To encounter María Magdalena Campos-Pons is like encountering her work. Whether it is one of her paintings, sculptures, videos, installations, performances, or a combination of these artistic disciplines, the senses are stirred, awakened, engaged. She speaks not just through visual signifiers but in multilayered, textured ways that synesthetically express the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes that have made many of her memories materialize into works of art. To “capture” the atmospheric way that Campos-Pons talks in relation to the world around her and to her work is impossible––it exceeds the confines of this particular format.

Stemming from the particularity of her own experience, Campos-Pons’s artistic production has been referred to as autobiographical, and the subject of identity frequently and persistently emerges. Yet her inquires and engagement often extend past the space, place, and time of her particular body. Campos-Pons, who grew up in the former slave barracks of a sugar plantation in the region of Matanzas, Cuba, has throughout her career interrogated her family’s past in relation to Cuba’s sugar industry. Addressing subjects like the repercussions of colonization, forced migration, and barbarous labor practices—overarching narratives that informed the encounters between her Nigerian, Chinese, and Hispanic ancestors—several of Campos-Pons’s works touch upon the harrowing ways that the transatlantic slave trade and Chinese-indentured servitude [End Page E-1] made the cultivation and harvesting of sugar cane in the Caribbean possible. Bringing to the fore the disregarded histories of the people and cultures that converged to produce one of the first ingredients of globalization, Campos-Pons does not focus on this marginalization/erasure; rather, making use of memory, she draws attention to their enduring presence. This aspect is most evident in her performances as she calls upon and welcomes ancestral spirits to join her, her body becoming a site of encounter between those that came before and the audience. Less evident but equally as pertinent are the ways she addresses the performativity of materials. By centering, for example the materiality of sugar, her artistic labor becomes a mediation on its production; the process of making alluding to sugar’s arduous history and its poetic resonance.

I was grateful for the opportunity to meet Campos-Pons, as I am currently working on a dissertation that interrogates what sugar performs in cultural productions and site-specific landscapes. Taking into account the impact of this material as a “tastemaker,” I delve into the production and consumption of sugar and what our tastes for this “sweet” commodity elucidate about practices of racialization. I wanted to learn more about how Campos-Pons portrays her proximity and intimate engagement to sugar and its production. Of particular interest is her use of alchemy—a word, not incidentally, that came up quite a bit throughout our conversation—as an artistic strategy. For example, how alchemy is practiced conceptually to transform a material that has caused so much insurmountable damage, and how it informs the multisensorial aesthetic experiences that she creates in her art works. This strategy disrupts the tyranny of the visual, the sensorial hierarchy influenced by the Aristotelian model in Western aesthetic theory that has conditioned perceptions in the spaces that exhibit art—a scopic privileging that has also contributed to the objectification and subsequent racialized violence inflicted on those that have historically labored to produce sugar. As Campos-Pons’s work exhibits, alchemy occurs when the senses are awakened to the vitality of materiality—that is, that materials like perceptions are malleable—a practice that when deployed reorients our tastes for an ingredient that has turned bodies and sites into ruins. Therefore most of the pieces selected for the interview reflect these interests.

The following conversation took place in April amid the COVID-19 quarantine. Below is a transcript of that interaction edited for length.

SLC:

I thought we could begin by discussing the particular way you center your body in your artistic practice that includes painting, sculpting, video, photography, installation, and performance—am I missing anything?

MCP:

(Laughing) Perhaps, but the root of that resides in my early introduction to art education in Cuba. I participated in an experimental elementary school in which theatre, dance, visual art, home economics were part of it. In those classes, I started to do things that I would use much later on. I learned to embroider, to sew—practices that were important for my textile work. I could trace that back to those classes and to my mother. She was a very good seamstress who also designed clothing. The kind of versatility of expression and expansion of my interests goes back to that early introduction to art as an interdisciplinary and encompassing practice.

