During a recent artist's talk at Vanderbilt, Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons said that the umbilical cord is the first line we draw as human beings, and it's also the first line we don't have control over. That small observation — that people have the innate, biological ability to create, but not control, their destinies — is a perfect example of how Campos-Pons approaches her art. She presents something familiar and creates a ritual that gives it a symbolic dimension.
Currently spread across the city, Campos-Pons' work can be seen at The Frist Center — which is exhibiting a trio of installations collectively called Journeys — and Vanderbilt's Fine Art Gallery — where Mama/Reciprocal Energy features brand-new drawings that highlight the more private side of the artist's autobiography.
That autobiography starts in Cuba, where Campos-Pons was born, but can be traced back even further into the African diaspora, where her Nigerian family was part of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. When she moved from Cuba to Boston in 1988, the line she drew across the three countries became tactile through her work, like a string she's pulled behind her that has gathered fragments from each location.
In Campos-Pons' work, heritage is a privilege worth examining, and personal histories are filled with interlocking symbols to decode. The most powerful example on display is at The Frist. Called "Spoken Softly With Mama," it begins with three black wooden stools, each with a stack of white linens piled neatly on top. Embroidered in white thread at the edge of the folded fabric, like the titles on spines of books, are words, mostly Spanish, but a few in English as well: "to her son"; "to her husband"; "to a friend"; "to an unknown." Directly above the stacks, three hidden projectors transfer videos onto the tops of the linen piles, as if each were an upward-facing screen. The first video shows the artist's hands embroidering the linens. In the second, pearls scatter and roll across a wooden surface, herded by the artist's thin hands. The third video shows Campos-Pons folding a white sheet with antique pictures projected onto it, and as she shakes the wrinkles from the linen, the photographs wave across the fabric like wind-shaken flags.
In the main room, seven fabric-covered shapes — vaguely reminiscent of both slave ships and ironing boards — form a semicircle around a crowd of old-fashioned irons cast in glass and placed along the floor. Three of the boards feature videos, and the others show sepia-toned still photographs of women in old-fashioned clothes. There is no hint at who the women are, but their placement in the room insinuates honor, as if they were sages we might approach for guidance.
A series of videos are projected onto the fabric-covered boards in continuous loops, and the longer you sit with the piece, the more the associations between the objects become apparent. For example, the video on the center board shows the artist as she breaks open a pomegranate, nudging each tiny seed out of the fruit with her fingers. The close camera angles are so sensual that you can almost feel the wet seeds, almost taste their juices. In another video, the artist walks toward the camera, the familiar stack of folded linens on her head, with pearls on the ends of each braid in her short hair. Then you move your eyes back to the left, where Campos-Pons sits at a table with a bowl of pomegranates, and it seems like her contemplation over the fruit is the thing that sparked the entire installation, like Proust with his madeleine.
"Spoken Softly With Mama" is a meditative, beautifully presented collection of personally symbolic relics, and the videos move on them like memories flashing inside a brain, putting associations onto ordinary objects. These are no longer stacks of folded sheets, but containers for lessons mothers teach children. The pearls scattering feel like every treasured thing that cannot stay put. The colossal ironing boards and the cast glass irons are symbols of domestic work that have been altered to refuse their intended purpose. Campos-Pons doesn't simply re-create the idea of memory — she subverts it, ritualizes it, fetishizes it, and turns it into something precious. But far from being artistic navel-gazing, the work makes you so acutely aware of the process of remembering that you can't help but examine your own memories and personal totems alongside hers.