• Joshua Basseches
  • Part One | Introduction
  • Part Two | Early Life
  • Part Three | Leaving Cuba
  • Part Four | A New Phase
  • Part Five | Alchemy of the Soul
  • Nancy Pick
  • Cuba Distilled
  • Esther Allen
  • Constellations in Sugar
  • In the PEM Collection
  • Image Gallery
  • About
  • Menu


    Joshua Basseches

    In 2015, Campos-Pons returned to themes of sugar and labor for Alchemy of the Soul, Elixir for the Spirits, her most ambitious work to date, a large-scale, multi-part sculptural work that forms the central commission of the exhibition. With Alchemy of the Soul, Elixir for the Spirits, she extends her artistic reach to include rum and rum distillation—the final step in the processing and refinement of sugar. Drawing on the structural forms that Campos-Pons saw in the abandoned mill buildings—along with the many other such mills that dot the Cuban landscape, most of them shuttered and falling into corroded disrepair—Campos-Pons has designed six substantial sculptural elements, with dimensions that range in width, length, and height from five to fourteen feet. The units mix elements that speak to the language of engineering with ones that reflect the anthropomorphic and fantastical.

    Figure 22 | History of a People Who Were Not Heroes: A Town Portrait, 1994, mixed-media installation, dimensions variable, collection of the artist. Shown as installed at Indianapolis Museum of Art. Courtesy of Indianapolis Museum of Art.


    Figure 23 | Sugar/Bittersweet, 2010, mixed-media installation, dimensions variable, The Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African & African American Art, Harvard University. Shown as installed at Smith College Museum of Art. Courtesy of Smith College Museum of Art. Photo by Stephen Petegorsky.

    A number of Campos-Pons's recent works, specifically installation pieces, are meditations on sugar, sugarcane, and the places of her childhood writ large, and can be said to prefigure her choices with Alchemy of the Soul, Elixir for the Spirits. Two pieces of significance are the 1994 installation, History of a People Who Were Not Heroes: A Town Portrait, that includes a seven-foot-tall tower made of bricks that alludes to the La Vega mill tower (Figure 22), and the 2010 installation, Sugar/Bittersweet, that addresses the social, political, and familial issues surrounding the harvesting of sugarcane and the manufacture of sugar (Figure 23). Sugar/Bittersweet represents an abstract reference to a sugarcane field, encompassing a series of twenty-four African spears, each one piercing disks of raw sugar and cast glass forms. Describing the piece, Campos-Pons explains:

    My perception of sugar has to do with my personal associations with it as well as seeing it as part of a larger narrative . . . . So there's something almost ancestral, in the bones, for me about the implications associated with sugar production. As the quote states, every "lump of sugar" is produced by the sweat of some individual. Producing sugar is a very, very painful process.”

    This working and reworking of intense themes across multiple pieces is a distinctive characteristic of Campos-Pons's artistic practice.

    In Alchemy of the Soul, Elixir for the Spirits, components reminiscent of steel crossbeams and girders meant, in their original context, to provide load-bearing stability, are connected with bulbous, almost voluptuous forms, some vaguely suggestive of an intestinal tract. Elevated silos shaped like the reservoir containers that hold sugar or rum during industrial production are supported by delicate curved legs, calling to mind the limbs of animals or insects. While the majority of the visual references are industrial, Campos-Pons does not hesitate to utilize organic and corporeal imagery as well in order to achieve the visual impact she seeks.

    These sculptural units are spaced across the gallery, allowing the viewer to walk among and around them, observing each aspect of Campos-Pons's creation in the way one would consider freestanding sculpture. Flowing through the pipes and reservoirs of one unit is a clear brown liquid, which lends the entire gallery a faint, sweet rum scent. Among the most striking features of the installation is the material the artist employed to create the individual structures: these are not the rusted metal girders, masonry, pipes, and rivets of the original Cuban mills, but instead are forms made largely out of colored glass, some of them glowing blue, some brown, and some an ochre yellow. Just as the rum-like fluid flows through the glass structure, so too does a soundtrack that contextualizes the piece flow through the gallery.

    In Neil Leonard's eight-channel soundscape, voices and notes rise up, reverberate, and dissolve in the gallery. The ambient sounds of the fields surrounding Cuban sugar mills are heard in the background. The clave of the rumba group Los Muñequitos de Matanzas fades into the distinct resonance of rum moving inside a glass vessel. "The sound of Alchemy of the Soul amplifies currents between Cuba and the U.S. and brings sonic recognition to the experiences," describes Leonard, "rais[ing] questions about what is distant/familiar, real/fictional, bitter/sweet, and what is the function of spirituality."

