Magdalena returns to Casa

After more than 20 years away from our exhibition halls and country, photographer María Magdalena Campos-Pons returned to Cuba. During the LIII Casa de las Américas Literary Awards and as part of its activities, the Matanzas-born artist arrived at the institution with a number of pieces which sum up her work.

Romy Martínez

Life separates, death separates. Be warned,
men of good will.
Kabila Argelia (1)

The arrival and integration of black Africans into our country determined the formation of Cuban culture to a great extent. The traditions, religion, music and language of these peoples prevailed in the new context into which they had been introduced by force. In spite of their condition as slaves and the sufferings to which they were subjected, they managed to hold on to their identity by concealing their practices and beliefs.
The phenomenon of uprooting, cultural resistance, the traumatic experience of centuries of exploitation, work on the plantations and discrimination has been the main subject of the work of many artists. Such is the case of Cuban photographer María Magdalena Campos-Pons, who resides in the United States and is interested in highlighting diverse problems related to gender, race, migration, the Diaspora and expatriation through a broad and well-known work in photography, installation, video, performance, painting and drawing.
Magdalena was born in 1959, in Matanzas, where she studied at the Provincial Art School. There, diverse disciplines were interrelated and the youths enjoyed different ways of expression. Later, during the 80s, she graduated from the National School of Art and the Higher Institute of Art. During that period, she had several exhibits (2) . In the beginning of the 90s, she moved to Boston, in the United States, where she has her permanent residence.
Campos-Pons has created very interesting pieces in which the concept becomes the fundamental element. Such is the case of Sugar/Bittersweet (2010), an installation in which several spears pierce different colored rings of sugar, establishing a paradox between the sweet and pleasant taste of sugar and the presence of weapons, suggesting the tragic collective experience of the black slaves on the sugar plantations.
Prejudice, women and their role in a macho (male chauvinist) society are subjects broached by the artist, without forgetting the need to conceptualize. Spoken Softly with Mama (1998) is a work made-up of embroidered linen, sheets of smelted glass, photographs and videos projected on ironing boards. Some domestic instruments (the ironing boards) are magnified, thus enlarging the almost always diminished role of women in the home. The use of glass for the recreation of the boards suggests women’s beauty and delicacy, and at the same time the fragility, the discrepancy of prejudice and conventionalisms.
This artist from Matanzas, interested in diverse phenomena which directly affect many of our creators, has returned to Cuba after more than 20 years away from our exhibition halls. During the LIII Casa de las Américas Literary Awards and as part of its activities, María Magdalena Campos-Pons arrived at the institution with a series of pieces which sum up her work. The exhibit, entitled 1478 MB, is composed of 13 works which bring us closer to the most recurrent expressions of her art: photography, video, installation and performance.
Performance welcomed the public the day of the inauguration. Magdalena, the protagonist, staged a reunification, the suffering in parting, while calling out for her loved ones separated by the sea and now by death. She demanded more: more ribbons, more cloths, more rags, friends, love, paths, whatever necessary to escape the distances, break down barriers.
She gave life to one of her photographs and emerged completely dressed up (in a kimono) permitting the total visualization of a ritual. A drawing of enormous dimensions hung from her shoulders showing the routes and guaranteeing the success of the return thanks to Elegguá. Small bags hung from this. Their contents had been deposited by others in a previous action and the artist now handed them to various members of the audience. Here we can appreciate the interrelationship conceived by the artist, through uniting two different actions in several spaces and circumstances.
Also, Magdalena introduced FEFA (“FEFA is here. FEFA is here”), a project she will present during the next Havana Biennial and which means Family Abroad, Family Here (Familia en el Extranjero, Familia Aquí).
In this exhibit one quickly notices the presence of a great number of photographs. The camera used by Campos-Pons - a Polaroid 20 x 24, made during the 70s - is one of the few of its kind still in existence in the world. It’s very large and has wheels on its base, which allow it to be moved. Color 100 ISO (Polacolor Pro), Chocolate, and B&W 400 ISO are the three types of films available for these works. Magdalena, on this occasion, has used the first two. Color 100 ISO (Polacolor Pro) allows the visualization of several colors and the combination of the most varied tones, while Chocolate offers very attractive sepia images.
The use of these techniques and formats has an important connotation. There is no possibility of retouching or changing any element. Since all the processes take place inside the camera, the artist can only decide what is going to be photographed. The developing and printing take place within the device and after three minutes the picture is ready. There’s no file, no way of making the same picture again. The Polaroid images are unique and unrepeatable.
Magdalena Campos-Pons takes on photography like choreography. She constructs the image which will later be captured by the camera’s lens. She conceives the atmosphere, puts the elements in place, chooses the position. Her work is not based on capturing a significant moment. She develops a pre-conceived, very well structured idea, in which each element of the image becomes part of the meaning of the entire piece.
Although the Polaroid does not allow changes to be made to the photograph itself, the artist manages to adapt this technique to her expressive needs by working with the images during the same session: “It gives me the opportunity to rectify it completely. To say no, that isn’t exactly what I wanted to do, let me restructure it, adjust it and do it again.”(3)
