María Magdalena Campos-Pons: Sea and Self

August 20 – December 19, 2021

I come from an island. Continental experiences and borders are so meaningful, and to be surrounded by water is quite a unique and magnificently humbling thing. There is no place to go except to the sea.

- María Magdalena Campos-Pons

This exhibition features work produced by renowned artist María Magdalena Campos-Pons. Born in 1959 in the province of Matanzas, in the town of La Vega, Cuba, Campos-Pons grew up on a sugar plantation and is a descendant of Nigerian slaves, Chinese indentured servants, and Spanish immigrants. She moved to the United States in 1991 in opposition to the repressive Communist regime in Cuba, and she spent many years living and teaching in Boston before moving to Nashville, where she now serves as Cornelius Vanderbilt Endowed Chair of Fine Arts at Vanderbilt University.

Campos-Pons’ artistic output mirrors the complexity of her identity. She has worked in painting, sculpture, photography, performance, and video, and her Afro-Caribbean heritage and experience of living in diaspora profoundly influence her practice. Through deeply poetic and haunting imagery, Campos-Pons uses her personal narrative as the basis for visual storytelling that investigates topics relating to slavery; historical and contemporary migration; religion and spirituality; global circuits of trade; gender, race, and ethnicity; memory; personal and collective identities; and loss, among others.

The works included in this exhibition were created between the late 1990s and the present. The exhibition includes photographs, photographic installations, and a new series of drawings that meditate on the sea. While the water takes different forms in the artist’s work, it is a recurring visual element and constant source of inspiration. The sea looms large in the Caribbean imaginary, and Campos-Pons draws on this rich tradition by using the sea as metaphor and site for exploring the core themes of her practice.

In “The Sea Is History”(1977), Nobel prize-winning poet Derek Walcott explains that for the descendants of African slaves brought to the Caribbean the sea was the keeper of memory. The first stanza reads:

Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?
Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,
in that grey vault. The sea. The sea
has locked them up. The sea is History.

While many Caribbean artists and thinkers regard the sea as a symbol of trauma and entrapment, Campos-Pons offers a more complex reading. Throughout the artist’s career, she has acknowledged the sea not only as a site of loss and memory, but also as a mother and giver that is under threat. In this respect, her work on the sea makes important contributions to art history, to Afro-Caribbean Studies, and to the environmental humanities.

Click here to access a digital interpretive space offering learning resources and exhibition texts and materials in Spanish. There you will find Art Asks prompts that invite you to deepen your understanding of the artist and her work.

Read the gallery guide here

This exhibition was initially conceived by Tatiana Flores, PhD, produced by the Center for Women in the Arts and Humanities at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick, NJ, and exhibited in the Mary H. Dana Women Artists Series Galleries of the Mabel Smith Douglass Library from September to December 2019.

Support for the expanded version of the exhibition at the Haggerty Museum of Art, and for the accompanying public programs and gallery guide is provided by Presenting Sponsor the Lacey Sadoff Foundation.

Additional support is provided by The Greater Milwaukee Foundation Mary L. Nohl Fund and the Emmett J. Doerr Endowment Fund.

Lacey Sadoff Foundation logo      Greater Milwaukee Foundation logo 

Exhibition Objects with Text Panels