entirely of large format Polaroids broken into three sections, the installation shows Campos-Pons and her mother standing side-by-side. Firm, determined, yet compassionate in their outward gaze, the two women stare into the far distance. The image is slightly distorted, elongated in its vertical stance, rooting down yet rising above. The elder of the two figures has her feet planted squarely in the ground; one can almost feel the weight of her upper body descend into the earth. The other is in motion, with one foot slightly ahead of the other, as though still walking on a path towards her destination. This creates a dynamic tension that reveals generational differences, a sense that one has completed their journey and the other is still in the process of doing so. Although slightly reminiscent of Madonna images replete in Catholic chromolithographs and statues, the connection between this mother and child does not follow these iconographic conventions. The nurturing presence is at once sublime and subtle, as it calls on other invisible energetic forces to assist in the labor of care.
While sharing the same overall visual frame, the two figures in Replenishing occupy different spaces, each independent, separate, and fragmented as though living in different moments and locations. Living in a state of exile is a fragmentary existence, yet the potential for unity is manifest through the sacred African ritual beads, known as elekes in their native Yoruba context, and collares in the Cuban Lucumí/Santería religion, that tether the two together. These glass beads are strung with designated colors and numeric patterns referencing specific Orishas—divinities that represent the elemental forces of nature. These beads are a potent symbol of protection, a reminder that one does not walk alone, for their gods always walk with them. They materialize an African way of knowing, a ritual knowledge of the Divine Universe that predates the Catholicism that the ancestors of Campos-Pons would have encountered upon their arrival to Cuba. The beads also represent one’s intimate connection to a spiritual family extending beyond one’s own bloodline, a sacred kinship that is forged through activating the memories of age-old rituals. Ceremonially consecrated (e.g. washed with herbs and fed with the sacrificial blood of birds), these beads are ritually placed over the head of a devotee, thus marking the bond between the healer and the newly initiated and enveloping the neophyte into a broader spiritual family. They symbolize the first step towards one’s rebirth. What is particularly fascinating in this piece is that these beads are shared between a birth mother and her child, as opposed to a Godmother (an appointed or chosen spiritual mother who becomes a sacred surrogate).
The reference to her deep respect of the role of motherhood is not only reflected in the image of her mother but the symbolism of divine motherhood as indicated in the blue dress she wears and the blue and white beads she holds to represent the mother supreme in the Yoruba pantheon, Yemaya. Yemaya represents universal love, wisdom, mystery, and the sustaining power of maternal energy, an energy that is never static but always in motion and without boundaries. The Yemaya beads are wrapped around red and black beads of Elegua, the God of the crossroads, the opener of the way; and the yellow and amber beads of her daughter (and in some sacred narratives her younger sibling), Oshun. Oshun represents fertility, sensuality, the sweet waters, and the one who brings sweetness into our lives. Both Yemaya and Oshun are emblems of sustenance: two that are truly one force. They share the majestic healing power of water, the source of our renewal, restoration, and replenishment. Campos-Pons and her mother equally partake in this divine labor of mothering, nurturing, and grounding traditions while cultivating their shared sense of home.
It is this very concept of home that I return to in closing out my reflections, for once the viewer steps away from the piece and begins to look at the broader frame of paneled images, what reveals itself is a letter “H.” A symbolic representation of that which her mother represents for her, “home”/“hogar”—the source of Campos-Pons’ own replenishment. Even though the artist has spent years living away from the land of her birth, home was always present, in part. Home is not simply the location of a landmass but also the lessons, memories, rites, and practices that were embedded in her consciousness and make up an integral part of her interior landscape.
While not a practitioner of an African-derived religion, Campos-Pons has developed a keen intuition and attentiveness to energies, nature, and the ancestral realm as is evidenced in her work. Through ritualizing the mundane and transforming memories into something palatable, sanctified, and resonant, Campos-Pons communicates this sensibility and helps us to make sense of the here and now.
- Campos-Pons quoted in William Luis, “Art and Diaspora: A Conversation with Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons,” Afro-Hispanic Review, Fall 2011 (30) 2:159.
- Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 18.
- Fernando Ortiz, Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995).
- This pathbreaking exhibition, dubbed the “Big Bang of Cuban contemporary art,” featured the work of eleven artists: José Bedia, Juan Francisco Elso Padilla, José Manuel Fors, Flavio Garciandía, Israel Leon, Rogelio López Marín, aka Gory, Gustavo Pérez Monzón, Ricardo Rodríguez Brey, Tomás Sánchez, Leandro Soto, and Rubén Torres Llorca. Many of these artists went on to teach at the newly formed Graduate Institute of Art where Campos-Pons would attend. For more see the Cuban Art News Archive’s article, ““Volume I,” or The Big Bang of Contemporary Cuban Art,” January 14, 2011, accessed July 10, 2021, <https://cubanartnewsarchive.org/2011/01/14/volume-i-or-the-big-bang-of-contemporary-cuban-art/>.
- For a comprehensive examination of this movement and artistic production during this period and its aftermath see Luis Camnitzer, New Art of Cuba (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003); and Rachel Weiss, To and From Utopia in the New Cuban Art (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).
- For a visual of “The Herbalist Tools” see, http://alchemy.pem.org/cuba_distilled/.
- An osainista is a person who is a master of the lore, as well as practical and spiritual uses of herbs and medicinal plants. The term is derived from the Yoruba, Ọ̀sanyìn, rendered Osaín/Ossain/Ossaím in Latin America, who is the Yoruba divinity of herbal medicine and healing. He is known to be the patron of the forest wise of all of its vegetation and its sacred healing properties.
- See Deborah Willis, ed., Picturing Us: African-American Identity and Photography (New York: New Press, 1994); and bell hooks, Art on my Mind: Visual Politics (New York: The New Press, 1995). For more contemporary explorations of photography in African diasporic visual culture and the Black popular imaginary see Krista Thompson, Shine: The Visual Economy of Light in African Diasporic Aesthetic Practice (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015).
- For a visual of the installation see the National Gallery of Canada’s webpage on the exhibition, accessed July 21, 2021, <https://www.gallery.ca/collection/artwork/spoken-softly-with-mama>.