Putting On Identity: María-Magdalena Campos-Pons at AEIVA, Birmingham

María Magdalena Campos-Pons, Freedom Trap, 2013 (detail), Polacolor #7 K3 Color Digital Print, 20 by 24 inches.
María Magdalena Campos-Pons, Freedom Trap, 2013 (detail), Polacolor #7 K3 Color Digital Print, 20 by 24 inches.

María Magdalena Campos-Pons is one of the most significant artists to come out of post-Revolutionary Cuba—a judgment supported by the powerful presentation of her recent work at the Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. Titled “Picturing/Performing the Self,” this exhibition encourages viewers to immerse themselves in the sensory richness of Campos-Pons’s practice by exploring the ways in which identity mobilizes itself visually and performatively within and across each work in the gallery. Using a wide variety of media that propose to “re-present” the self through static or moving image (photography, film, and performance), Campos-Pons, who lives and works in Boston, resists the assumption that an image grounds or stabilizes subjecthood and seeks to expose the gaps and fragmentations that structure subjecthood itself.

Born in 1959 in the Matanzas province of Cuba, Campos-Pons creates work that speaks powerfully to her deep familial connections with African slavery, indentured Chinese servitude, and the slave industries and traumas that have shaped her identity geographically and personally. Campos-Pons is eager to give representation to the complex web of experiences, nationalities, and histories that comprise her subjectivity. Her investigation of “the self” remains open-ended and continually evolving, and forces us to ask questions and revise our understanding of the processes that lead to the formation of transnational identity.

María Magdalena Campos-Pons. The Magician’s Tools. 2004. Composition of 15 Polariod Polacolor Pro. Image courtesy of the artist.
María Magdalena Campos-Pons, The Magician’s Tools. 2004; 15 Polaroid Polacolor Pro prints.

Campos-Pons’s employment of a large-format 20×24 Polaroid camera looms large in this exhibition as a tool to showcase the tensions between the totalizing and fragmented nature of self-representation and female subjectivity. This device is put to its most powerful use in the large-scale photographic grids, such as The Magician’s Tools (2004), which features cropped images of hand-built toys and objects made by her son. It foregrounds the poetic beauty of childlike wonder and discovery while the menacing image of herself shrouded in fabric painted with ancient Chinese vases and dragons position her as the mother-wizard, hiding in plain sight, orchestrating the magic from the sidelines.  The work’s intersection of the scientific, the familial, and the metaphysical is continued in My Mother Told Me She Was Chinese, The Painting Lesson, created for the Guangzhou Triennial in 2008. Clothed in traditional Chinese dress that oscillates between resplendent adornment and protective armor, Campos-Pons stands in the center of the composition, fractured across three rows yet unified within the surrounding grid.

Campos-Pons makes another nod to her maternal Chinese heritage by “performing” the cultural traditions that mark and complicate her identity, thus enacting the “beauties and liabilities” of her cross-cultural identity and experience.(1) However, the image is not easy to read. Set within a broken landscape of pen-and-ink drawings of Chinese calligraphy and geometric forms, the poetic references to her mother’s cultural traditions compete with (or are covered by) an aggressive blocked pattern that resembles shattered glass. Represented as neither pattern nor symbol, the tensions between the two kinds of marks—their histories and functions—suggest a possible ambivalence towards claiming an aspect of her identity that remains on the margins, or at least is shadowed by more dominant strains.

María Magdalena Campos-Pons, <i>My Mother Told Me I Was Chinese, The Painting Lesson,</i> 2008; 21 Polaroid Polacolor #7, approximately 7½ by 13 feet.
María Magdalena Campos-Pons, My Mother Told Me I Was Chinese, The Painting Lesson, 2008; 21 Polaroid Polacolor #7, approximately 7½ by 13 feet.

For My Mother Told Me I Am Chinese, China Porcelain (2008)—an installation of 40 hand-painted Chinese porcelain vessels, each fitted into a circular Plexiglas case—Campos-Pons collaborated with her husband, the composer and musician Neil Leonard. The porcelain vessels are accompanied by a projected video of Campos-Pons handling a Yoruba Gelede mask and covering her face in white makeup, and a pulsating soundscape by Leonard. The idyllic motifs on the vases recall the forms of cheap mass-produced pottery that Western tourists purchase when visiting China and remind us of the industries and economies that support East-West power structures; however, upon further investigation, it is clear that each vase is unique, delicately painted with singular scenes that contradict their kitschy associations.(2) Expanding the definition of portraiture using space, film, and sound, the work reifies the artist’s interest in heterogeneity and hybridity by collapsing different forms of sensory data. By performing the concept of a porcelain doll, the artist presents identity as something “put on” as opposed to unthinkingly executed.

María Magdalena Campos-Pons. My Mother Told Me I Was Chinese, Porcelain Doll. 2008. China porcelain, plexi and video stereo sound composed by Neil Leonard. Image courtesy of the artist.
María Magdalena Campos-Pons, My Mother Told Me I Was Chinese, Porcelain Doll, 2008; porcelain, Plexiglas, and video, with sound by Neil Leonard.

I extend a special thanks to Lisa Tamiris Becker, AEIVA’s director and curator of this exhibition, and Chelsea Tucker for their generous help and support in the writing and researching of this article.

1. The New York Times art critic Holland Cotter discusses the “beauties and liabilities” of Campos-Pons’s work in his review of the 2013 exhibition at the Stephan Stoyanov Gallery on New York’s Lower East Side.

2. For more information on Campos-Pons and her exploration of cultural hybridity, see Let Spirit Speak!: Cultural Journeys Through the African Diaspora, ed. Vanessa K. Valdés, New York: SUNY Press, 2012.

“María-Magdalena Campos-Pons: Picturing/Performing the Self” is on view at the University of Alabama-Birmingham’s Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts through August 20.

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