SLC:

I read that when you first arrived from Cuba to the United States in 1988, one of the main areas you wanted to study was performance. Why performance? [End Page E-2] 

MCP:

I was maybe touched in a delicate way and impressed in a peculiar way by rituals that I witnessed when I was young. I am not an initiated person in any religion in Cuba, but it’s a tradition of ritualistic practice within the family. I was aware of performance as methodology in contemporary practices from my education in Cuba where we had classes in the history of performance. I had this inclination, intuition about the relation between the performative experiences that I had learned, or knew from my childhood, and contemporary practices of performance, and there was not yet a sense of how to link those practices in some sort of parallel. In this rich interdisciplinary education that I participated at ISA (Instituto Superior de Arte), we studied drawing, painting, sculpting, printmaking, but we did not have a performance class or a new media class. As part of the master’s program you had a year to study abroad, and I had the opportunity to go to MassArt. In the curriculum, I saw what I wanted to do: performance, video art, film, intro to photography, the things that weren’t offered back at ISA.

Figure 1. My Mother Told Me I was Chinese. The Painting Lesson. (Image courtesy of the artist and Gallery Wendi Norris, San Francisco.)

 

SLC:

In talks and interviews, you have often mentioned this idea of identity as encounter. [End Page E-3] 

MCP:

I have talked a lot about the instability and the malleability of identity. I am talking to you now from Nashville. I have been here for three years. I can imagine how much of what I have encountered here has been incorporated into Magda, to María Magdalena Campos-Pons from the East Coast, Europe, the Caribbean, and now here this Center-South. Identity is a mutant; it is impermanence.

SLC:

I thought about this in relation to your piece My Mother Told Me I was Chinese. The Painting LessonIn a talk that you gave in 2013, you discuss some of the ways you approach themes of identity in your work, and here I am paraphrasing, but you talk about how you want to make clear images out of things that are very complex, while simultaneously liberating an image from the borders of certain content and history. Here, would you say that you engaged in an artistic practice that created an encounter with your Chinese ancestry? (Fig. 1.)

MLC:

I did. When I was invited to the Guangzhou Triennial in 2008, the theme was “Farewell to Postcolonialism,” and I thought it was an amazing opportunity to approach the story of my Chinese ancestry. At first sight, you can’t see it in my face. My mother has a little more of these features on her side of the family from my mother’s father. An important aspect in this is that on the Yoruba alters, the Regla de Osha in Cuba, the vessels, where the offerings are placed, are Chinese porcelain. There is an interconnection and juxtaposition of Chinese and black culture that is common knowledge and also not visible. When I sent the organizers a description of my piece, they wrote back, “Do you know that the place that your ancestors came from is this region, your ancestors are from Canton.” Of course! This is funny, this set of coincidences. The Guangzhou museum bought this piece for their permanent collection. They told me that they were aware of this relation to Cuba, but that no artist had addressed it in the way that this piece was narrating this connection. I found a path to my Chinese culture through an artistic language that talks about this sleeping component, of this so-called identity that is never named, that is not visible. There are others, and this is what I think about the complexity of identity of defining who we are, we are many things at once. It’s important, because those conversations have political, social, and economic implications all the time. I’m working on them in the realm of the poetic, the visual, and hypothetical, but they have real implications. That is what I was conceptually talking about, almost tongue and cheek, because I needed to be told and instructed in a tradition in which I have an investment but not the artistic dexterity.

SLC:

This issue of Theatre Journal quotes the scholar Anna Tsing on globalization as a phenomenon that could be traced by the “sticky materiality of practical encounters.”

MCP:

Sugar.

SLC:

Yes! That’s what I thought. Your work often centers this ingredient—its profound sociohistorical impact. In, for example, Sugar / Bittersweet, you touch upon the painful history of sugar in the Caribbean. Could you tell us a bit about the materials you chose? What stories do they tell? (Fig. 2.) [End Page E-4] 

Figure 2. Sugar / Bittersweet. (Photo: Kelvin Ma/Tufts University, image courtesy of the artist and Gallery Wendi Norris, San Francisco.)

 

MCP:

Maybe complexity, complicity, and memory. My memory of sugar is when I was a tiny little girl running through the sugar fields and the three-meter sugar grasses were like gigantic towers. There is a structural element of that piece that is important. It is built like a sugar field with something called a guardarraya, a path, a line that separates one field of sugar from another. The configuration of this grid, because sugar fields are these perfected grids of distribution of production, it is economy in the same way as the slave ships, the brutality of the beauty of this image, the efficacy of mathematics, the precision, I aligned the spears and stools in that way. I interviewed many people to make this, from places where sugar is produced. I had a conversation with a Brazilian woman who described the terror of the sugar-cane cutters, of how people sliced their eyeballs with the edge of the grass. That’s one of the reasons for the spears. I thought this beautiful grass is also a weapon against certain bodies. There was also a complicity of black traders in Africa who collected other citizens, other African bodies, and spears were used in that scene of complicity. I used glass and real sugar panela—sugar that is not fully refined for trade. There is a denomination of a particular sugar grass called cristalglass in Spanish. This was a conceptual entry. I’m in this territory where the materiality of the product is almost consistent with the denomination of it. It’s like a tautology, glass, cristal, and sugar is called all of this. I started using glass very early on in my work because it’s like memory—fuzzy, transparent, you can see through it, but it’s not completely clear, it’s fragile, it breaks, but you can glue it back together; it still has integrity though something has changed.

