• 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
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    Joshua Basseches

    On a late afternoon in August 2015, following a long drive on rutted roads beside miles of rich, dark soil and lush, green fields, Campos-Pons returned to the village of her childhood after three decades. The centrality of place emanates from her words as she recited, with the feeling of an epic poem or the power of an incantation, "We are in the town of La Vega in the vicinity of Manguito in the municipality of Calimete in the region of Colón in the province of Matanzas. But, specifically, we are in front of the door of what was my childhood home, which is in a former sugarcane plantation." The visit had some of the quality of the prodigal daughter returned, with distant relatives and old family friends who still lived in the village eager to see her, hug her, invite her into their homes.

    Campos-Pons's artistic practice has focused on the power and fragility of memory. Is what you remember real or is it a fragmented recreation of experience distilled through later events and a mixture of hope, joy, longing, and loss? Returning to La Vega, Campos-Pons's memory of a thriving, albeit poor, farming village, with neatly kept paths and homes with small flower gardens, was belied by the current reality of 2015. La Vega today has a forlorn quality, owing in substantial measure to the end of the local sugar industry in the 1970s and the economic hardship that resulted, along with the physical ravages of hurricanes blasting across the island, damaging much of the village. Today, paths and gardens are overgrown with dense tropical vegetation; many houses seem poorly cared for or abandoned.

    Figure 2 | Tower of the former Tirso Mesa y Hernandez sugar factory, La Vega, Matanzas, Cuba, August 2015. Photograph by Ed Rodley/PEM.

    Gone is the La Vega slave plantation manor house, which the artist recalls from her childhood, as is the elementary school she attended, now nothing but a few rotting timbers covered by a riot of leafy plants and wild avocado trees. But the large brick tower that marked the site of the La Vega sugar mill still looms over the village where the artist remembers playing for hours with her friends, "unaware of the parallel history [for Afro-Cuban slaves] encased in the walls" (Figure 2). The enormous bell forged in 1836, which had been used to call the slaves to the cane fields, continues to hang in the village's central green (Figure 3). Also, the house where Campos-Pons grew up remains: a long, skinny building with whitewashed walls and tiled floor. These resonant elements of place are the touchstones of history and for the artist's memory.

    Figure 3 | Bell of the former Tirso Mesa y Hernandez sugar factory, La Vega, Matanzas, Cuba, August 2015. Photograph by Ed Rodley/PEM.

    During most of the eighteenth century, Cuba was a society that had slaves, but was not, arguably, a slave society. Through the mid-1700s, Europeans and their descendants still made up the majority of the population, with black slaves representing a quarter of the population, and free blacks one-fifth. That changed in 1791. The slave revolt in neighboring Saint-Domingue, which later became known as Haiti, led to the dismantling of the slave-based sugar economy of that colony and paved the way for Cuba to become the world's largest sugar producer and exporter. Between 1792 and 1837, the number of sugar mills in Cuba doubled, from approximately five hundred to one thousand. The dramatic expansion of the sugar industry required an even more dramatic increase in labor, specifically in the form of African slaves—among whom were Campos-Pons's ancestors. Over this period, Cuba saw a fivefold increase in the slave population. Sugar production and the economics of the sugar industry came to dominate virtually every aspect of Cuban life, with the island colony truly becoming, for the first time, a slave society (Figures 4 and 5). Even after slaves were emancipated in 1886, and well into the middle decades of the twentieth century, free black laborers—alongside Chinese laborers imported for the purpose—worked the cane fields. Sugar continued to be a dominant force in Cuban society, forming a central aspect of the national identity, well into the late twentieth century.

    Figure 4 | Ingenio Tinguaro, Propiedad del Señor Don Francisco Diago, from Los Ingenios: Coleccion de vistas de los principales ingenios de azucar de la Isla de Cuba. Edicion de lujo. El texto redactado por J. G. Cantero Las láminas dibujadas del natural y litografiadas por Eduardo Laplante, etc. (Habana, 1857), The British Library. © The British Library Board.


    Figure 5 | View of the interior of the boiling house, Casa de Calderas del ingenio Asunción, Propiedad del Señor Don Lorenzo Pedro, from Los Ingenios: Coleccion de vistas de los principales ingenios de azucar de la Isla de Cuba. Edicion de lujo. El texto redactado por J. G. Cantero Las láminas dibujadas del natural y litografiadas por Eduardo Laplante, etc. (Habana, 1857), The British Library. © The British Library Board.


    Figure 6 | Campos-Pons (second from left) with her cousins (left to right), Ermesita Silveira-Campos, Milagro de la Caridad Ortega-Leon, and Alicia León-Silveira, in the town of La Vega, Matanzas, Cuba, August 2015. Photograph by Emily Fry/PEM.