    As implied by Leonard's observations, Alchemy of the Soul, Elixir for the Spirits is a work of multiple forms of reappropriation and recontextualization. First, the piece was designed to unveil the "cruel practice of slavery." Campos-Pons seeks to do so in a way that is poetic, abstracted, mirroring her own experience of the mills, offering, on one side, the wonder and beauty of shapes in space akin to her childhood exposure to the mill tower, and, on the other, referencing the demanding physical labor and hardship that was required to produce sugar, initially by slaves, and in subsequent generations, by poorly treated laborers.

    Figure 24 | Bottle of raw sugar, about 1870, Matanzas, Cuba, glass and raw sugar, Peabody Essex Museum, gift of Mrs. Charles H.P. Copeland, 1969. © 2015 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

    Another aspect of her reimagining relates more broadly to the maritime commerce that linked New England, West Africa, and the Caribbean. These locations were the points of the historic Triangle Trade—the trade route that connected the three regions and which encompasses Gilroy's conception of the black Atlantic. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, sugar and molasses from Cuba and other parts of the West Indies were transported to New England, where they were distilled into rum (Figure 24). The profits from the sale of sugar were then used to purchase manufactured goods, such as cloth, trinkets, guns, and ammunition, which were shipped to West Africa. These goods were, in turn, sold or bartered for human cargo, the slaves that worked the sugar plantations and mills of Cuba. From the coast of Africa, slaves were transported on the Middle Passage, the third leg of the triangle, to their final destination in Cuba. The merchants and sea captains of New England were among those who became rich from the Triangle Trade.

    These historic linkages connecting Cuba and New England make the Salem-based PEM a particularly appropriate site to inaugurate Alchemy of the Soul, Elixir for the Spirits. Slaves did not represent a material part of the trade activities of the Salem merchants who founded the East India Marine Society in 1799 (later to be known as PEM); however, Salem merchants did play a role in the Triangle Trade pattern that supported the plantation system in Cuba, sending dried salt cod to the West Indies, shipping wooden staves to make the casks which transported molasses, providing horses used in sugar mills (like the one in La Vega), and, ultimately, establishing a prominent market for the sugar and molasses such mills produced.

    Figure 25 | Preliminary drawing for Alchemy of the Soul, Elixir for the Spirits, 2014, pencil on paper, 20 × 26 1/8 in. (50.8 × 66.4 cm), collection of the artist. Photography by Walter Silver/PEM.


    While Alchemy of the Soul, Elixir for the Spirits is one of Campos-Pons's most recent works, it has been gestating in her mind for over twenty-five years, since her early days in the Boston area. Campos-Pons recalls doing her very first sketch for what would eventually become the piece in 1988, when she was a student at MassArt. The work has, she says, "been cocooning in my notebooks and in my dream chest" for many, many years (Figure 25). Alchemy of the Soul, Elixir for the Spirits, then, is both a reflection of a process drawn from memory and a seminal example of the artist's preoccupation with it: the materiality of memory, the distortion of memory, the fragility of memory, the vulnerability of memory. "What is constructed, what is real, what is past?" All of these questions Campos-Pons believes are tied up in the meaning of Alchemy of the Soul, Elixir for the Spirits and her effort to capture, in an abstracted way, the essence of sugar mills that are now in ruins and a sugar industry that is, itself, mostly a memory.

    Video | Campos-Pons on the concept of alchemy in the installation. Video by Chip Van Dyke/PEM.

    The power of memory can also be found in the juxtaposition of materials that Campos-Pons has chosen to employ in her installation. Alchemy of the Soul, Elixir for the Spirits, as noted, represents a reappropriation of the Cuban sugar mill: the hard, cold materials of industrial production have been transformed into glass, the most fragile of substances; the industrial material of impermeability exchanged for one of transparency. Glass, too, in the artist's mind, comes full circle, back to the concept of memory. For glass, like memory, is fragile, subject to breakage. Yet, both can be resilient, as well. Campos-Pons refers to her sugar mill of glass as a "ghost structure"—calling to mind, but not actually reproducing, the original building forms, representing a ghostly presence of the decay and abandonment of the sugar industry in Cuba.

    Figure 26 | Detail of Alchemy of the Soul, Elixir for the Spirits, 2015. Photo by Peter Vanderwarker.

