Cuban artist Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons visited Saint Louis University on March 2 to give the Kristen Peterson Distinguished Lecture in Art and Art History and to exhibit her work in the University’s own Museum of Contemporary Religious Art (MOCRA).
Campos-Pons, “a leading artist of the Afro-Cuban diaspora,” presented her work within the context of ritual and spirituality, in the process divulging some personal history to help viewers better understand the relationship between the art and the artist. Notions of memory, tradition, fragmentation and beauty figured prominently in her lecture.
Born in 1959 in Matanzas, Cuba and educated in Havana, Campos-Pons first came to the United States in the 1980s to earn her Master of Fine Arts from the Massachusetts College of Art. Her African ancestry, Cuban origins, new American environment and family roots in China’s Canton province served as inspiration for much of her art.
As an artist, Campos-Pons relies on numerous media. Her various exhibitions incorporate photography, painting, installation art, sculpture, song, dance and video. She also uses such elements as hair, African beads, plants and soil in her work. Toward the end of her lecture, she said, “When I try to describe my work, I first think of a hybrid.”
Campos-Pons’ lecture began with her singing, “Father, are you with me? Mother, are you with me? Brother, are you with me? Grandmother, are you with me? Cousin, are you with me?” She underlined the importance of her familial roots, saying, “I do not come here alone.” She spoke of her father, an herbalist, and how by bringing Cuban plants to America “we were literally breaking the embargo.” Her mother figured heavily in her work, as well.
“Replenishing” (2003) depicts Campos-Pons and her mother in large-format Polaroids in the shape of an H (for home, house) linked by strings of African beads. “This is a piece that I am really, really and truly content,” she said.
“Spoken Softly With Mama” (1998) was talked about at length. The piece consists of seven ironing boards used as projection screens for video footage and photographs of Campos-Pons and her mother, surrounded by numerous irons and other housework tools. She was very proud of it and said, “I would have been furious if anybody had done that piece.” On her motives for creating it, she explained, “I wanted to talk about hardship but I wanted to talk about beauty and elegance…I come from a family of beautiful women.”
The artist began discussing her own cultural multiplicity with “Dreaming of an Island” (2004), nine polaroid panels depicting herself overlooking a sea of blue toward a distant shore, an intricate pattern of hair underwater mimicking a type of seaweed with which she was fascinated. “I had started confronting for the first time double existence,” Campos-Pons said.
Campos-Pons described the role ritual played in her artistry. “What I can claim with authority is that I was raised in a culture where those words are very respected,” she said. “I am very interested in engaging the ancestral, even the tribal.” Her pieces “Prayer for Obama I & II” depict a ritual she did in light of President Obama’s 2008 election, combining the ancestral and newly American elements in her life. Dressed in white and covered in white spots, she clutches a bouquet of flowers in each hand as she dances.
At a small exhibition and reception following the lecture, attendees viewed several of Campos-Pons’ pieces on display. “Her work has an iconic presence. There’s a solemnity, a sense of ritual,” Fr. Terrence Dempsey, S.J., the founding director of MOCRA, said. One visitor, Martha Angel, an artist herself, had come from Carbondale, Ill. with her husband. “She’s the first artist I’ve seen combine her faith and her art. I was very inspired…very confirmed in my own path,” she said.
As difficult as it may be to define her own work, Campos-Pons is sure of one thing: “What I’m doing now is storytelling…that is the privilege…that is the challenge, that is the quest.”