    Figure 7 | Fidel Castro fellow rebels in a car surrounded by crowds, 1962, New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC.

    Campos-Pons was born in 1959. Her father, Sotero Arcadio Campos-Suri, was a small farm rancher, and her mother, Estervina Pons-Leon, held a variety of jobs as a daycare provider, a cafeteria worker, a teacher, and a social worker (Figure 6). The timing of Campos-Pons's birth was in many ways propitious, as it was the same year that Fidel Castro's 26th of July Movement overthrew the government of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista (Figure 7). Castro's social and political objectives placed a high premium on literacy as a cornerstone of government policy, with artistic literacy treated as an important element of that policy. Artist and scholar Luis Camnitzer observed of Cuban post-revolutionary social planning: "literacy has been, more than a narrow activity, a broad cultural concept that informed education at large. It was seen, next to economic independence, as a primary tool to achieve not only cultural autonomy but also the ability to create a new culture within the new social order."

    Campos-Pons was one of the first generations of Cuban children to benefit from this progressive attitude toward education, and, particularly, art education. Her artistic talent was noted early, and, at the age of fourteen, she was accepted into the fine arts department of the Escuela Provincial de Artes Plásticas (EPA, the Provincial School of Art) in Matanzas, where she developed a preuniversitario foundation in drawing, painting, and sculpture. This early education was the first step in almost fifteen years of art education at successively higher levels. In 1976, Campos-Pons was accepted to the Escuela Nacional de Arte (ENA, the National Art School) in Havana (Figure 8). At ENA, Campos-Pons continued her foundational undergraduate-level work, expanded her practice to include printmaking, and also took classes in art theory and criticism. Additionally, given the close physical proximity of ENA to Cuba's other national art school, Campos-Pons received exposure not only to the visual arts, but also to modern dance, ballet, and theater, and to the students who studied them.

    Figure 8 | Entrance to the Escuela Nacional de Arte designed by Ricardo Porro, 2010. © Brent Winebrenner/Getty Images, Inc.


    Video | Campos-Pons shares stories of her interdisciplinary arts education at the Instituto Superior de Arte, Havana, Cuba. Video by Chip Van Dyke/PEM.

    After completing her ENA degree, Campos-Pons was admitted in 1980 to the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA, the University of Arts), where she undertook graduate studies until 1985. According to Camnitzer, in contrast with other Cuban university schools, the curriculum and approach at ISA was based on the view that its students were already professionals and that their time at the institute was geared toward providing the opportunity to further perfect their technique and artistic vision. Students were also encouraged to participate in Havana's art scene. Campos-Pons took full advantage of this opportunity, both as a student at ISA, and, subsequently, when she served on the school's faculty between 1985 and 1987. The body of work she produced from the time she began exhibiting internationally in 1984 through the late 1980s represents the first major phase of her artistic production.

    Campos-Pons's principal artistic interest at this time was the role of women in Cuban life, and female reproductive freedom and sexuality. Her primary medium was painting, albeit painting that tested the boundaries of the traditional framed picture. The artist's first major breakthrough came in 1985. Her thesis show was held at the highly visible avant-garde Gallery L, the exhibition space associated with the University of Havana located on L Street in the heart of the city's cultural district. The exhibition, entitled Acoplamientos (Couplings), extended her feminist-oriented practice and explored representations of sexuality and the sexual oppression of women in African, European, and Mesoamerican cultures. Campos-Pons chose to present work drawn from her final thesis project at ISA that extended her feminist-oriented practice and explored representations of sexuality and the sexual oppression of women in African, European, and Mesoamerican cultures. One of the most important works from the exhibition is Cinturón de Castidad (Chastity Belt), 1984–85 (Figure 9). The piece uses a historical reference—the chastity belt, a tool employed in male-dominated medieval European society to enforce female chastity—to comment on the continuing sexual repression of women in twentieth-century Cuba.

    Figure 9 | Cinturón de Castidad (Chastity Belt) (1984–85), acrylic and oil on canvas and wood, approx. 79 × 118 in. (200.7 × 299.7 cm), Collection of the Center for the Development of the Visual Arts, Havana, Cuba. Courtesy of Indianapolis Museum of Art.


    The central element of Cinturón de Castidad is a painted relief in the form of a triangle, several feet in height, meant to represent a woman's pubic area. Feathery brushstrokes of variegated blues and blacks suggest pubic hair. A wooden, ribbon-like painted band placed across the triangle, references the chastity belt's prohibition of sexual activity. To heighten the message, the pubic triangle is hemmed in by two carved wooden forms that can be read as snakes or African ceremonial swords. Either way, the forms are not-too-subtle references to male dominance. The female representation "is surrounded by weapons," the artist explains, "captive and protected . . . I was thinking about the question of control. The [men] did not put metal rings around their penises, as you know." In Cinturón de Castidad, one sees a number of the approaches that receive considerable attention in Campos-Pons's later work: the presentation of a substantial and controversial message, such as gender inequality, within a work that has great aesthetic appeal; the introduction of three-dimensional objects and multiple mediums in a piece that could nominally be described as a painting; and references to the artist's African heritage and the role of that heritage in contemporary Cuban society.

