María Magdalena Campos-Pons, the Caribbean artist who advocated for feminism through art in repressive Cuba

María Magdalena Campos-Pons/Photo credit: John Russell/Vanderbilt University/ Clark Art Institute

She gained prominence for her artwork in the late 1980s on female sexuality. María Magdalena Campos-Pons began her career during the emergence of the new Cuban Art movement that started in opposition to the dictatorial nature of the Cuban state.

She interspersed Afro-Cuban sentiments in her art when the artistic movement was redefining the themes it wanted to focus on, according to the Barbara Thumm website. Campos-Pons however dwelled on matters concerning sexuality, the place of women in modern Cuba, and how women were framed in the history of art.

When she started to highlight the issue of feminism, it became the springboard for the future feminist movement in Cuba.

Campos-Pons was born in the province of Matanzas in the town of La Vega in Cuba in 1959. She has a fascinating hybrid ancestry. She was raised on a sugar plantation and is a descendant of enslaved Nigerians, Chinese indentured servants and Spanish immigrants.

She settled in the United States in 1992 at a time when the communist regime in Cuba launched a crackdown campaign on dissenting critics of the government. She lived most of her professional life in Boston before relocating to Nashville, where she started serving as Cornelius Vanderbilt Endowed Chair of Fine Arts at Vanderbilt University.

Campos-Pons’ interests include photography, painting, sculpture, performance and videography. These are the vehicles through which she communicates her themes, focusing sometimes on her Afro-Caribbean heritage and her lived experience in the diaspora.

She highlighted slavery, the migration of Black immigrants, religion and spirituality in her art. Others themes she treated in her work were gender, race, ethnicity personal, and collective identities, among others.

Campos-Pons did an exhibition in the 1990s comprising photographs, photograph installations and artistic works that meditate on the sea, according to Marquette University. Campos-Pons finds inspiration in using water for her visual art and manipulates it in different forms to put her message across. She uses the sea as a metaphor and site for exploring the key themes of her practice, Marquette University said.

Nobel prize-winning poet Derek Walcott in “The Sea Is History” emphasized how the sea is important in the lives of descendants of African slaves shipped to Cuba. The sea is considered by many philosophers and artists in the Caribbean as a symbol of trauma and bondage but Campos-Pons offers a different perspective to this popular opinion. She considers the sea as a place of loss and memory and a mother as well as a giver that is under threat.

In effect, her work on the sea makes important contributions to art history, to Afro-Caribbean Studies, and to the environmental humanities, as stated by Marquette University.

Campos-Pons’ art has been shown at documenta14 in Kassel as well as in Athens, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City; the First Liverpool Biennial; the Dakar Biennale in Senegal; the Venice Biennale; the Johannesburg Biennial; and the Guangzhou Triennial in China, the Thumm website says. Her work is in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution, the Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Gallery of Canada, the Victoria and Albert Museum, The Museum of Fine Arts, the Miami Art Museum and the Fogg Art Museum, the Ludwig Stiftung in Aachen.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: January 25, 2023


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