The universe of Cuban-born, Nashville-based artist María Magdalena Campos-Pons is expansive, generous, spiritual, feminist and rooted. It sings and sobs and dances, honors and stands strong. Her visual art comes to life in a sea of sparkling blue that stirs the soul, with touches of pink and orange reminiscing the vividness of flowers and the languish of a sunset, and she incorporates hints of gold juxtaposed at near distance with the humbleness of bakery paper packaging. It’s a constellation and a multitude.
The Brooklyn Museum presents an overdue survey of Campos-Pons mixed-media works spanning from the 1990s to today. Curated by Carmen Hermo from the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art—yes, from that family, though Elizabeth Sackler put out a statement in support of Nan Goldin’s activism—and Mazie Harris, Assistant Curator of Photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum, the show illuminates the artist’s prescience and vibrancy, positioning her as one of the most significant post-revolutionary Cuban artists of our time.
“Behold” gathers iconic works of film, photography, sculpture and performance, which demonstrate the boundless expression of Campos-Pons, an artist concerned with autobiographical testaments, personal loss and stubborn attachments. Some of these pieces are shown in the United States for the first time. Organized in six non-chronological sections, the survey charts sub-themes as propositions to engage with Campos-Pons’s cohesive work.
A mixed-media installation greets visitors before they enter. Shapes of white clothes irons are scattered on the stage where a six-channel film plays. They resemble candles or votive offerings, and their stillness contrasts with the monochromatic images, which give voices to female family members. Spoken Softly with Mama (1998), presented at the 49th Venice Biennale in 2011, is a timeless altar to the women of Campos-Pons’s life and the fragile sacredness of matrilineage. In that, she links her lived experience with broader universal questions—a recurrent intention throughout the show, which is often symbolized in the presence of physical threads allegorically tying invisible, unbreakable bonds.
In “The Calling,” we approach Campos-Pons’ foundational preoccupations of grounded spirituality, the legacies of the slave trade and visualizations of entrapment and emancipation. These are incarnated in strong conceptual portrait photographs and video. In The Calling (2003), a diptych of polaroid prints, Campos-Pons uses her body to visually honor the divinities of the Yoruba-derived Santería religion. The dynamic pose—bent backwards, holding a bouquet of white flowers—shows purpose, movement and a ritualistic concentration to praise Obatalá, the Creator. On her skin, cascarilla, a crushed eggshell powder to protect against negative energy, which matches a white outfit.
The segment “Voyeur and Beholder” plays on duality and ambiguity. Eyes feature as the center point of the mixed-media works. We are drawn to the mouth-blown Murano glass sculpture, Mobile #3 (2021) from the series “The Rise of the Butterflies,” a body of work dedicated to the memory of Breonna Taylor, in which eye shapes dangle like ornaments from stainless steel rounded spines, to dispel evil and consider ways to achieve transformation. Secrets of the Magnolia Tree (2021), a monumental triptych work on paper, depicts an allegorical humanoid form of Campos-Pons herself, a creature in a garden tinged with longing populated by opulent species. Because we see, we will reminisce.
Campos-Pons explores reproductive labor, best captured in the installation Soy Una Fuente (I Am a Fountain), 1990, which includes disparate organs suggesting fragmentation, exploitation and exertion. We find the same lachrymose, teary eye seen in the previous segment as well as a heart that pumps labels inscribed with the words milk, tears, life, thoughts and more. Labor is perceived via a gendered lens, through birth-giving but also in the responsibilities that fall upon women to remember, to maintain and to keep memories alive.
In subsequent segments, we follow more of the artist’s journey of migration and how she incorporates her own experience to lift survivors but also to mourn those who embarked on a perilous crossing and didn’t make it. Angels and other divine figures hover above—they’re always there as reminders that one is never truly alone. The turquoise and azure saturated section “Extreme Weather” is polyphonic and prefigures the longing encountered in “Roots and Routes,” with the stunning gilded footsteps sculpture, Madonna Pellegrina – La Viajera (2006), which represents all the migrants, all the wanderers and all their dreams.
Crucially, we are left with an impression of a fearless and sensitive artist much ahead of her time. The vibrancy of her colors, the self-affirming and intimate composition of her photographs, her performances and the themes she tackles are eerie, prescient and fresh.
“I am surprising myself with myself,” Campos-Pons tells Observer as she’s surrounded by artworks spanning four decades. She smiles and her face promptly radiates. She keeps that glow as she explains that rather than feeling nostalgic or weighted down by her past work, she’s energized by it. Walking the exhibition space, she already had a new drawing idea in mind.
There would be many individual pieces to highlight in this show that gathers more than 50 works. The curators have incorporated artworks that are potent on their own as well as when approached within broader sub-themes and cross-thematically. They communicate with each other in a malleable language. For instance, the thread that ties Campos-Pons to her family in Umbilical Cord (1991) echoes Freedom Trap (2013) and reveals a duality. The material of a rope can both tie to liberate and nurture, and tie to imprison and starve. Footprints are incorporated in more than one section, suggesting a continuity, a vast semiotic system and reverberating notes playing from a harmonious score.
The creative symbiosis that flowed between the curatorial team and the artist is evident and mutually acknowledged. Campos-Pons credits Hermo for enabling new ways to interpret her work. “She has waved ideas which are so revelatory,” the artist said. (Sidenote: the labels are delightfully written to stimulate additional perspectives.)
Located in the Center for Feminist Art, the show also engages with alternative forms of collaboration and categorization. Campos-Pons uses her body to make a statement, a social critique that also reclaims power and presence. Her work seamlessly deepens Judy Chicago’s historical installation Dinner Party (located in the same space) like an elongated limb or a decolonial arrow, except that Campos-Pons doesn’t fit in the harsh angle of Chicago’s triangle-shaped fête. She’s more of a circle, an ocean, a rope—in movement, always.
“She’s a composer of the people she works with,” Hermo told Observer. Campos-Pons has been an educator and mentor to many younger women artists, supporting their endeavors and watching them grow. She’s also a driving force of contemporary art in Nashville and Tennessee as the consulting curator and ambassador of the 2023 Tennessee Triennial for Contemporary Art.
Campos-Pons’s work is incredibly diverse in form and media yet infused with visceral attention to the living and our spiritual connectedness. It’s vivid and subdued, experimental and ruminative, reflective and daring. Not included in the 2018 Brooklyn Museum show “Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985,” Campos-Pons is now given her due.
“Behold” is about leaning closer, mobilizing all our senses to gaze within ourselves and out to the world, celebrating Afro-Cuban heritage and confronting unaddressed conversations from the vantage point of those who have been historically left out: Black women at large, and more specifically those from the Global South. In her topography of diasporic existence, the artist shows that exiled people inhabit multiple geographies at once. They are here and there, local and global—their peripheries are connectors and very much central.
“Behold” is on view at the Brooklyn Museum through January 14, 2024.