• 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

    Reflecting upon the new installation presented at PEM, Alchemy of the Soul, Elixir for the Spirits (2015), along with other recent works from the past decade—several included in the exhibition—it is possible to see elements of a new phase in the development of Campos-Pons's artistic practice. This phase is more evolutionary in nature than it is a radical departure from her earlier work of the 1990s and early 2000s. One of these elements relates to the size of her compositions. Campos-Pons is an artist who has always enjoyed working at scale, even as far back as some of her shaped paintings of the 1980s. But many of the artist's newer works are monumental in size, especially Alchemy of the Soul, Elixir for the Spirits, which represents the largest and most ambitious work she has ever created, requiring a space of over 2,000 square feet to present (Figure 14). In part, this could be ascribed to what some art critics, such as Peter Schjeldahl, have called "festivalism" in relation to the increasingly large works proliferating in biennial-style exhibitions of the past several decades. Certainly, Campos-Pons has presented large installations at a number of biennials, including Venice, Dakar, and Havana, among others. The success and visibility the artist has achieved in recent years also plays a role, enabling her to garner the financial support to produce larger and more costly projects. Considering the strength of Campos-Pons's recent installations, however, this enhanced scale seems to result more from artistic maturity and certainty of aesthetic conviction than a wish simply to fill space or capture public attention.

    Figure 14 | View of Alchemy of the Soul, Elixir for the Spirits, 2015. Photo by Peter Vanderwarker.

    Also common to this new phase of Campos-Pons's work is a reduction in the centrality of the artist's own body, of self-portraiture, and the investigation of personal identity, which can be found in much of her work from the 1990s, in favor of other forms of exploration. Her artistic interest in the body, and particularly the black body, has not diminished, but it has found new modes of expression. So, too, Campos-Pons's use of personal narrative remains present in her work, but is expressed in more subtle ways. Considering this evolution, the artist comments:

    The work that I did in the ‘90s, just about the time that I left Cuba, put an incredible focus and emphasis on the issue of identity, the body, the location of the body within the discourse of feminism, with the discourse of race, the discourse of translation of location, of cultural construct. And the work was very much figurative; the body was very much at the center as an important place. I believe at this moment, it has kind of [been] pushed aside.

    The body is by no means absent from Campos-Pons's recent work, but it has ceased to be the focal point of her pieces and is often included using more subtle or abstract approaches.

    Figure 15 | Llegooo! Fefa! "Family Abroad," 2012, mixed-media installation, dimensions variable, collection of the artist. Shown as installed at the Wifredo Lam Center of Contemporary Art, Havana, Cuba. Courtesy of the artist.

    A third element of Campos-Pons's recent work relates to her treatment of her Cuban homeland, whether it is the sugar industry of La Vega or the complex issues of disruption, relocation, and freedom of movement that inspire other installations, such as 53+1=54+1=55/La Letra del Año presented at the 2013 Venice Biennale and Llegooo! Fefa! "Family Abroad" from the 2012 Havana Biennale (Figure 15). Such subject matter was at the heart of the artist's practice in the early 1990s, when her double exile was fresh and raw—as it continues to be today. The difference is the way the artist treats the material at this point in her career. At a time when Campos-Pons is once again able to travel with relative freedom back and forth to Cuba, when the end to the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba is in sight, it is possible to observe in her works an apparent reduction in the pain of distance. This presents itself in her art in different ways, in some pieces through a quieter, more muted reflection on hope and sorrow, and in others, through references that rely more on the suggestive and conceptual than on the literal and direct.

    Figure 16 | Blue Refuge, 2008, 9 dye diffusion transfer (Polaroid) prints, 24 × 20 in. (61 × 50.8 cm) each, deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, Museum Purchase with funds provided by members of the deCordova Collections and Exhibitions Committee and the Frederick P. Walkey Fund, a gift of the Stephen and Sybil Stone Foundation, 2009. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.


