María Magdalena Campos-Pons: Charting Global Black Diasporic Geographies

The retrospective spans four decades, showcasing the Cuban artist’s multidisciplinary artistry. The six-gallery show delves into sociopolitical commentary, emphasizing Afro-Cuban religiosity, collective grief in the U.S., and lesser-known aspects of the African diaspora, such as Asian indentureship and Black migrant communities.

Behold, installed at the Brooklyn Museum in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, begins in the overlook with one of Campos-Pons’ works from the 1990s, Spoken Softly with Mama (1998). In the video installation, photographs of the women in the Campos-Pons family and videos of the artist project onto seven ironing boards. Assembled before them, in a centrifugal pattern, are glass pâte de verre irons that allude to household objects used by the women who worked as domestic helpers. In creating an altar-like space to honor the invisibilized care labor of the women in her family, Campos-Pons pays tribute to the labor that Black women perform in the domestic spaces of others—a practice that scholar Saidiya Hartman names as one of the afterlives of slavery. From the outset, the exhibition teaches us to closely look at and listen to the art. Intimate details depict the quiet dignity of everyday Black life: the sounds of manual labor, the voice of the artist singing a lullaby, the women’s names handstitched onto the ironing boards in white thread, barely perceptible.

The exhibition unfolds across six successive galleries. This organization of space draws out sociopolitical commentary around issues of race and migration while developing the interrelated themes of gender, memory, and religion throughout Campos-Pons’ oeuvre, highlighting connections that may be missed in a chronological overview of her work. The first gallery, “The Calling,” emphasizes the centrality of Afro-Cuban religiosity in the artist’s upbringing and for Afro-Cuban communities as conveyers of cultural memory. Saturated blue and red hues evoke the Santería Orishas Yemayá and Elegguá, respectively, and the importance of water and the crossroads in Afro-diasporic subject formation. “Voyeurs and Beholders” utilizes the witnessing “eye” motif to evoke collective grief and mark the precarity of Black life in the United States, where Campos-Pons, now based in Nashville, Tennessee, has resided since the 1990s. Open eyes gaze back at us in the triptych painting butterfly eyes (For Breonna) (2021), where an exuberant scene of blooming flowers memorializes the life of Breonna Taylor and the vital energy of the Global Movement for Black Lives.

“Picturing Labor” opens up a conversation with a lesser-known intersection within the African diaspora: Asian indentureship, a substitute form of coerced labor used in plantations across the Caribbean after the abolition of slavery. Campos-Pons, whose Chinese ancestors came to Cuba in the 19th century to work as indentured laborers, explores her own Asian lineage in works such as The Flag Year 13. Color Code Venice (2013), a photographic reproduction from an unannounced performance at the 2013 Venice Biennale. In the multipaneled Polaroid composition, the artist stands resplendent in a Chinese emperor’s gown and a gold birdcage crown, face caked in cascarilla, an eggshell-derived paste used in Santería rituals. “Extreme Weather” expands on contemporary contentions with slavery’s legacies, drawing on scholar Christina Sharpe’s theorization of anti-Blackness as a pervasive climate to make new connections between Campos-Pons’ work and current debates around race and the environment.

“Picturing Labor” and “Roots & Routes” both contain a body of work from 2006, Sono Qui [I am here], presented here in the United States for the first time. The artist produced these works during a stint living in Padua, Italy, where she interacted with local African migrant communities. In Invocazione alla Questura—Rita of Nigeria (2006), Campos-Pons creates a portrait of Rita, a Nigerian woman she met in a police station. According to the artist, both women were there to work on the legalization of their status as Black women in Italy. The title of the work recalls this personal encounter which occurred in a detention space during the artist’s travels, standing in stark juxtaposition to the use of scraps of found materials such as fabric, sandwich wrappers, and gold leaf that allude to travel as a mode of leisure and consumption. Campos-Pons covers Rita’s face with a layer of gold and ruby beads, giving her the protection of anonymity through a delicate gesture of beauty. In another work, Il pane è vita. Zucchero and company are good (2006), Campos-Pons collages bread wrappers with bootleg CD covers and portraits of Nigerian street vendors, in reference to the many migrants who, deprived of other work opportunities, turn to counterfeit economies. The vendors’ faces are either covered or overlaid with silver-leaf; sometimes we only see their figures evoked as black shadowy silhouettes. The artist’s representation of these migrants flits between invisibility and visibility, showing how those who occupy the margins of society are not often seen in their full humanity. Campos-Pons names women like Rita to challenge their dehumanization and decry how the experience of Black migration in the Mediterranean is marked by criminalization and incarceration, issues that affect Black diasporas globally. Yet through art, Campos-Pons sheds light on the everyday survival strategies of Black migrant communities.

The final gallery, “Process & Performance,” is a bit tucked away, and gives viewers a glimpse into the artist’s site-specific performance work, which has evolved over the decades to encompass large-scale collaborative and participatory public processional performances, many of which engage in institutional critique of the art world’s exclusions. A challenge is exhibiting these fleeting and immaterial interventions which are often unannounced and performed in impromptu and improvisational contexts. Videos of Habla la madre (2014) and When We Gather (2021), as well as a visual reproduction on wall vinyl of a processional performance by the artist at the 2012 Havana Biennial, briefly illuminate the political potential of Campos-Pons’ work at the intersection of art and social practice. These works instill in us the promise of joining her in participation at a future performance.

María Magdalena Campos-Pons: Behold, ran from September 15, 2023 through to January 14, 2024 at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York, USA. It will be on view across the USA at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University from February 15- June 9, 2024, the Frist Art Museum from September 27, 2024- January 5, 2025, and travel to the J. Paul Getty Museum from February 11- May 4, 2025.

Lee Xie is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Spanish & Portuguese at New York University. She researches and writes on feminist aesthetic practices in contemporary art and culture. She is currently completing a dissertation on reparative memories of Chinese diasporas in Latin America and the Caribbean.