Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 17, 2024
María Magdalena Campos-Pons: Behold
Brooklyn Museum September 15, 2023–January 14, 2024 Nasher Museum of Art, Durham, February 15–June 9, 2024
María Magdalena Campos-Pons (Born Matanzas, Cuba, 1959), Finding Balance, 2018. Image courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum of Art

For four decades, María Magdalena Campos-Pons has created works that deftly interweave the particular and the expansive, utilizing her body, memory, and familial history as conduits to attend to transatlantic histories of diaspora and racial violence. Campos-Pons was born in 1959 in the Afro-Cuban province of Matanzas, Cuba as the descendant of enslaved African individuals and indentured Chinese laborers brought forcefully to the island. Since 1991, she has resided primarily in the United States, initially unable to return to Cuba for over a decade due to the US embargo. Her practice has centered on the journeys––both forced and forbidden—that are at once particular to her individual experience and entwined within multigenerational histories of imperial violence, forced dislocation, and survival. Movement through, behind, and beyond boundaries is a persistent motif in the artist’s work, where images extend beyond their frames and threads tether disparate surfaces.     

María Magdalena Campos-Pons: Behold at the Brooklyn Museum is the artist’s first multimedia survey since 2007 and first-ever survey in New York. Co-organized with the J. Paul Getty Museum, it travels through spring 2025. The exhibition’s fall 2023 opening in Brooklyn was followed quickly by news of Campos-Pons’s MacArthur Genius grant. Bringing together works from 1990 to the present, Behold demonstrates the breadth of the artist’s practice from large format polaroids and multimedia installations—for which she is best known—to glass mobiles and layered ephemeral collages of more recent decades. An attempt to sufficiently encapsulate the range of material reflected is futile given Campos-Pons’s ever-present experimentation with and refusal of traditional media.

Though presented in the distinct space of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Behold begins outside of the center’s self-contained galleries, which are triangularly bound to the permanent installation of Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party. It is fitting that a retrospective of Campos-Pons’s work, which plays with the transcendence of boundaries, begins in overflow, defying the delineated footprint of feminist art. Spilling into the museum’s atrium, faint sounds of a woman singing and the soft glow of light draw the viewer to the fourth-floor overlook, where Campos-Pons’s mesmerizing 1998 installation Spoken Softly with Mama has transformed the institutional environment. The milestone work was created in collaboration with composer and sound artist Neil Leonard for the Museum of Modern Art in 1998. Seven large ironing boards stand upright, like arched passageways, illuminated by the photographs and videos projected on their silk surfaces. An excavation of personal and collective history, the photographs projected in the work were culled from family archives and depict women of Campos-Pons’s family, including her mother, who had worked in the home of a wealthy family as a domestic laborer while dreaming of being an educator. Like architectural pillars, the ironing boards dedicate a space for the untold stories of generations of Black women constrained to lives of domestic labor. On the floor, radial arrangements of irons and trivets cast in glass are luminescent with the projector glow, appearing to float like ships across the dark surface. Honoring women’s work as worthy history, Spoken Softly is the second work in a tripartite series, “History of a People Who Were Not Heroes” (1994). The series represents a process Campos-Pons refers to as working from a dismantled archive, in which she addresses the absent histories and dearth of records that followed the violent caesura of diasporic dislocation.

Inside the center, Behold extends across six galleries that highlight conceptual throughlines in Campos-Pons’s work, such as witnessing, labor, and movement. Section titles provide background information allowing ideas to come cogently into focus, but stop short of acting as thematic containers. The first gallery, “The Calling,” identifies Campos-Pons’s conception of her work as spiritually guided, highlighting the undercurrent of ritual encoded in her works, most prominently as references to Santería, the African diasporic syncretic religion rooted in Yoruba traditions of which her grandmother was a priestess. A captivating early video piece, Baño Sagrado (Rite of Initiation, Sacred Bath) (1991), is a standout—a nonlinear portrayal of cleansing rituals that employ sound and early video editing techniques to dissolve the boundary between body and water.