    A number of the pieces included in the current exhibition reflect all three of these evolving elements in Campos-Pons's work. Blue Refuge (2008) is an example (Figure 16). Blue Refuge is a polyptych made up of nine large-scale Polaroid photographs set in a three-by-three grid pattern. The work was part of a series created by Campos-Pons for a 2008 exhibition entitled The Other Side/La Otra Orilla at the Julie Saul Gallery in New York. The central panel of the work depicts a female figure suspended in a precarious structure surrounded by ice. She is shown from the rear, her face hidden from view. The woman's entire body is wrapped by a cloth, which is, in turn, encircled by a ropelike hair extension that winds around her form. The extension then transits the panels above and beside her. The bright orange cloth enveloping the solitary figure stands out in sharp contrast to the icy blues and grays that permeate the rest of the work.

    Is the woman being bound by the rope of hair, or protected by it? A hint can be found in the title of the piece. This is a refuge, and the figure is finding protection in the midst of what the artist describes as a perfect winter storm. Campos-Pons created Blue Refuge as a comment on her longing for sunlight and her engagement with the stillness and silence of the New England winter. In addition to ice, the figure is surrounded by large blossoms, each one the size of her body. The inspiration for these forms is the blossom of the epiphyllum plant, a nightblooming cactus that she keeps in her house and that is said to bloom only once a year for twenty-four hours. In Campos-Pons's case, she owned the plant for thirteen years before it bloomed for the first time. The artist sees the plant as a metaphor for the practice of art making: "you produce a lot, you keep watering your plant, you keep trusting that it is going to give you a flower, and maybe it takes a [number] of years to get the first blossom." Perhaps the use of the epiphyllum as a dominant image in the Blue Refuge also reflects a hope that a kind of refuge can eventually be found for the artist, not only in Cuba but within the wintry weather of her adopted New England home.

    Figure 17 | Thinking of It, 2008, watercolor, gouache, ink, and pencil on paper, 73 × 51 5/8 in. (185.4 × 131.1 cm), Shelley and Donald Rubin Private Collection. Courtesy of the Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation.


    Similar themes related to longing, distance, and a sense of place are found in a pair of works created as part of the same 2008 exhibition: Thinking of It and Dreaming of an Island (Figures 17 and 18). The pieces share closely related compositions presenting the figure of a black woman looking from the shore out to sea. Both are large in scale, though of different media. Thinking of It is a painting, rendered in ink, pencil, and watercolor. The figure, located in the upper right corner of the work, is dressed up and carrying a day bag, her back to the viewer as she looks out to an empty horizon. The woman appears lost in contemplation, wondering, one presumes, what is just out of line of sight. There is no way to know for certain whether she stands on a Cuban shore staring out, or is looking vainly from a different coast toward her homeland. Growing out from her hair is an extension that transforms into gigantic leaves of seaweed. Again, has Campos-Pons provided a clue about location? Seaweed like this cannot be found in Cuba, but often festoons the rocky coastlines of northern New England. "I saw seaweed that large, that big, in coastal Maine," the artist says. "On the shore of Cuba you never see seaweed that big. They were eight, ten feet long—huge leaves. I think they looked like banana leaves, from the water. And I was intrigued by that particular form, organic, large, and mysterious. But they are [shown in the work] as an extension of a woman." The intentional ambiguity in regard to place complicates interpretation. Considering Thinking of It in relation to the third work, Dreaming of an Island, allows the artist's intentions to come into clearer focus.

    Figure 18 | Dreaming of an Island, 2008, 9 dye diffusion transfer (Polaroid) prints, 24 × 20 in. (61 × 50.8 cm) each, von Christierson Collection. Courtesy of the von Christierson Collection.


