By Daniel Reskin
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In an arresting series of six photographs at the Bass Museum of Art, María Magdalena Campos-Pons confronts us with her eyes closed and her face and chest encased in wax.
The phrase "Identity Could Be a Tragedy" is carved into the opaque coating that mottles her dark skin.
At first blush, the images seem to be the same, but the artist begins dissolving before our eyes as she grows increasingly fainter in the final frames. She horse-collars us to squint into the glare of the past for a glimpse of her roots before they're gone.
It is one of 17 of the artist's major works in "María Magdalena Campos-Pons: Everything Is Separated by Water," the first in-depth view of her career. The show features mixed-media installations and large-format Polaroid photographs created between 1990 and 2005, and navigates themes of diaspora, gender, and race.
The retrospective, first staged at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, has been cleaved by half, owing to space restrictions at the Bass.
The Afro-Cuban artist was born in 1959 and grew up in La Vega, a small sugar plantation town. She was among the first generation of Cuban children educated after the Cuban Revolution and a beneficiary of its new art education system.
Campos-Pons attended Havana's National School of Art in the early Eighties and emerged as one of the island's top talents. By the end of that decade, she had earned international recognition for her works dealing with female sexuality.
Since moving to Boston in 1991, the artist has become known for powerful biographical works that explore her African heritage, expatriation from Cuba, and life as an Afro-Cuban woman living in the United States.
In Umbilical Cord, a 1991 mixed-media installation made of marble, carved wood, wire, fabric, soil, and color photo prints, Campos-Pons balances the amputation from her loved ones with the intergenerational bond between female relatives. The artist asked her mother and sisters to take specific photos of themselves and other female family members in Cuba and then send them to her. At the top of the composition is a portrait of Campos-Pons's maternal grandmother. Photos of the abdomens and left arms of the artist's mother, sisters, and nieces appear in a trail linked by wire to a picture of Campos-Pons herself, while the women's corresponding names are affixed to the wall beneath them. The relatives' bare bellies boast white crosses symbolic of the Middle Passage; the artist's midriff is covered in small footprints that mark her as the sole emigrant of the bunch.
Another striking piece, equally fecund with ideas about family and nurturing, is When I Am Not Here/Estoy Allá, a large Polaroid photo from 1994. It depicts the artist, captured nude from neck to waist and facing the camera. She is coated in deep blue paint, the color symbolic of Yemaya, the Afro-Cuban goddess of the ocean and maternity. White waves cover Campos-Pons's azure torso as she holds up a carved wooden boat like an offering. Hanging from her neck and resting atop her nipples are two baby bottles seeping milk into the ship's empty hull. The image is pregnant with a sense of protection and longing, conveying how Santería has shaped her Cuban identity.
Isolated in a room near the exhibit's entrance, The Seven Powers Came by the Sea is an early installation in which Campos-Pons first began exploring Santería, which combines Catholicism with the beliefs of the West African Yoruba.
Created in 1991, it was Campos-Pons's first major work examining the relationship between Africa and Cuba. Wall text for the piece informs that over three and a half centuries a million African slaves were brought to the island to work at colonial plantations, the majority arriving in the mid-1800s.
The mixed-media installation consists of seven human-scale wooden boat-shaped carvings that lean against the room's walls like coffin lids. Each has the name of a Yoruba deity, or orisha, carved at the base, and their surfaces are crammed with the figures of scores of African men, women, and children derived from slave ship deck plans. Campos-Pons knifes the slave trade's cruelty, leaving spectators wishing for smelling salts.
In a room nearby, rhythmic drumbeats, cawing birds, aromatic scents, and the clop-clop-clop of horse hooves lure viewers into the magical environment of the curandero, or spiritual healer.
The Herbalist's Tools (1994), retreads Campos-Pons's childhood outings with her father to the forest, where he gathered plants for their spiritual powers and where Osain, the orisha of herbs and healing, doled out natural medicine to mankind. Before entering this secretive god's domain, you had to knock loudly on a tree trunk and ask for permission, or risk his wrath.
Campos-Pons uses sound, smell, and sight to transport her audience into an engrossing environment. The gallery walls are painted a mossy green and are sumptuously thicketed with black line drawings of leaves and trees. Scattered throughout the space are fresh herbs atop footstools covered with wax-dipped photocopies of plants. Three carved wooden columns rising from the center of the gallery reference Santería's sacred trees. Each sits on an island of cornmeal and houses an aluminum casserole pan tucked into a niche the artist carved into the trunk's base. The pans are reminiscent of the iron calderos, or cauldrons, used by santeros for spiritual offerings and which the artist's mother often used herself.