    Figure 10 | Anticonceptivo (Contraceptive) (1987), acrylic on canvas and wood, approx. 157 × 197 in. (397.8 × 500.4 cm), National Cuban Foundation, Havana, Cuba. Courtesy of Indianapolis Museum of Art.


    Another powerful work from Campos-Pons's Cuban period, which likewise focuses on a constellation of feminist concerns, while also presaging later artistic interests, is Anticonceptivo (Contraceptive) (1987) (Figure 10). Without the benefit of the title, the work appears to be an abstract composition. Like Cinturón de Castidad, it is a large-scale painted relief, made of multiple, almost sculptural, elements that bisect and surround one another. Aided by Campos-Pons's naming of the subject, it becomes clear that the work represents, at enormous scale, an intrauterine birth control device (IUD) located in a woman's vaginal canal. The central triangular element is painted in muted orange, yellow, and beige. Recalling representational tools similar to those of Cinturón de Castidad, a strip of wood carved to represent the IUD runs down the center of the work in a protective fashion, apparently holding at bay a series of sharp painted wood elements suggesting spermatozoa. The IUD symbolized by the work had become the most widely used means of birth control in Cuba beginning in the early 1970s and allowed much greater reproductive freedom to Cuban women than was available elsewhere in the Caribbean. As curator Lisa Freiman argues, by taking something like the IUD, typically a private matter, hidden and of small scale, and developing it into a large-scale work, Campos-Pons inherently conveyed the observation that women's reproductive rights, and, by extension, women's equality more broadly, were of central importance in a society that claimed inherent equality, but retained a patriarchal core.

    During the years that Campos-Pons was benefiting from Cuba's art education system, she became increasingly aware that, as a woman, she was a distinct minority. Camnitzer reports that after 1982, approximately twenty-five percent of students at ISA were women. During her years at the school (1980–85), Campos-Pons recalls women making up no more than ten percent of the program. Her experience as a minority in the Cuban social system was a catalyst for much of her work during these years. As the artist explains:

    I see my culture as very patriarchal, male-oriented, and dominated. I assume this is the reason why women's issues are not so visible in Cuban art. I also think this is the real factor in the lives of female artists in Cuba, such as Antonia Eiríz and Amelia Peláez. The lack of encouragement may have silenced any feminist sentiments or the investigation of women's issues, combined with the pressure to keep up with trends in painting, for example . . . . In my case, I feel that issues around womanhood have been central to my work from early on, and that in one sense the mainstream understanding of my work showed a de-emphasis on these issues.”

    Even while exploring feminist-oriented issues, Campos-Pons is quick to acknowledge that she and her female classmates did not self-identify as feminists at this time. The artist describes a meeting that she had with feminist writer and curator Lucy Lippard in 1984, when Lippard came to Cuba for the first Havana Biennial. Sitting in a room with a small group of women artists, Lippard asked whether Campos-Pons and her colleagues were feminists. "No," she recalls they responded, "we are not feminists. We like the guys; we like our peers." Remembering her younger self with a measure of ironic humor, Campos-Pons acknowledges that she and the other women in that room simply did not have the theoretical grounding to understand Lippard's question. Nevertheless, Campos-Pons was creating pieces like Cinturón de Castidad and Anticonceptivo at that time, pieces that powerfully address issues of gender inequality and bear strong conceptual connection to the work of such American artists as Judy Chicago and Miriam Shapiro, and fellow Cuban-born artist Ana Mendieta, from the 1970s and early 1980s.

    Campos-Pons's focus on issues of women's equality and themes of social justice were very much in keeping with the broader artistic milieu of Cuba at the time. The 1980s saw growing governmental tolerance for new forms of cultural and political expression, even if the traditional forms of censorship and self-censorship had not disappeared. The result was an enhanced and highly varied level of artistic practice, unified principally by an intense focus on the social and political sphere. As curator and theorist Rachel Weiss observes about Cuban art at the time, "an overriding feature remained consistent, namely, of art as a 'social organism,' a spontaneous insistence not only on an ethical valence intrinsic to art but on the belonging of art to the public arena." Campos-Pons was both a product of this period and a catalyst for its momentum.

    Video | Campos-Pons on her return to La Vega and her roots in rural Cuba. Video by Chip Van Dyke/PEM.