For Afro Cuban artist, an island of treasures


‘Island Treasures’ by Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons. (Courtesy Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons)
October 14, 2011

Is it possible to find beauty in the shadow of slavery? The calming, muted colors and open, upturned palms of “Island Treasures” seem to indicate yes.

Afro Cuban artist Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons conceived of her photographic triptych “Island Treasures” after a visit to Goree, a small island off the coast of Dakar, Senegal, known infamously for its role as a processing station in the Atlantic slave trade. The central image shows outstretched hands holding a smattering of small items found on the isle.

Campos-Pons is one of nine artists featured by Strathmore Fine Art in the photographic exhibit “Building Bridges, Not Fences.” Although the show is heavy on the technical and conceptual aspects of photography, it keeps a special focus on how photojournalism shapes the images of different cultures. The exhibition includes other Cuban, as well as Israeli, photographers.

The artist, 52, first came to the United States in 1988 as a graduate student at Massachusetts College of Art. She was awarded a fellowship at Radcliffe College at Harvard University in 1993. Married to composer and saxophonist Neil Leonard, who teaches at Berklee College of Music, Campos-Pons is a permanent U.S. resident.

She talks about her beginnings in Cuba and the journey she made to create this large-format Polaroid piece:


Artist Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons. (Neil Leonard)

“I grew up on a small farm called La Vega near the town of Manguito. La Vega was a former sugar plantation, and in my early childhood it was still a sugar farm and port. It was a very small town where everyone knew everybody’s name and life. There was scarcity, I imagine, in the early years after Castro took power, but that did not stop the town from keeping up its tradition of the Bembes celebrations of African deities.

“Many, many people would travel to La Vega from far away to participate in the two major African elders’ celebrations — at the home of Gloria and the home of Nengo. . . .

“Gloria was an iyalocha, a Yoruba priestess. She worshiped one deity. A specific celebration is held on the deity’s birthday and many people pay their respect. Nengo was a babalawo [a high priest], a man with great authority and highly respected. . . .

“As you can see, it was a long path from La Vega to Cambridge.

“I went to Goree in 2004, doing research for a piece after I was invited to represent the U.S. at the Dakar Biennale [of African Contemporary Art]. I was overwhelmed by all I know Goree represents, historically and geographically, and I was thinking that one of my ancestors some way, somehow was here once — and I am the first one since the Atlantic crossing who had set foot here.

“I cried a lot on that island. It was a very strong, body-felt experience in relation to that site and its meaning.

“And I did not want just to take souvenirs, so I collected . . . those little shells and glass and stones and dust and the toothpicks [or chewing sticks] that every islander seems to use. But I liked that there was that little bundle of individual things together, and I found them hard to separate. When I left Goree, I did not know yet what the piece would be, but once back home I wanted to structure it as an offering to the viewer and to invisible energies.”

From Goree to the shores of Cuba resides a big chapter of the Middle Passage narrative. “The Atlantic is a basin of delights and horrors in the Black Experience in the Americas: a vast space of contradictions, a confluence of opposite currents — metaphorical and factual — in the Caribbean.

“Every visitor will read the work differently. . . . The piece is not only an attempt at preventing us from forgetting important moments of the path, particularly moments of violations of our rights and souls, because we tend to forget; but also it is playful, it is about going out there in your journey and returning with a small gathering of the things that matter to you.

“It could be the most insignificant of things at first sight, but they might contain a wealth of your history, your selfhood and your determination to be included, counted and written into the present on your own terms. So you are inscribing and mapping your future.”

Building Bridges, Not Fences

is on view in the Mansion at Strathmore until Nov. 5. 10701 Rockville Pike, North Bethesda, strathmore.org or call 301-581-5100.

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