Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons in her studio working on Sugar/Bittersweet, summer 2010.
Elements of Sugar/Bittersweet in the studio of Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, summer 2010.
Photographs by Carolyn Eckert

exhibition overview

“Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons belongs to an important group of
contemporary visual artists who have offered critical readings of
the official history of Cuba and inserted novel visions and previously
ignored figures and events into the dominant narratives of the
nation….They disdain the sweetened fairy tale of a harmonious
national community built on sugar, technology, and slavery. Instead,
they paint, sculpt, engrave, photograph, or perform a fractured,
sweaty Cuba built on lashes, blood, sexual violence, and the unbearable
stench of the slave ships. A Cuba that is still searching for
happiness, a Cuba that is still trying to be.”

Alejandro de la Fuente, Professor of History and Director of Graduate Studies, University of Pittsburgh (from the exhibition catalogue essay “On Sugar, Slavery, and the Pursuit of (Cuban) Happiness”)

The work of Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons addresses the Afro-Cuban diaspora and her exilic identity. A woman of Yoruba ancestry, born in Matanzas, Cuba, Campos-Pons lived as a child with her family in a former slave barracks in the sugar plantation town La Vega. She now lives and works 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 South Pacific origins, spreading from India and the Middle East to the Mediterranean and Africa, sugar cane crossed the ocean to the New World in the late fifteenth century and became 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 simulacrum 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, reference the slaves who worked the sugar cane fields. Roped 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 sugar mills as they became increasingly mechanized. Video components of the installation include an interview with the revered Cuban singer Omara Portuondo of the Buena Vista Social Club.

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.

Linda Muehlig
Associate Director for
Curatorial Affairs,
Curator of Painting and Sculpture