    Not all the sculptural elements of Alchemy of the Soul, Elixir for the Spirits directly reference the sugar industry. One stands out from the others. The piece is fashioned from glass of a deep blue, rather than the yellow, brown, and terra-cotta shades of the other units. And its most striking form, two egg-like shapes suspended one atop the other and held up by three curved, fragile legs, is drawn from a very different source (Figure 26). Take a look at a painting by the Spanish-born surrealist artist Remedios Varo (1908–63) called Creación de las Aves (Creation of the Birds) (1957) and in the left foreground of the work can be seen the inspiration for this glass sculpture: a diminutive, waist-high set of oval reservoirs connected by tubes and pipes to an unknown source of fluids (Figure 27). Varo's two-dimensional apparatus has been reimagined in three-dimensional space. Here, also, is found the most specific link to the title of Campos-Pons's sculptural installation. The figure seated beside the oval form is an alchemist, half woman, half bird. She is at work in her laboratory, harnessing the power of the stars in the alchemical endeavor of creating birds, two of which are being coaxed into life through her ministrations.

    Figure 27 | Remedios Varo, Creación de las Aves (Creation of the Birds), 1957, oil on masonite, 21 3/4 × 25 1/4 in. (55.2 × 64.1 cm), Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City, Mexico. De Agostini Picture Library / G. Dagli Orti/Bridgeman Images © 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VEGAP, Madrid.

    Historian Urszula Szulakowska, in Alchemy in Contemporary Art, argues that Varo identified herself with the alchemist in the painting, "presenting a self-image as a commanding, unemotional scientist, skilled in meticulous laboratory work, relentlessly pursuing a self-determined objective." Campos-Pons, too, identifies herself with Varo's alchemist, though her intentions and materials are somewhat different. Her objective is the ongoing project of envisioning new social and cultural possibilities for Cuba. Such reenvisioning is at the heart of her recent artistic practice and can be seen throughout the works assembled in this exhibition. Campos-Pons remains true to the themes that animated her work in the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s: the historic brutality and injustice of labor in the Cuban sugar industry, the power and fragility of memory, the diasporic longing associated with distance from the Cuban shore. But these themes in the hands of the mature artist Campos-Pons has become are mediated by the hope of a reimagined Cuba. In that Cuba, the straits of Florida can be traversed readily and with ease, the little black woman from The Warrior Reservoir can assert her convictions without fear of censorship or discrimination, and eyes of all races, such as those in Voyeurs and Beholders of…, can be even more likely to weep tears of joy than of sorrow.

    Reflecting again on Alchemy of the Soul, Elixir for the Spirits, Campos-Pons asks, "why sugar and why glass? Sugar and glass have moments that are similar." She is thinking about the industrial processes whereby grains of sand are transformed into glass and crystals of sugar are transformed into rum. "In my mind, there is a conceptual parallel between the materiality of these two substances: liquid to solid, solid to liquid; transparent, translucent, material, immaterial." All of these juxtapositions and transformations are ultimately in the service, the artist confirms, of the most essential form of alchemical endeavor in which she is engaged, the "transformation of pain into beauty."


    Albrow, Martin. The Global Age: State and Society Beyond Modernity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997.
    Brenner, Philip, John M. Kirk, and William M. LeoGrande, eds. A Contemporary Cuba Reader: Reinventing the Revolution. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008.
    Camnitzer, Luis. New Art of Cuba. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2003.
    Catasús Cervera, Sonia. Cuban Women: Changing Roles and Population Trends. Geneva, Switzerland: International Labour Office, 1988.
    De la Fuento, Alejandro, ed. Sugar: Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons. Northampton, MA: Smith College Museum of Art, 2010.
    Finley, Cheryl and Salah M. Hassan. Diaspora Memory Place: David Hammons, Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons and Pamela Z. New York: Prestel, 2008.
    Freiman, Lisa, ed. María Magdalena Campos-Pons: Everything Is Separated by Water. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007.
    Giddens, Anthony. The Consequences of Modernity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990.
    Grossberg, Lawrence, Cary Nelson, and Paula A. Treichler. Cultural Studies. New York: Routledge, 1992.
    Jones, Amelia, ed. A Companion to Contemporary Art since 1945. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006.
    The Salem Project: Study of Alternatives. Denver, CO: U.S. Department of the Interior/National Park Service, 1990.
    Schjeldahl, Peter. "Festivalism: Oceans of Fun at the Venice Biennale." The New Yorker, July 5, 1999.
    Szulakowska, Urszula. Alchemy in Contemporary Art. Farnham, Surrey, UK: Ashgate Publishing, 2011.
    Weiss, Rachel. To and From Utopia in the New Cuban Art. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2011.