• Joshua Basseches
  • Part One | Introduction
  • Part Two | Early Life
  • Part Three | Leaving Cuba
  • Part Four | A New Phase
  • Part Five | Alchemy of the Soul
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    Joshua Basseches

    The year 1988 represented a time of change for Campos-Pons that would prove to be one of the most pivotal of her life. In the spring, she participated in a student exchange program between Cuba and the United States—the first time she had ever left Cuba for foreign ground. She was selected for a semester of graduate study at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design (MassArt) in Boston. While at MassArt, Campos-Pons gained exposure to a variety of new artistic approaches, including photography, videography, and installation art, as well as to a wide range of people and perspectives. She also met Neil Leonard, musician and composer, whom she would later marry in 1989. Leonard has been an invaluable artistic collaborator throughout Campos-Pons's career, now including Alchemy of the Soul, Elixir for the Spirits.

    Figure 11 | The Offering of My Own Blood, 1989, mixed media, 118 1/8 × 192 7/8 in. (300 × 500 cm), Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana (National Museum of Fine Arts of Havana), Havana, Cuba. Courtesy of Indianapolis Museum of Art.

    At the conclusion of the MassArt program in the fall of 1988, Campos-Pons returned to Havana. She was offered and, after much consideration, decided to accept an appointment as vice president of the state-run National Council of Visual Arts, at the same time continuing her own artistic practice and exhibition activities. While much of Campos-Pons's work from the 1980s had addressed issues of female inequality, her experience in Boston led her to consider an expanded set of social and political concerns. One prominent example is The Offering of My Own Blood (1989), which now hangs in the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Havana (Figure 11). This piece reflects the artist's increasingly politicized orientation toward the policies of the Castro government and her continued commitment to using her art as a form of social commentary. In the case of The Offering of My Own Blood, the issue was the Angolan civil war, and the number of Cuban youth who were dying as part of Cuba's intervention in that conflict. One of those who fought and died in Angola was Campos-Pons's own cousin. Reflecting on the moment, Campos-Pons observed:

    Cubans were dying in Africa, fighting to liberate the Africans from oppression . . . . I needed to talk about this giving of self and entering a fight to support a country that is not your country, but is your link by lineage, by history, by ancestry.”

    One sees in this statement, and the work as a whole, a growing artistic preoccupation with issues of justice and a connection to Africa and ancestral links that would increasingly characterize the artist's work through the 1990s. The piece is a critical one, not only in its content, but also in its artistic form. The Offering of My Own Blood depicts a human figure in the fetal position, encased in what appears to be a large, human heart. The heart is pierced by stylized spears and the figure within it by knives. The work reflects Campos-Pons's continued trajectory away from a traditional painterly approach to one that deploys an array of media and surface treatments. "It's a piece that is almost a relief," she says. "It is a kind of a collage that builds out of the wall, a kind of a tableau vivant . . . there are many, many layers of materials, layers of surface."

    The involvement in the Angolan civil war was by no means the only, or even the most significant, issue facing Cuba. In April 1989, Mikhail Gorbachev made a visit to the island and signaled an imminent end to the decades of financial and technical support that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) had provided to the country. The loss of that support would come to have a devastating impact on Cuba, ushering in what became known as Período especial ("Special Period in Time of Peace"), declared by Castro in the summer of 1990. Cuba, Castro proclaimed, would only survive by operating under wartime provisions. As Weiss succinctly describes, "economically, ideologically, logistically, psychologically, Cuba imploded." Almost overnight, the more permissive context of the 1980s that had inspired so much artistic, cultural, and intellectual ferment vanished. For Campos-Pons, this was a crushing blow. Not only did it call into question the potential to pursue her art, but it also left her feeling personally unsafe. In her role as vice president of the council, she had been instructed to censor an exhibition of avant-garde work that included caricatures of Castro and, along with the other leaders of the council, she refused to do so. She recalls, "I was asked to put the show down. They told me it was an order. I told them I was not in the military and that I didn't take orders."

    Campos-Pons remembers vividly the exact moment she reached the conclusion that she would need to emigrate. In July 1989, Major General Arnaldo Ochoa, the most popular military commander in Cuba, was arrested with three other officers on charges of drug smuggling. After a brief trial, the four were executed by firing squad. She recalls watching the televised events and her reaction, "I had the feeling that this exhibition, with all its mockery of Castro, was almost like an open door to mockery of Castro, when all the generals who have guns are mocking him for real." In the months that followed, Campos-Pons and fellow artist José Bedia received invitations for the prestigious visual arts fellowship at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Alberta, Canada. In that moment of political strife, she chose to accept the invitation and made plans to depart. Reflecting on that decision, she whispers, "I never came back from Canada. I never came back to Cuba." In leaving, Campos-Pons joined not only Bedia, but also Tomás Sánchez, Ricardo Brey, Rubén Torres Lorca, and almost the entire generation of Cuban visual artists trained during the 1980s in emigrating from the country during these years.