    Dreaming of an Island is a Polaroid-based work, which, like Blue Refuge, is formed by nine photographs mounted in a large three-by-three grid. Here, too, the artist has rendered a black female figure in the upper right of the composition, seated in this image, rather than standing. As in Thinking of It, a hair extension flows down her back, transforming into large, wavy seaweed leaves that dominate the lower six panels of the work. The horizon in Dreaming of an Island is not empty, however. The figure looks out toward an island in the middle distance. The island's vegetation is not the palm and ceiba trees of Cuba, but rather the pine trees of the Maine coast. Ambiguity of location has been shed. Campos-Pons has revealed to us that the image represents a northern coastal scene.

    These three works suggest a different attitude toward the context of the diasporic imagination than has characterized much of the artist's career. As with other recent examples, they revolve around Cuba—connection to the island, distance from the island. But what is new is the relationship to these issues of distance. Since 2001, the artist has been able to go back and forth between the United States and Cuba and has even become something of an artist celebrity in her homeland. Her forced exile is over. The emotional quality reflected in these works suggests that disruption and dislocation may have been replaced by less raw emotions of longing and dreaming. Referring to the figure in Blue Refuge, Campos-Pons comments, "finally, she has found comfort in this strange new land and there is tremendous beauty in the juxtaposition." The notion that Campos-Pons has, herself, found some comfort in her adopted home does not appear far-fetched.

    Figure 19 | Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons with Neil Arcadio Leonard-Campos, The Warrior Reservoir, 2010–11, watercolor, ink, and Prismacolor on cotton fiber, amate (bark), and handmade papers with ribbon and African totems and spears, 80.5 × 131 in. (204.5 × 332.7 cm) overall, Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery, Nashville, TN, Dr. and Mrs. Williams Ewers Gift for Fine Arts Fund Purchase, with additional support provided by the Janice D. Forsythe Memorial Fund, the Julia Haddock Fine Arts Memorial Fund, and the Thomas B. Brumbaugh Fund. Courtesy of Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery. Photo by John Schwelkert Photography.

    Another recent work is entitled The Warrior Reservoir (2010–11) (Figure 19), comprised of three vertical rectangles lined up beside each other to form a large-scale work. The work is mixed media, employing painting and drawing on paper and including three-dimensional elements in the form of carved wood figures and metal swords. Campos-Pons employs a range of personal iconographical elements in The Warrior Reservoir that have figured in other works over the course of her career. Who is the warrior referred to in the title? There is only one person represented in the piece, so this, presumably, is the warrior. The figure is small in relation to the entire piece and is reminiscent of those seen in Dreaming of an Island and Thinking of It. The artist calls the figure "a strong little black woman," acknowledging that while she is diminutive in scale, she is of preeminent importance in the work. Located in that central role, the figure is directly connected to an act of transformation, a concept that is closely allied to alchemy. She is either emerging from the leaf of a plant, or the plant, itself, is emerging from her, in much the same way that seaweed grows as an extension of the hair of the figures in other works. And, notably, the plant itself is firmly shown rooted in the soil.

    The woman is a warrior, not in a martial meaning, but in the sense of someone who fights on behalf of core convictions and values. As Campos-Pons describes, I was thinking "about being rooted and knowing who you are, being rooted in understanding . . . knowing what you want and how to go about getting it." The sources of strength that empower the warrior are arrayed around her, starting in the connection to the soil that reflects Campos-Pons's own sense of rootedness to her home village. The presence of the two swords and two wood figures also contributes. They are presented like a pair of upright couples, creating a conceptual connection to Campos-Pons's Yoruba lineage, an allusion that can be found in earlier pieces from the 1990s and early 2000s. Beside the swords is the drawing of a reservoir out of which juts a long spear. The reservoir is pictured as a glassy form, drawing on the same constellation of meaning and memories related to labor and the sugar and rum industries explored in Alchemy of the Soul, Elixir for the Spirits. One final source of strength for the little black warrior woman is found in the blue element behind her head. It is a drawing made by the artist's son, Arcadio, when he was a child. Both literally and metaphorically this drawing is the point of initiation for the entire work, the place from which the artist launched the composition, and is deeply reflective of the power of familial bonds that animate Campos-Pons's artistic practice.

