MARÍA MAGDALENA CAMPOS-PONS 

(La Vega, Matanzas, 1959)

 

 

 

My current vision of María Magdalena Campos-Pons’ work is admittedly quite fragmentary, and unfortunately not as updated as I would like it to be. It is a piecemeal perception, sometimes with no dates or order, like when we thumb through a family photo album from which somebody has taken some pictures, in this case, the last ones. This is what happens when Cuban artists have been living abroad for twenty years or more, and have not had their works shown in our galleries and museums. Sometimes there is no choice but to make do with memories, archive materials, the internet or the occasional catalogue that is brought to the shores of our isolated island. And sometimes one remembers areas that have been left behind, that maybe the artist herself has forgotten, but that inevitably are part of her career and her history.

 

Let’s take, for example, three silk screen prints by Magdalena Campos from 1988 that are part of the series Sabor a Cuba (Cuban Flavour): El Mamey (Mammee Apple), La Papaya and Quimbombo que resbala pa la yuca seca (Slippery Okra for the Dry Cassava) which, despite their innocent, ornamental aspect, are full of sexual allusions. Sexuality, especially female sexuality, was one of the topics that Magdalena Campos was most interested in during those years. And it continues to be one of her motivations. Occasionally she made formally elaborated works by means of planimetric structures made of wood, plaster and acrylic, with allusions to the Leda and the Swan myth, for example, or she mixed ritual elements from the ancient Aztec culture. These works were shown at one of the many international exhibitions of Cuban contemporary art organized during those years: Cuba OK, 1990, which functionedas a launching pad for many artists of that generation. Despite not being directly related with the Afro-Cuban tradition, Magdalena's initial works prepared her for deeper and more daring discourses, and for dealing with a topic, like female sexuality, which was also taboo: that of racial problems.

 

In fact, the works of Magdalena Campos were never moderate or conservative. Only a year later, during the Fourth Havana Biennial, 1991, Magdalena  presented a complex installation called Tra … with a  historic, reflexive and critical approach that set a landmark in the treatment of the Afro-Cuban theme and had a great impact on our milieu. Ariel Ribeaux Diago, one of the organizers of two important exhibitions: Queloides (Keloids) and Ni Músicos ni Deportistas (Neither Musicians nor Athletes), the first of which addressed race as a theme, says this about Magdalena Campos in his essay Ni músicos ni deportistas:

 

 "...the discourse of the artist María Magdalena Campos is the most visceral and clearly defined, in so far as global poetics, of these times. A considerable area of this artist's work approaches the racial problem – a rara avis in those times – and, in addition, she does it from a gender approach. One of her most outstanding works was, I believe, the Tra... installation, shown in the National Museum of Fine Arts during the Fourth Havana Biennial (1991). Its reminiscent title alludes to terms like slave trade, trap, transculturation, and traffic, etc., and it contained a text that referred to all the sufferings of the black race since the arrival of blacks to the New World. This installation established, by means of images of crowded blacks (big wooden panels as slave ships with black and white photographs which emphasized the dramatic atmosphere), the conceptual coordinates of Magdalena Campos." [i] 

 

It must be said, in reference to some of those words (slave trade, traffic) that María Magdalena Campos-Pons has been the victim of at least two displacements, two exoduses two diasporas. The first involved her forefathers. They were forcibly brought from Nigeria during the slave trade to work in a sugar plantation at a place called La Vega, in the province of Matanzas. In this case, it is only an engram, a half-blurred fact, strengthened by successive evocations by her family that Magdalena has never wanted to forget. A large part of her oeuvre has been devoted to reactivating the bonds with that past, with those memories, to lend them artistic usefulness loaded with ethical, social, racial, sexual and political commitment. But is there a real possibility for a person of black skin in Cuba, or in any other place where African blacks were enslaved, to break away from that affiliation, or to avoid been indirectly involved in that traumatic event?