    Campos-Pons's experiences as an exchange student and émigré in the late 1980s and early 1990s materially affected the path of her artistic practice on many levels and helped launch the second major phase of her career. The departure from Cuba and move to North America, while welcomed in terms of the freedom and opportunity it offered, also generated an enormous quality of dislocation and disruption for Campos-Pons, engendering what Enwezor aptly refers to as a "double exile." The first exile was the Middle Passage that forcibly relocated Campos-Pons's Yoruba great-grandparents to Cuba to work as slaves on the sugar plantations; the second, the artist's self-initiated exile to Canada and then to the United States, a move that left her unable to return to Cuba for over a decade. The result was an increased focus on a set of issues related to dislocation, personal identity, and the black body, particularly the artist's own body. The enhanced preoccupation with racial justice was further stoked by the growing awareness—made possible by geographic distance—of the level of structural racial bias that simmered below the surface in Cuba, outside the public discourse. At the same time, the exposure to a wide range of new artistic materials and techniques in Boston influenced the compositional and technical aspects of Campos-Pons's practice. Gone was a principal focus on painting, with photography, printmaking, videography, and mixed-media installation–oriented approaches now informing her artistic endeavors in new ways. This shift can be seen best by considering some of her seminal works from this period.

    From 1990 to 1991, Campos-Pons found herself subjected to an array of bureaucratic paperwork in order to secure a visa to live in the United States. This process highlighted for her the many issues associated with navigating and crossing borders. Who was permitted to travel and relocate, and why? Who was forbidden the opportunity? Who controlled the borders? Constantly playing in the background was a related set of issues associated with Cuba as an isolated island, in conflict with its neighbor ninety miles across the straits of Florida, even at a time when Soviet-style communism was crumbling. These concerns saw exposure in a mixed-media wall installation called Birth Certificate (1991) (Figure 12). Birth Certificate is comprised of ten dramatically enlarged woodcut images of the artist's fingerprints, framed by two enlarged images of her right and left handprints. As a piece about boundaries and crossings, the hand and fingerprints are themselves circumscribed by borders, specifically a horizontal wooden band running above the framed prints and a band of glass tiles running fence-like beneath. Carved into the wood in Spanish and printed on the glass in English are the words of a poem by Cuban writer and journalist Mirta Aguirre that Campos-Pons recalls committing to memory when she was fourteen years old. The verse as inscribed by the artist reads: "EVEN IF MY HANDS ARE CLENCHED BY MUD MY FINGERPRINTS ARE MY OWN LET ME BE MYSELF LET ME SEARCH ALONE." The artist's choice of glass as the material for the lower band is meant to signify fragility and vulnerability, referencing particularly her insecurity with the English language. Such use of glass, for both aesthetic and metaphorical reasons, can be seen repeatedly in Campos-Pons's work, most notably in Alchemy of the Soul, Elixir for the Spirits.

    Figure 12 | Birth Certificate, 1991, mixed-media installation in five sections, approx. 31 × 19 ft. 8 in. (78.7 × 599.4 cm), Karen Moss and Dennis Livingston Collection. Courtesy of Indianapolis Museum of Art. Photo by Thomas Gustainis.

    A second major work from this phase of Campos-Pons's career, which illustrates the artist's changing concerns and process, is The Seven Powers Come by the Sea, first shown at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston in 1992 and now owned by the Vancouver Art Gallery. This work reflects Campos-Pons's growing and intense new focus on her African lineage, coupled with her wish to explore new modes of expression that move beyond wall-hung art. The Seven Powers Come by the Sea comprises a series of seven six-foot-high panels carved in the shape of the deck plans of a slave ship (Figure 13). Inscribed on the panels are rows upon rows of figures taking up every square inch of space and mirroring the plans for how slaves were transported during the Middle Passage. At the foot of each panel is the name of one God or oricha of Santería's pantheon. In the original installation in Boston, these gods are also depicted in painted wooden silhouettes positioned between the panels: included are gods Chango, Obatala, Ochosi, and Oggun, along with goddesses Oshun, Oya, and Yemaya. The materials that Campos-Pons used to paint the silhouettes—wax, ashes, shells, African beads, and soil—were collected from different locations in Cuba, Canada, and the United States, and reflect her preoccupation with place, geography, and dislocation. Finally, the artist placed a score of small, framed photographs on the floor in front of the panels, each one a portrait of an unidentified black person from Cuba or the United States. Commenting on the installation, Campos-Pons observes, "When I did this work, I found an illustration of the bottom of slave ships. I was interested in how the bodies of the slaves were distributed on the ship. It's poignant—that illustration of the actual bottom of the ship—there is such beauty in that awful thing." The juxtaposition of beauty and cruelty: in this observation one again sees this critical thread that runs through much of Campos-Pons's work.

