Sugar makes me cry. And the tears are salty and bitter.—Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, 2010
The work of Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons addresses the Afro-Cuban diaspora and her exilic identity as a woman of Yoruba ancestry, born in a former slave barracks in the sugar plantation town La Vega in the province of Matanzas, Cuba, now living and working in Boston.
The exhibition Sugar: Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons features a newly commissioned site-specific installation, Sugar/Bittersweet, with two earlier installations by the artist related to her family’s ties to the sugar industry in Cuba. In many ways, Campos-Pons’s personal history mirrors the so-called sugar triangle, a transatlantic trade route involving European nations and the United States, particularly New England, in the infamous exchange of slaves from Africa for sugar from the Caribbean. From its South Pacific origins, sugar cane spread from India and the Middle East to the Mediterranean and Africa, crossing the ocean to the New World in the late fifteenth century and becoming the agent of human dislocation and tragedy on an epic scale. In the nineteenth century, Cuba’s slave-based plantation economy rose to become a leading sugar producer worldwide.
The artist conceives of Sugar/Bittersweet as a representation of a sugar cane field, with columns of raw sugar disks and cast-glass forms pierced by African spears as visual metaphors for the tall, graceful stalks of the sugar cane plant. The spears, set into African stools, refer to the slaves who worked the sugar cane fields. Roped-together Chinese weights allude to the weighing of the crop after harvest. They also refer to another aspect of the artist’s ancestry: the Chinese indentured laborers who were brought to Cuba to work for the increasingly mechanized sugar mills. Video components of the installation incorporate interviews with individuals from Cuba and other sugar-producing countries.
Sugar/Bittersweet is shown in the context of two other installations by Campos-Pons: History of a People Who Were Not Heroes: A Town Portrait (1994) and Meanwhile the Girls Were Playing (1999–2000). A Town Portrait recasts architectural elements—a domelike fountain, a tower from the sugar factory, a door, and a wall—from La Vega and merges personal family memories with moments of Afro-Cuban history. The tower in the installation is one of several former distillery towers from the now-defunct sugar mill and represents a conflicted landmark for the artist. Meanwhile the Girls Were Playing combines textiles, cast-glass flowers, and video projections of toys, sugar, and cotton candy, intermingling memories of childhood innocence with the fraught legacy of sugar cane.
Taking over the lower level of the Museum, the three installations create a powerful visual and artistic statement of the way in which sugar is inextricably tied to the artist’s personal history, to Cuba’s national identity, and to slavery.