Entangled Genealogies of Women’s Work

By Tao Leigh Goffe

Cuban-born artist María Magdalena Campos-Pons’s oeuvre spans form and media, from sculpture, to photography, to painting, to video, to audio, to collage, to performance. Her work has been featured in high-profile shows, international biennials, and smaller stand-alone, site-specific exhibitions. In each work of art, Campos-Pons beckons the audience to experience her personal history, the history of Cuba, and the trauma and resilience of African enslavement and Chinese indenture, which are both part of her ancestry. Campos-Pons’s prolific artistic production, which began in the 1980s, continues to engage with memory and materiality, the feminine and the resilient.

In many ways, the nine panels of Angel’s Trumpets, Devil’s Bells narrate a story of gestures to different preoccupations within her career. The large-scale installation is at once a look forward and a look backward for Campos-Pons. At first glance, the layered mixed-media collages seem to break from the artist’s more recent photographic self-portraiture. Yet, it is a retrospective in the way it cites former artistic focuses on women, sexuality, and an unapologetic feminist practice.

The spiritual and the ritual are central to Campos-Pons’s work. Such is the significance of including in Angel’s Trumpets, Devil’s Bells the campana, a flower that can only be found in Cuba. Possibly a natural hybrid between D.candida and D. suaveolens, the leaf and the flower are known for their medicinal and purifying properties in Afro-Cuban horticultural knowledge and herbalism. Flowers are a recurring theme in Campos-Pons’s work. While it would be predictable to misinterpret the floral mapping on a woman’s body as essentializing femininity, for Campos-Pons, the campana refers to entangled female genealogies and labors in the African and Cuban diasporas.

Such entanglements include the blending of cosmologies indigenous to Cuba. If the archetypal pillars of womanhood offered in Roman Catholicism are the Virgin Mother, the artist’s namesake Mary Magdalene—the redeemed prostitute (sex worker), and Eve (responsible for Original Sin)—then in the tradition of Santería and other Afro-Cuban religions, Campos-Pons offers Yemaya, the mother of all orishas and the embodiment of the seas and maternity often figured in blue. This orisha’s presence recurs in Angel’s Trumpets, Devil’s Bells through the campana, used as part of orisha worship and rituals. The desiccated and delicate flowers sprout from the head of a black woman and are flattened and preserved on Arches archival paper. Through this figure, we see Campos-Pons’s tangled genealogy between women—sisters, mothers, grandmothers—as umbilical. It is a tangle of braids, of dreadlocks, of threads, and strands knotted, all recurring motifs.

In her naming of the work, the artist employs the dual language of “Angel’s Trumpets” for which it’s known in Cuba, and also labels them as “Devil’s Bells.” Framing the flower as having the power for good or for evil is a matter of orientation and intent for Campos-Pons who hears the music of both instruments. Indeed, the campana conjures a childhood of contradictions for Campos-Pons. Her father was a farmer for most of his life and would collect herbs from the El Monte forest, signifying the centrality of Yoruba cosmologies for the Campos-Pons family even though these rites were not always publicly acknowledged. Though she and her parents were not initiated into Santería, one of Campos-Pons’s grandmothers, who she never met, had been a priestess. One of her great grandmothers migrated from Canton, China to Cuba and labored in sugar mills. Campos-Pons also discovered her childhood home in Matanzas was the former sugar plantation barracks that housed enslaved people, including one of her great grandfathers. Campos-Pons came of age in Communist Cuba when religion was strictly prohibited though practiced behind closed doors. Race equality was declared by the Cuban state and yet African heritage and cultural practice was clearly denigrated and devalued.

 

The nine panels of Angel’s Trumpets, Devil’s Bells are a familiar geometry or grid-like ordering of space in Campos-Pons’s work, signifying separation, segmentation, exile, and cohesion as the poetics of the diasporic condition. One panel features shredded pieces of United States’ Transportation Security Administration (TSA) tape. The government is torn. But it is also salvaged, displayed, and archived. These objects that symbolize the crossing of borders reflect another recurring theme in Campos-Pons’s work—that of longing, of waiting, of the liminal space of migration. She often speaks of her own migration experience of disruption and the impact of embargos in spaces such as airports. In tandem, the border emerges as a space of red tape, bureaucracy, biometrics surveillance, and rupture. Yet it is also a space of becoming—emergency and emergence—for the artist who just last year was naturalized as a U.S. citizen.