Drawing upon Christina Sharpe’s 2016 book In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, the section “Extreme Weather” speaks to the enduring, pervasive persistence of racial and imperial violence as an environmental condition to which Campos-Pons responds. A layered installation of works on paper, with blue water-based pigments that fluctuate in density and hue, heightens the structural and conceptual heft of the nearby installation TRA (1991)TRA debuted at the 1992 Havana Biennial, a challenge and juxtaposition to concurrent 1992 “celebrations” of the quincentenary of Christopher Columbus’s voyage to the Caribbean, as noted in the label. Addressing modes of commemoration and history-making by adopting the shapes and materials of memorials, Campos-Pons’s installation centers around the distinct, yet inseparable forced voyages of enslaved African people through the Middle Passage. A textual shorthand for travesía (crossing), trata (trade), and tragedia (tragedy), TRA collocates grids of photographs of three generations of Afro-Cubans in Matanzas with planks of wood cut into ships, on the surface of which Campos-Pons carved schematic diagrams of nameless bodies abstracted into human cargo.

The artist’s dedication to witnessing that which has preceded and unfolded before her is foregrounded in “Voyeurs and Beholders,” a grouping of works that take up the manifestations and implications of vision. A glass mobile from the 2021 series “The Rise of the Butterflies” suspends the eyespots of butterfly wings, an evolutionary tool of mimicry thought to ward off predators, taken up by Campos-Pons to symbolize practices of community protection and collective witnessing within the Black Lives Matter movement. In a triptych from “When I am Not Here/Estoy Alla” (1996), photographs of the artist with the texts “Patria una trampa” and “Identity could be a tragedy” written across her chest convey the visual construction of identity as a technology of confinement: the ethnographic violence of pinning down discrete identities and the restriction of movement based on categorical frames of race and nation.

Such confinement is made material in Invocazione alla Questura–Rita of Nigeria, a 2006 collage in the subsequent gallery, “Picturing Labor,” which abstracts the image of Rita, a Nigerian woman Campos-Pons met in Italy. Rita’s precarious existence as a Nigerian laborer precipitated their encounter at a police station. In Campos-Pons’s representation, Rita’s identity is abstracted and shrouded in symbolism. It is concealed by gold chains suspended from her baseball cap, but also celebrated in the gold leaf bird atop the hat, a reference to traditional Yoruba garments. Rita’s image is rendered atop a grid of translucent Italian tissue paper, fused with swaths of gold leaf.

Campos-Pons’s transgression of the grid, a belabored motif in art history, is readily apparent in “Roots and Routes,” a selection of works demonstrating the artist’s historical examination and personal experience of itinerancy and the recurrent negotiation of distance in her work. Cross-continental and transgenerational linkages are manifest in two striking works that face each other. Visualizing matrilineal tethering, the series “Umbilical Cord” (1991), was created through transnational collaboration when the artist was unable to return to Cuba. Photographs of the artist’s mother and sisters were taken and sent by photographer Ramón Pacheco to Campos-Pons, who combined them sequentially with her own photograph, binding their bodies together with a three-dimensional wire umbilical cord that extends from the wall. Situated diagonally across the gallery is Finding Balance (2015) a twenty-eight-photograph installation, the artist’s largest to date. With her face painted in cascarilla, a white powder used in Santería created from eggshells, and her body donning an imperial dragon robe, Campos-Pons holds in simultaneous complexity her Nigerian and Cantonese ancestry. The monumental self-portrait is more complex and frenzied than the earlier polaroid works, an accumulation of ideas and imagery the artist has developed over time.

A distinct appendage gallery, “Process & Performance” contains performance footage, a striking costume designed by Zinda Lee Williams, and notebooks of planning sketches as well as photographs of additional performances (some which activated works elsewhere in the show). Though the gallery provides exciting insight into the artist’s practice, the limitation of the latter materials to vitrines in a process-oriented gallery unnecessarily reaffirmed a hierarchy of art versus nonart objects that could’ve been abandoned with a more dynamic integration consistent with the rest of the exhibition. 

A substantial and rich retrospective, Behold resists articulating a linear progression of artistic development and integrates distinct series and decades of the artist’s practice, eschewing categorical imposition. It’s an appropriate condition for the fluid resonances that appear across the artist’s body of work and the multiple temporalities to which they attend. Across the locations, identities, and histories that converge in her work, Campos Pons reflects “I am grounded in my mobility, my understanding of transitions, and my flexibility to adapt to experiences that are not completely new, but that I need to explore by choice or necessity” (“María Magdalena Campos-Pons with Joyce Beckenstein,” The Brooklyn Rail, October 2023).

Elise Armani
PhD Candidate, Art History & Criticism, Stony Brook University