Sweet Sugar, Salty Tears

The Introspective Art Of Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons

Growing up near a now-defunct sugar factory in the town of La Vega, in the province of Matanzas, Cuba, artist Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons has a deeply felt and historically complex relationship to sugar. Even in mind’s eye, rather than envisioning sugar as a crystallized and easily melted confection, the objects Campos-Pons conjures are hard discs of brown sugar, panela from Colombia. She is not focused upon sugar’s syrupiness. She tastes other, decidedly less appealing things.

Linda Muehlig, Curator at the Smith College Museum of Art, wrote in the introduction to a catalogue of Campos-Pons’s recent (2010) show, Sugar/Bittersweet: “The three vertices of the Sugar Triangle are mapped in the artist’s personal and professional journey as a woman born in Cuba of Yoruba descent and living and working in New England for the last twenty years. Her great-grandfather was brought from Nigeria to Cuba in the last arrivals of slaves before slavery was abolished on the island in 1886.”

If that’s not enough, even more factors contribute to the complexity in her familial history; Campos-Pons’s ancestry on her mother’s side includes a great-grandmother who came to Cuba in the second half of the nineteenth century from China, along with other indentured laborers to work in both sugar and tobacco fields.

Campos-Pons’s childhood memories, growing up with the sugar mill’s tower looming, include family stories told of former slave Maria Perdomo, who Campos-Pons explains, “used to tell stories of the hardship of her life under slavery.” The sugar plantation, Campos-Pons explained in a lecture she delivered at Smith College in November 2010, was such a pervasive element and image for her that she felt compelled to explore it in her work. The sugar fields loomed large, as real places, certainly, but also as places of familial and historical import. It’s not a stretch to say those fields held nearly mythic status for Campos-Pons. In her lecture, she said, “When I tried to figure out how to construct the field, I could see in my mind, in my dreams, that green field, the sugar field. I wanted to express mobility and flexibility and sturdiness.”

When Linda Muehlig learned of Campos-Pons’s interest sugar, Muehlig proposed a commission on the topic. Muehlig herself was interested in the subject of the “Sugar Triangle” and the Diaspora—and had wanted to explore those subjects in some way at the Museum. Campos-Pons declared the opportunity to create that new work a “sugar moment.” She feels this latest piece falls in an organic progression for her, given that she’d already been exploring aspects of her identity and the way her own history and that of the sugar trade were linked before the most recent installation. The piece plus two multi-media installation pieces created earlier were chosen for the Smith College Museum of Art show.

History of a People Who Were Not Heroes: A Town Portrait references her hometown, La Vega. There are video components to this piece: rocking chair covered in mosquito netting; artist’s hands reaching into water-filled, iron kettle; and the artist stringing maravilla flowers while singing a traditional nursery rhyme about a broken fountain.

In Meanwhile the Girls Were Playing, Campos-Pons’s self-portrait is created by sugar; according to the show’s catalogue, “sugar is shown as an obliterating cascade and sifting onto her head to become an all-encompassing landscape. Her hands knead colorful cotton candy and stir lumps of sugar into water held in an etched glass.” Her two sisters are also represented in the piece, video images and light and sculptural flowers on the floor as the fabric of their flowered skirts.

The representations of her and her sisters’ flowered skirts on the gallery floor, with images beamed over them in sequence, serves as a good example of how mesmerizing and enveloping the work is: a viewer cannot help but stop, almost with hypnotic draw, and simply watch the scene. Although the bright flowers crafted and laid out upon the floor are not actual skirts, skirts are evoked such that the feeling of bare legs, warm days, and twirling seem to visit one’s body, simply because seeing the piece in motion causes this phenomenon to occur.

Both of these pieces, as well as the latest installation, have sound and moving images along with the fixed concrete objects. They require a giving over to the experience—not just of seeing, but of walking into other lands, much more encompassing than formal museum gallery—and in this way, the entire exhibition gave the viewer a sense of how dynamic these stories and images and memories continue to be for the artist, legacies certainly, but living legacies.

Although she no longer resides in Cuba, Campos-Pons dedicates her work to her family. A longtime ex-pat, she has travelled back and she has shown her work in Cuba, where she attended the Escuela Nacional de Arte and the Instituto Superior de Arte. In 1988, she became an exchange student at the Massachusetts College of Art. She has lived and worked in Boston since 1991.

Beginning in 1988, during her time as an exchange student, Campos-Pons began to collaborate with musician/composer (and now husband) Neil Leonard. Their work together led to the founding of GASP, a lab and studio for the twenty-first century.

A professor at the school of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Campos-Pons's work has been shown internationally since 1984. She’s had solo exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art (New York), the Venice Biennale, the Johannesburg Biennial, the First Liverpool Biennial, the Dak'Art Biennial, and the Guangzhou Triennial, among other prestigious venues. In 2007, the Indianapolis Museum of Art presented the first major retrospective of Campos-Pons's work—Everything Is Separated by Water. Exploration of her Afro-Cuban heritage remains a central theme. Her work includes multi-media installation art, photography, video, film, and performance art.

It’s fascinating to hear an artist describe the process of creation. In her lecture, Campos-Pons did just this. According to Campos-Pons, creating the Sugar/Bittersweet installation was at once a challenge of metaphor and a challenge of technicalities. She describes it as beginning with a dream. In her lecture, she explained, “I dream my work. I see it before I make it. Then, my task is to try to materialize it.” She used ready-made African spears she’d been collecting and low Chinese stools in order to help create her field. She explained, “I made a drawing of every spear. There was so much history in each one. The spears became almost like trunks, carrying so much.”

An involved process, Campos-Pons crafted and worked with tools, employing color-coding to envision construction of this “field” and to pull together crafted elements along with physical objects she obtained or already possessed. It was essentially a puzzle.

“I wanted to show what sugar production means to Africans,” she said in her lecture. “To make this visible was a challenge.” The actual panelas resemble glass. So, Campos-Pons set out to fabricate discs, in glass, using wax molds, admittedly an arduous, hot, time-consuming process. She was keenly aware of the labor she was doing being somehow akin to how much labor goes into producing sugar. For Campos-Pons, an easier solution might not have felt like it fit the spirit of her project. Her self-described task, in part, was to translate the extremely hard work entailed in this substance, to offer a sense of its great heft.

Muehlig visited the artist at her studio just outside of Boston. She described the scene of coming upon Campos-Pons in full hazmat suit—midsummer—in the yard outside Campos-Pons’s studio. Campos-Pons often wears her dreadlocks cascading around her face, but the dreadlocks are often twisted up atop her head when she’s at work. Muehlig said, in her introduction to Campos-Pons’s lecture, “Magdalena took off her hazmat hat—and looked completely stunning.”

Campos-Pons almost seems to envision metaphor as a physical entity, one taking up space. She explains, “I mine the territory of the metaphor.”

So, there is metaphor. Then, there is the heat. The heat—hazmat suit, melting and molding glass sculptures midsummer—along with the labor kept her close to the reality that her labor—glass—was depicting other hard labor—sugar growing and production—as if the one was a corollary to the other. Listening to Campos-Pons speak, looking at her work, hearing more about the process, this observation seems more and more apt.

Some of the panelas in the installation are the real thing, according to Campos-Pons, and that is very purposeful. She could not communicate through visual or auditory means—hers is a multi-media installation—the smell, which she describes as “contagious, pervasive.” What Campos-Pons does say—and this quote appears in the installation: “Sugar makes me cry. And the tears are salty, bitter.”

Check out Sarah Buttenwieser’s blog, Standing in the Shadows.

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