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Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons

Angel’s Trumpets, Devil’s Bells (2019)

(Detail) Angel’s Trumpets, Devil’s Bells, 2019. Mixed media on Arches archival paper, 9 panels, 26 x 40 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

 
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The First MLA Cookbook

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Recipe by Daksha Chouhan

Sea of Poppies and the Curry of Diaspora

My mother-in-law, Daksha Chouhan, shared this recipe for Stuffed Aubergine Curry with me. Curry is the colonial entanglement that connects Africa, Asia, and Europe in her culture –Kenyan Indian British—and mine –Afro-Jamaican Chinese British. Daksha learned to cook from her mother who learned a repertoire of generations of Indian recipes in Kenya. In his epic novel of Asian indenture in the shadow of the Opium Wars, Sea of Poppies, Amitav Ghosh telescopes inwards and outwards from the belly of the ship the Ibis. He writes of the urgent intimacy formed amongst the jahaji-bhain, or ship sisters. He writes, “It was astonishing, for example, to discover that in making mango achar, some were accustomed to using fallen fruit while others would use none that were not freshly picked; no less was it surprising to learn that Heeru included heeng among the pickling spices and that Sarju omitted so essential an ingredient as kalonji.” Ghosh gives the reader a sense of the scale of variation for the same dish household, family, and village. What will become of the collective recipe when the women reach a new land with strange fruits?

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Photography

by

Ming Smith

Ming Smith,  Pan Pan Lady (Betty) , Harlem, NY, ca 19xx, 35mm black and white photography, Vintage gelatin silver print, 54 x 40 in. (framed)

Ming Smith, Pan Pan Lady (Betty), Harlem, NY, ca 19xx, 35mm black and white photography, Vintage gelatin silver print, 54 x 40 in. (framed)

Race, Myth, art, and justice

Dress-Up Play

Curatorial writing By Tao Leigh Goffe

I hear the halting footsteps of a lass 

In Negro Harlem when the night lets fall 

Its veil. 

— “Harlem Shadows” (1922), by Claude McKay

 

Drawing with light amongst the shadows of Harlem, Ming Smith presents two women in her portraits Little Lil Kim and Pan Pan Lady (Betty). In one, a little girl who looks to be no more than four years-old is anxious to grow up and in another, a woman, perhaps in her 80s, is poised at a diner counter. One is brimming with the frenzy and vibrancy of youth, the other possesses a patience and stillness that comes with age. They could be the same woman, captured by the camera, suspended in time.

The ethereal veil of Smith’s Harlem in black-and-white tones evokes the surreal style for which the artist is known the artist is known. Playing pretend, the little girl addresses the camera with her sassy gaze, wearing fishnet stockings, a tissue-filled brassiere, and high heels that are too big for her. Smith’s use of hand-tinting adds a delicate accent of yellow oil paint to illuminate the sentimental in the portrait, forming a halo for a little girl playing dress-up like the brazen New York rapper Lil’ Kim.

Adorned in a simple bandana, we meet Betty lost in thought, perhaps in remembrance of a life past, resting her hands on a Harlem diner counter. Which side of the counter? It is unclear. Has the Pan Pan Lady lived a life tending to others? Or, is she taking respite in a soul food meal—fried, baked, or barbecued —as the restaurant sign, partially visible, indicates?

Paired together, the images question the roles allotted for black women, indicting the limiting myths about them. Like the women who wander the streets at night in McKay’s Harlem Renaissance poem, Little Lil Kim and the Pan Pan Lady navigate race, space, and gender between public and private realms. Smith says their names, Lil Kim and Betty, resonating with the collective protest “Say Her Name” where Naming is an act of justice.  The noir texture of the two photographs connects a genealogy of girls playing in the dark and walking with “weary feet,” as McKay wrote, wandering from street to street. 

 Yet, Ming Smith, who understands that Seeing is also an act of justice, frames the tenderness of these everyday of lives, typically unnoticed and unrecorded. She uses light to compose amongst dark shadows. And in the words of Gordon Parks, she “grasps them and gives eternal life to things that might well have been forgotten.”[1]

[1] Maurice Berger, “A Photographer Who Made ‘Ghosts’ Visible,” The New York Times, January 11, 2017.

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Caribbean Syllabus

In response to the lacuna in the European colonial archive of indenture, readers are invited to consider how Caribbean diasporic intellectuals and artists have represented the lived experience of the institution. Reckoning with reparation, repatriation, remittances, and futurity, the figure of the “coolie,” a derogatory term, became synonymous with Asian contract labor. Indenture forms part of the long history of unfree labor that began with seventeenth-century debt peonage from Europe and re-emerged in a new form after abolition when hundreds of thousands of Asians, from British India and China, were imported to perform agricultural labor across the hemisphere. Imagined in the British 1803 ‘Trinidad experiment’ as a solution to the impending crisis of the Haitian Revolution, and as a “racial barrier” between Africans and Europeans, indentured laborers were coerced to sign contracts up to eight years at a time across the British, French, Spanish, Dutch, Danish Caribbean and Latin America. Paid subsistence wages to work in deplorable conditions, many could not afford return passage and were forced to re-indenture. An experience colored by abuse, fugitivity, and suicide, the entanglement of debt, race and labor, also includes smaller waves of indentured African and Javanese migrants who were conscripted into unfree plantation economies after emancipation.

 Key Questions

  • How do the descendants of indenture mourn and mediate the lived experience of the institution and represent its afterlife?

  • In the mosaic of unfree labors that shaped the hemisphere, how do race and language play a role in approaches to analyzing indenture in relation to enslavement and blackbirding?

  • Who is indebted and to whom?

  • In what present forms does debt bondage continue in the Caribbean?