 

In fact, very seldom have I heard a black person in Cuba mention with pride that her/his great-grandfather or great-great-grandfather was an African slave. Maybe I have heard it in the religious atmospheres of Santería, Ifá and Palo Monte, where these ancestors are worshipped and acknowledged, mainly due to the prestige that direct African origin seems to grant to a believer or to sacred objects received as an inheritance. In all contexts, not only religious ones, this should be the norm and not the exception. The slavery of African blacks in Cuba and in all America should not be regarded by their descendants as a shameful, humiliating chapter that would be better forgotten or hidden, since the arrival of African blacks in our lands was economically, socially and culturally important. The slavery of the past illustrates the moral inferiority of slave traffickers and owners, and of those who were pro-slavery, mostly whites of European origin. Being a white Cuban myself, could I feel the same pride if my great-grandfather or great-great-grandfather had been pro-slavery, a slave trafficker or a rancheador, persecutor of runaway slaves? Who should feel more ashamed or humiliated by his/her origins? On the other hand, Africans not only had in our lands a history as slaves and maroons; they also played an essential role in the formation of our society and our modern culture, arts, literature, intellectual and political life, although little of that knowledge has been made public.

 

To a large extent, the blame for that concealment of knowledge could be attributed to historians, those who have written (at the request of the hegemonic sectors, of the representatives of power) the history that unfortunately continues to include many of the Eurocentric, racist, aristocratic and bourgeois concepts of the 19th century.[ii]  In our school history books, for example, the route followed by Christopher Columbus and his sailors during their three voyages to Cuba and the Caribbean, has always been described in detail. We know that Columbus sailed from a town called Palos de Moguer, we know the name of his three ships, Niña, Pinta and Santa María, and even the name of the sailor, Rodrigo de Triana, who sighted land for the first time after a long journey from the European shores. We even know that Columbus said something like: "This is the most beautiful land that human eyes have ever seen," when he landed on Cuban soil. All these anecdotes recorded in our history books are about the conquistadores, the invaders, and those who would soon become dedicated producers of sugar with the slave manpower brought from Africa, once the indigenous population of our island had been exterminated. And who, a while later when liberating those slaves, would become our "founding fathers" and the "builders of our nationality," a concept that minimizes the importance of the slave uprisings that took place and figures like the free black Jose Antonio Aponte whose antislavery and anti-colonial conspiracy of 1812 occurred many years prior to the war of independence in 1868.  Shouldn’t the black Aponte at least be considered one of the true "fathers of the homeland?" Only very recently has the so-called “Slave Route” become known in relatively narrow academic circles. Now there is a small museum in the city of Matanzas. But few Cubans of African origin know from which place in Africa their forefathers came, neither do they know their original names, or to which ethnic group they belong; thus it is impossible to reconstruct their family histories. The history of outstanding figures of the population of African descent continues to be little known and recognized, in Cuba and all through America. If it were known, wouldn’t the descendants of those Africans be better able to feel pride?

 

Magdalena Campos has dug, for many years, in those silences, showing  through her art, the history of the history-less, beginning with her own family, listening, taking notes, "speaking softly" with her grandmother and her mother, as it is said in the name of one of her exhibitions: "Spoken Softly with Mama" [iii].  Perhaps she is convinced that the history of each black family, no matter how poor their origins might seem, is the solid foundation on which to build the true history of Cuba and of humankind.   

 

Magdalena Campos' second diaspora has to do with her departure to the United States, where she has resided since 1991, and with the estrangement from her native language, her family and social and cultural context. Although this is very different from her initial diaspora, it has evoked almost identical feelings in the artist. Her life in a different milieu seems to have elicited in her not only rewards, happiness and joys, but discomforts, pains and conflicts similar to those suffered by her distant African relatives when they arrived on these strange lands on the other side of Atlantic, or the Black Atlantic. Mutatis mutandis, is it not always about the same diaspora? 



 

[i] Ariel Ribeaux Diago Ni musicos ni deportistas (Notas para el Libro Oscuro), 1997.   http://www.afrocubaweb.com/arielribeaux.htm

 

[ii] Walterio Carbonell, Cómo surgió la cultura nacional, Ediciones Bachiller, Biblioteca Nacional Jose Marti, 2005.

 

[iii] María Magdalena Campos-Pons. Spoken Softly with Mama, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Canada, 1998.

 

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