    Figure 13 | The Seven Powers Come by the Sea, 1992, mixed-media installation in seven sections, each section approx. 70 × 3 in. (182.9 × 7.6 cm), Vancouver Art Gallery Acquisition Fund. Shown as installed at Vancouver Art Gallery. © Vancouver Art Gallery. Photo by Rachel Topham.

    The coincidence of Campos-Pons's birth in 1959, the year of the Cuban Revolution, means that her biography has unfolded in close cadence with the political and social developments in Cuba over the past half-century. So, too, her mature career maps in interesting ways onto the rise of globalization and the impact of a globalized world on contemporary art. Theorists often point to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the demise of Soviet-style communism as markers of the beginning of the globalized era. This is also precisely the moment at which Campos-Pons was emigrating from Cuba to North America. Her move was precipitated by geopolitical issues such as the increased pressure placed on Cuba with the fall of the Soviet Union and the concomitant increase in opportunities available abroad to a Cuban artist. It is helpful to consider Campos-Pons's artistic career after leaving Cuba in light of the larger discourse of globalization.

    Campos-Pons's move to the United States, as observed previously, acted as a catalyst for new artistic preoccupations. Themes of exile, or arguably double exile, prompted by her feelings of displacement from Cuba, took precedence over the feminist-oriented concerns that had predominated in her Cuban work.

    Birth Certificate and The Seven Powers Come by the Sea, along with most of her other pieces from the 1990s, explore Afro-Cuban, Creole, and African heritage and ancestry in the context of forced migration. "The separation from Cuba and relocation to the United States," observes Enwezor, "places the already ruptured coherence of [Campos-Pons's] Afro-Cuban heritage—an important spiritual and conceptual source—into further cataclysm. This second dislocation not only revivifies, but also intensifies and clarifies the mnemonic importance of the iconography of loss." This quality of dislocation had many competing and conflicting aspects to it. Settled in Boston by 1991, Campos-Pons experienced full exposure to the globalized world, with its networked and interconnected characteristics. Sociologist Anthony Giddens, in The Consequences of Modernity, defines this globalized state as referring essentially to:

    . . . that stretching process, in so far as the modes of connection between different social contexts or regions become networked across the earth's surface as a whole. Globali[s]ation can thus be defined as the intensification of worldwide social relations which link distant localities in such a way that local happenings are shaped by events occurring many miles away and vice versa.

    Yet, even as Campos-Pons was experiencing that "stretching process" in Boston, her sense of dislocation was amplified because Cuba, and her family and the many connections to her past, were largely cut off from the globalized environment. Even though Cuba lies near the coast of Florida, it might as well have been thousands of miles away. Owing to the United States embargo and internal Cuban constraints on travel, the artist was unable to return to her home, even for a visit, during the 1990's. The island nation in its entirety was meaningfully restricted from what theorist Martin Albrow has argued is a critical underpinning of globalization, the active dissemination of global practices. These dichotomous pressures found an outlet in Campos-Pons's artistic practice in the 1990s.

    As noted prior, Gilroy offers a useful vantage point from which to consider Campos-Pons's work, first in his essay "Cultural Studies and Ethnic Absolutism" and at greater length in his book The Black Atlantic: Modernity and the Double Consciousness. The latter takes up a wide variety of topics related to modernity and the black experience, and notably the geographic, historical, and cultural context of Africans relocated across Europe, the Americas, and the Caribbean. The concept of the black Atlantic is meant to capture and situate a variety of cultural, spatial, and temporal aspects of the African diaspora. It is a physical and conceptual space "continually crisscrossed by the movement of black people—not only as commodities—but engaged in various struggles toward emancipation, autonomy, and citizenship, [as] a means to reexamine the problems of nationality, location, identity, and historical memory." Gilroy's particular metaphor for capturing this crisscrossing process is a ship at sea, notably a slave ship filled with human cargo, making its way from Africa across the Atlantic. Such ships, Gilroy argues, are the "living means by which the points within the Atlantic world were joined." By extrapolation, these points also provide an interconnected set of spatial locations that form a background for work by an artist in "double exile."

    Gilroy's slave ship metaphor is particularly appropriate in considering the intent of Campos-Pons's The Seven Powers Come by the Sea (1992), the year in which "Cultural Studies and Ethnic Absolutism" was published. Each of the seven planks in the installation, carefully inscribed with its cargo of men, women, girls, boys, and babies, as Campos-Pons describes them, is an artistic and poetic rendering of Gilroy's slave ship, plying the waters of the black Atlantic. With the image of The Seven Powers Come by the Sea and the metaphor of the black Atlantic clearly in mind, Enwezor's characterization of the artist seems especially relevant: "Campos-Pons is heir to the fraught history of the Middle Passage," he writes, "she has submitted the weight of its historical and theoretical possibilities to some of the most trenchant, poetic, and radically introspective artistic reflection on the displaced agency of Africans in the Americas."