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Emigration creates an existential state in which the artist as creator often produces, out of inner necessity, the most innovative modes of artistic expression. Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons has made an exilic journey and as a result is confronted with the ongoing process of reconsidering her roots and formation from the pivotal position of the past and present. Exile motivates her reexamination of the problematic of belonging, assimilation, and trans-culturation between diverse cultures.

A Town Portrait   presents personal and collective histories through its component elements. In preparing for the installation, the artist corresponded with close members of her immediate family ‹ mother, sister, and cousin ‹ who live in Cuba. They shared with each other their individual memories of special places in the town, family events and celebrations, and reminiscences of their family history. Each of the components in the installation attempts to recreate a town portrait by conveying visual glimpses and written narratives based on those recollections.

La Vega is the artist's hometown; it was also the name of a large sugar plantation that formed part of a large network of sugar mills in the province of Matanzas. Campos-Pons' great-grandfather was sent from Nigeria to Cuba in the mid-19th century to labor on the La Vega sugar plantation. When slavery ended, the artist's family stayed in the town and continued working in the sugar industry until very recent times.

In the installation, the artist constructed four architectural elements ‹ a doorway, wall, fountain, and distillery tower ‹ that represent key places in La Vega which most specifically define her family's collective notion of place and rootedness. The installation begins with the Door, symbol of passage. Constructed of vertical panels of glass, the Door contains photographic images of the actual door from Campos-Pons' first home, members of her family, and historical and contemporary scenes of the town. The Door links the past to the present through archival and contemporary views, each of which contributes to the sense of a town portrait. One of the photographs is of the artist's former home, which was in a building in the former slave quarters. At some point in the family's history, a statue of Elegguá, the Yoruba protector deity, who guards the portal and opens the paths, was placed at the base of the door to protect and bless those who entered. Reference to his functions are encapsulated in the title of the photographic series, Abridor de caminos, the one who opens the paths. The Door also functions as the physical and metaphorical element through which the artist moves between private and public spaces both within the actual installation and her discursive narrative. The Door acts as a point of passage, a liminal threshold between there and here, then and now.

The Tower is one of several former distillery towers remaining in the now defunct sugar mill. Campos-Pons remembers playing childhood games with other friends in the tower. When the artist left La Vega to study in a nearby town, the tower was the first building she saw at a distance when returning home. Over time the building assumed the importance of a landmark. Indeed, it remains the most notable historical remnant of the slave-run sugar mill, which contributed to producing quantities of sugar unrivaled in the Americas. As the children grew up in the town, they learned the history of the tower through their parents' stories.

In constructing the Tower, the artist used rough clay bricks to impart a sense of age to the structure. She related some of her thoughts together with those of her family in texts inscribed in the bricks. One reads: "The tower was the place that let me know that home was near. How long had it been there, what was hidden between its red bricks? The lost ones and those who defied all, even time."

The Fountain, another element in the installation, has the following words inscribed on the outside: "We made garlands of wildflowers." When the artist was young, the girls in the town gathered at the fountain, picked the flowers around it, and made garlands to adorn themselves. An aspect of that activity is the subject of the video Flowers.

The fourth element, the Wall, functions somewhat like the Greek chorus in terms of its collective narrative role. The artist compiled several passages from her family's written recollections and included them as texts in the Wall: "In La Vega we used to celebrate the African religious ceremony at Nengo's house. The ceremony included animal sacrifices. These were later cooked for the participants' dinner. Many of the celebrants were the godsons and daughters of the saint (Nengo). The people of La Vega loved the Water Tank. It was in the center of the town, and we used it as a reference point to divide the town into neighborhoods. They were called Triconia, La Quinta, and Palmarito. The majority of the townspeople used to work in the sugar cane harvest. The beginning and the end of the harvest were signaled by the sound of a long loud siren that was a symbol of celebration. In La Vega I (the artist's mother) knew a woman called maria Perdomo, an ex-slave. She used to tell stories of the hardships of her life under slavery."

The personal and collective portrait of the town is expressed through a stream of memory fragments, some of which are featured in the videos. Rocking Chair focuses on an empty rocking chair covered with mosquito netting. Images of family members are projected on the seat of the chair as if they were apparitions. An old family adage holds that it is bad luck to let a chair rock without its sitter, because a moving chair will disturb the spirits of the people sitting in it. The video Flowers features the artist stringing a garland of tropical flowers into a necklace. The activity recalls the childhood games in which the artist and her friends whiled away the hours making garlands to adorn themselves. In the third video, Water Images, the artist sifts water through her hands from an aluminum casserole. Images of tropical trees appear in her palms as she evokes the ephemeral nature of re-collecting. The performances are accompanied by Campos-Pons' childhood lullaby, sung softly, slowly, and rhythmically, adding another layer to the personal narrative of A Town Portrait.

The artist's excavations of childhood memories result from her living in the United States, away from Cuba. Negotiating her place between the here and now, and the there and then is an ongoing process, expressed and performed in diverse artistic forms in this installation.

In addition to A Town Portrait, the exhibition also includes two series of photographs ‹ Abridor de caminos and When I Am Not Here/Estoy alla. Each addresses the artist's ongoing explorations of personal and collective history, identity, gender, and religion. The photographs, produced in the mind and performed by the body, are linked to the videos in A Town Portrait. Part of a larger corpus of photography executed during the previous year, they expand the media for which the artist has become known, namely sculptural objects, installations, video, and performance.

In When I Am Not Here/Estoy alla, Campos-Pons is covered in brown and white makeup. Two of the three photographs feature the artist with English and Spanish texts written across her chest. The work problematizes the complex issues confronting the artist who has moved from one country to another at a time when travel between them is restricted. From the artists' vantage point, "here" and "there (alla)" are transmutable. In her performance, the artist (re)identifies her existential state as she (re)negotiates her notion of place. The phrases on the artist's chest, "IDENTITY COULD BE A TRAGEDY" and "PATRIA UNA TRAMPA" (Homeland [is] an Entrapment), may be interpreted in light of the charged views espoused by either US or Cuban cold war politics, or in light of the artist's personal politics: the need to go beyond the restrictions imposed by nations, whether or not at political odds.

Abridor de caminos   features ten different shots, many of which are of the artist as subject and object of the performance. Aspects of her Yoruba-derived, Santería background are drawn from images, colors, and meaning. Red and black are the colors of Elegguá, the deity that opens one's path, abridor de caminos. References to African sculpture are implicit in, for example, the shot of the artist's legs, lined with red, referring to scarification; her hair is elaborately coifed with beads--evoking the intricate hairstyles that convey status and gender in traditional African art. The body--viewed close up and in fragments--performs minimal gestures, an accumulation of which imparts the monumental presence of tradition, survival, continuity, innovation, and creativity.

Julia P. Herzberg, Guest Curator©


1. For an excellent history of sugar production in the province of Matanzas, see Laird W. Bergard, Cuban Rural Society in the Nineteenth Century: The Social and Economic History of Monoculture in Matanzas   (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990.)

2. The artist's texts are in Spanish in the installation, but her English translations were reproduced in the exhibition brochure, "María Magdalena Campos-Pons," in Transcending the Borders of Memory, essay by Olga M. Viso, curator (West Palm Beach: Norton Gallery of Art, 1994), n.p.

3. For a discussion of blood sacrifices (ebo eje) as part of the offering of an animal to deity, see Miguel Ramos, "Afro-Cuban Orisha Worship," in Santería Aesthetics in Contemporary Latin American Art, ed. Arturo Lindsay (Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996), p. 32.

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