Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons is an Afro-Cuban multimedia artist, who was born in Cuba to a family with African, Hispanic and Chinese roots and grew up on a sugar plantation. Her artistic practice combines photography, performance art, painting, sculpture, installation, film, and video work, which deals with history, gender, and religion within African and Latin American Diaspora communities. Her work evokes the trans-Atlantic slave trade, sugar plantations, indigo, revolutions, Catholicism, and Santeria beliefs.
Campos-Pons studied at the Escuela National de Arte in Havana between 1976 and 1979. From 1980 on, she attended Havana’s Instituto Superior de Arte where she taught from 1986 to 1989. A professor of painting, she channelled the New Cuban Art movement which opposed Communist repression in her country. Part of this new artistic movement was the introduction of the Afro-Cuban presence. She emigrated to Boston in 1991 and taught at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts. In 2017, she was awarded the Cornelius Vanderbilt Endowed Chair of Fine Arts at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee where she now lives. At Vanderbilt she co-founded the non-profit Engine for Art Democracy and Justice.
Campos-Pons early work consisted of separate canvases, which suggested the fragmentation of women and referenced Afro-Cuban myths. The rituals of the Santeria tradition became a theme in her work and her installations. In 1994, her work became ethnographic as she examined her ancestors’ relationship to slavery and to the sugar industry. Her large-format, polaroid photographs were often arranged into triptychs or other configurations. In the early 2000s, her work returned to abstraction and minimalism.
In her 2015 large-scale Polaroid mosaic, “Finding Balance,” she wears a theatrical replica of a Chinese emperor’s robes, based on robes she saw at the Museum of Archeology near the Piazza San Marco during the Venice Biennale. On her head is an elegant, crown-like birdcage, reminiscent of a Yoruba headdress. Her costume references merchant life from China, Africa, and Europe where traders exchanged goods at the Venetian plaza. There is a grid of angular lines crossing over the work, which acts as a balance like the scales of justice. Pink and blue pom-poms, also found in other works of hers, act as counters for the imaginary miles covered by those traveling from Cuba to China, Africa, Europe, and beyond. She has won more than 15 fellowships, awards, grants, and prizes, the last one being the Perez Prize in 2021.
Campos-Pons work was exhibited at the Los Angeles’s California African American Museum (CAAM) in 2018. She has had solo exhibitions at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Peabody Essex Museum, and National Gallery of Canada. She has participated in the Venice Biennale, the Dakar Biennale, and Documenta 14 and was included in Los Angeles’s “Pacific Standard Time.” Her works have also been exhibited in Japan, France, Italy, and Cuba.
Her performance art usually unfolds as processionals and rituals, often including women. She has participated in more than 30 performance art exhibitions, including performances at the Guggenheim Museum and Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.
Her works are in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, Art Institute of Chicago, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, Fogg Art Museum, Miami’s Perez Art Museum, and others.