SLC:

It is also incredibly difficult to work with.

MCP:

Yes, and painful. Working with glass is practically the same as with sugar. You need to grind it, melt it at extremely high temperatures, and then expose it to oxygen to let it solidify again, slowly. This kind of alchemy is similar between glass and sugar, and I concluded that both in certain circumstances are poison. [End Page E-5] 

Figure 3. Alchemy of the Soul, Elixir for the Spirits. (Photo: Peter Vanderwarker, image courtesy of the artist and Gallery Wendi Norris, San Francisco.)

 

SLC:

Alchemy, its poetics and as a way of working, reappears in Alchemy of the Soul, Elixir for the Spirits. Here again, you work with glass on an even larger scale, creating towering blown-glass structures that look like parts of an alchemical laboratory, an atmospheric installation that engages the senses not only through sight, but also through sound and smell. (Fig. 3.)

MCP:

And taste. At the beginning of the piece, I had people taste fresh sugar. When you taste sugar from the cane it is delicious and less sugary. In the middle of a hot day, a little piece, a gourmet fragment is refreshing. It’s also a shot to your blood sugar when it’s coming down. This small quantity is healing; it balances your body.

SLC:

In an interview about the work, you discuss how these sensorial languages mix to bring you to a place of visual dislocation. What do you find generative about this disorientation?

MCP:

I tried to create in the room a smell that I remember as a site. I was in a working sugar factory in Cuba in 2018, and that smell that I put in that installation was there. In a way, you are translated metaphorically to that site, of what it means to be inside a factory that produces sugar. I was trying to create this experiential realm that is separated from the history of looking at Monet, Picasso, or even Duchamp, an experiential expansion of what art could be, of what this art experience could open for a viewer.

SLC:

When looking at your prolific body of work and deciding which pieces I wanted to discuss with you, your installation Unfolding Desires hit me in quite a profound way. The installation consists of seven old, wooden ironing boards placed in a spiral, each [End Page E-6] stacked with folded white sheets and irons made out of glass. I thought about the glass irons that are both heavy and fragile, but also delicate, you have to take care of them for them not to break, like desires that unfold despite circumstances that could crush them. I was wondering if we could end with some unfolding desires for your work.

MCP:

If I am given the privilege of longevity, there is so much I want to do. I was asked once at the Venice Biennial when I was going to do film. There is a lot of cinema behind everything that I have done. My photographs, I’ve built them like little movies, frame by frame. I would like to come back to narrate a few stories of the alchemy of material and the alchemy of site and places, and I think they will be moving images. So, an unfolding desire is to build a narrative of what I have seen, of what I have observed. Another unfolding desire, as a result of this time of isolation and enclosure, I need to make a suite of paintings that are like the paintings I did in the ’80s. I left the square and the grid in my graduation work from ISA, dealing with amorphous things, but I see it now, it came back to me. They are miasma; I’m in the miasma because this experience that we are now in is miasma. We are floating as a planet; we are covered with COVID-19 and the similarity and the synchronicity of what we are experiencing is something miasmatic. I haven’t found another word. We are so privileged that we have been given tears, that we have been given taste, that we have been given eyes, that we have been given senses, the brain, and the machine that is the heart and this liver for alchemy. Our bodies themselves are a maker of alchemy. So, my unfolding desire is to find agency to put all those things together and to keep working.

SLC:

Speaking of desires, last question. I’ve read that you ask your students whom they are going to bed with. As in the “things” that we consume as a way of feeding the artistic spirit before falling asleep, who are you going to bed with tonight?

(MLC goes to her bedroom and comes back to show me the book Video Art by Barbara London)

MLC:

I have also been sleeping with Toni Morrison, her last book of wisdom. [End Page E-7]