Magdalena’s artwork is closely related to her personal experience, frequently in an explicit manner. Her family, her memories, her experience of life in Cuba, are the key elements in some of her works. The author specially dedicates three of the pieces on display to her family, persons very dear to her and who are no longer with her: her mother, her father and her brother.
She places images of these relatives alongside natural elements. In the piece dedicated to her father, the sepia tones suggest sadness and, at the same time, the beauty of the remembrance. In Árbol de la vida II and Árbol de la vida III (Tree of life II and III) the artist does not use photographs as in Árbol de la vida I (Tree of life I); she draws the faces of her loved ones the way she imagines them, the way she remembers them. Memory plays a major role, and to Magdalena it is an indispensable source of creation.
A significant part of her work is autobiographical, as revealed by representations of her relatives and of herself. She uses her body, and those of people close to her, as a center of her composition. The piece Sagrada familia (Sacred family, 2000) is a triptych which uses an image of her back, that of her husband and that of her son. The latter appears in the exhibition as part of the piece El mensajero II (The messenger II). Also, there is a recurrence of images specially related to her identity, her experiences. In this way, María Magdalena brings more expression to her works. Feelings of nostalgia, yearnings or simply memories, reassurances, are presented with sincerity through the genuine confession of her concerns and experiences.
In many of the photographs in this exhibit the author appears dressed in Asian attire, validating and paying homage to the origins of her ancestors through the color of her skin and the elements which cover her body.
Some of Magdalena’s creations reach from her intimate life to collective history. Such is the case of the previously mentioned installation Sugar/Bittersweet (2010); the multimedia installation My Mother Told Me I Am a Chinese (2008); and Corner (1997); the latter present in the exhibit. The origin and experiences of her forefathers and the conflicts of exile stop being only personal experiences and become universal questions.
Campos-Pons defines her work within the baroque-minimal concept, which has to do with a simultaneous interest in simplicity and extravagance. The mix, the union, the combination of elements is characteristic of many of the works in this exhibit. There are photographed drawings. Backgrounds are colored as if they were paintings. Cut out elements and photographs are incorporated. This way, images of different manifestations of the plastic arts remain tightly tied together. The piece Corner (1997) is very interesting in this sense. Magdalena elaborates manufactured paper and during the process she colors, inserts ribbons, natural elements, and makes images with woodcuts. The fragments are simple, elementary, but combined they propose imagery rich in diverse textures, colors and shades. The works are not put on exhibit independently, but rather forming a combination which produces better diversity.
At 27, Magdalena left her country to reside in Boston. Her entire family lived in Cuba and here she left her history, her friends. This experience of parting, of loss and uprooting is part of her life and her artwork. Numerous creations have approached these subjects revealing sentiments of nostalgia and melancholy (Dreaming of an Island, 2008). In this exhibit, however, another idea prevails. Campos-Pons hopes to repair the time, the distance and the suffering. The piece 1478 MB, centrepiece of the exhibit, shows the artist’s interest in eliminating the tension and anguish caused by remoteness and absences. All the materials used were obtained in Cuba, supporting the issue of reunification. Two tables made with deteriorated materials are united tightly with blue ribbons. On one of them, there is map of Boston; on the other, one of Matanzas; and, on both of them, several crystal wine glasses. The title refers to the distance between the two cities, while the ribbons represent the sea and, at the same time, the will to establish ties between both spaces. The work covers several themes which have interested Magdalena, through different word-combinations: distance-closeness, separations-reunifications and farewells-welcomes. 1478 MB is a representation of the trajectory, the trip which begins with a farewell, with the family at the table (physical and symbolic space where family meetings take place), and continues with a welcome, after having crossed the sea of ribbons, to the other table.
References to African traditions are also present in the exhibit. They are, moreover, part of the artist’s origins which she defends and stresses. The drawing, a symbol of Elegguá and reminder of her father, supports one of the tables and is reproduced in glass next to the map of Matanzas, opening the way. Also in the gallery is an enormous sketch used in the performance, near the work Corner, where this symbol appears alongside a foot. In Sacred Bath (1991), the artist - in a special ritual - washes her feet with various plants and recites anonymous African poems collected by Rogelio Martínez Furé.
The diversity of María Magdalena Campos-Pons’ work stands out in the 1478 MB exhibit. This selection permits the visualization of several themes, expressions and techniques which have interested the artist. The idea of voyage, meetings and separations, unifies the exhibit, pointing out the importance of these phenomena in her work and in her life experience. Magdalena returns, this time to Casa de las Américas, with works which she hopes will repair, improve and reduce distances.

(1) Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons: Sacred Bath, Video, Vancouver, Canadá, 1991, 31 minutes.
(2) Acoplamientos, Galería L, La Habana (1985); Erotic Garden or Some Annotations on Hypocrisy, Kennedy Building Gallery, Massachusetts College of Art, Boston (1988) and Isla, Castillo de la Fuerza, La Habana (1989)
(3) Romy Martínez: “Magda en la estación del regreso” (Entrevista a María Magdalena Campos Pons el 25 de enero de 2012), La Jiribilla, marzo de 2012.

Translated by Julian Lopez

Revised by CF Ray

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