    A final work in the exhibition is Voyeurs and Beholders of…, also from 2008 (Figure 20). Another large-scale piece combining Polaroid images arrayed in a grid, the fifteen prints are each dominated by the image of an eye in the foreground, many of them shown weeping a single large tear, others dry, with a dozen or more renderings of additional individual eyes floating in the background of each Polaroid, as witnesses. This work, in a variety of subtle and metaphorical ways, encompasses many of the themes of Campos-Pons's recent pieces, as well as subjects that have featured prominently throughout her career. The large foregrounded eyes have been outlined by the same ropes of black hair that Campos-Pons deploys in other pieces. These eyes can be seen as a commentary on the long art historical tradition of the male gaze, of the voyeuristic focus on the female body, including the black female body. In so doing, Campos-Pons returns to questions of female agency in relation to male assertions of power that were the focus of her master's thesis work and her 1985 solo exhibition at Gallery L in Havana.

    Figure 20 | Voyeurs and Beholders of…, 2008, variant print 2015, pigmented ink prints, 24 × 20 in. (61 × 50.8 cm) each, collection of the artist. Photo by Colorservices, LLC.

    Campos-Pons consciously renders these disembodied eyes with shapes and colors that quietly suggest diverse racial origins and ethnicities; the eyes are blue, green, black, brown, and gray, and are of varying shapes, some suggestive of Asian origins. The featured eyes—the protagonists of the piece—offer the opportunity for the eyes in the background—the spectators—and, by extension, ourselves, to become beholders, to contemplate with the artist the thematic questions of racial difference, power dynamics, and bias, anew. These eyes are not dry. Most of them are weeping. The tears, coupled with the tableau of eyes in the background of each Polaroid, call to mind the press of stylized forms in Campos-Pons's The Seven Powers Come by the Sea. It is easy to read the emotional display of these eyes as contemplating the brutality of the Middle Passage and the disruption and loss of the artist's own double exile (Figure 21).

    Figure 21 | Detail of Voyeurs and Beholders of…, 2008, pigmented ink prints, 24 × 20 in. (61 × 50.8 cm) each, collection of the artist. Photo by Colorservices, LLC.


    Historian Steven Nelson, in the conclusion to his essay, "Diaspora: Multiple Practices, Multiple Worldviews," offers a description of diaspora that seems pertinent to Voyeurs and Beholders of…. He writes, "instead of merely representing the past, diaspora consciousness points to present (and future) myths and realities . . . diaspora is not only a condition of multiple worldviews, but also a cacophony of visual practices that speak to recreation, re-presentation, and reinvention." Nelson's assessment is at its root an optimistic one and one that also aligns with that of Campos-Pons. No sooner has one fixed on the tragic elements of the work than the artist seems to problematize interpretation. Wait, she seems to insist, how do you know the eyes are only weeping tears of sorrow? And in that moment of hesitation, we see Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons's enduring quality as an alchemist, an artist who prefers to ask questions rather than answer them, who strives to engage, rather than confront, whose ultimate dedication is turning anguish into beauty. How do we know the eyes are not weeping with intense joy—the joy, she asks, that a father feels when his baby is born? Tears of sorrow or tears of joy? Perhaps both. Beholding pain of loss or joy of birth, the work itself follows Campos-Pons's commitment to making works of art firmly grounded in the aesthetic and the beautiful, devoted to the optimistic undertaking of recreation, re-presentation, and reinvention that Nelson envisions. For as one steps back and considers Voyeurs and Beholders of…, no matter the differences in the eyes, one from another, and the experiences and ethnicities they represent, they all weep tears of the very same color: the deep, tranquil, azure blue of the Cuban coastal horizon.

    Video | Campos-Pons describes the centrality of identity and the body in her work. Video by Chip Van Dyke/PEM.