Gatherings: María Magdalena Campos-Pons and the Art of Recovery

Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert | Vassar College


Stepping into María Magdalena Campos-Pons and Neil Leonard’s multimedia installation 53+1=54+1=55/Letter of the Year­—displayed as part of the collective Cuban Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale—was like walking into a busy Havana neighborhood, entering a space of myriad sensory experiences, carefully articulated through sound, images, lighting, video, and (unexpectedly, in the case of the Venice Biennale) the looming busts of numerous Roman emperors. Campos-Pons’s collaboration with Leonard, her husband and a professor of music at Berklee College, followed earlier works in which he had enfolded her art installations within imaginative sound works, most notably in Authentic/Ex-centric: African in and Out of Africa at the 49th Venice Biennale (2001). In 53+1=54+1=55/Letter of the Year­, the metaphorical architecture of the birdcage, composed of approximately sixty wicker birdcages systematically attached and consciously connected to one another, allowed for a fragmentary reconstruction of the Havana neighborhood where the artists had lived a couple of decades earlier. The cages were both vessels of containment for domestic lives and concatenated accumulations of the collective everydayness that marks small urban neighborhoods in Havana. The installation allowed the Cuban-born Campos-Pons to address both the vitality of urban life in Havana—expressed vividly through the multiple narratives captured in the videos playing inside the cages—and the limits to freedom and dreams that the cages represented.

At the 2013 Venice Biennale, which was organized around the principle of The Encyclopedic Palace, the installation was housed in the Emperors’ Room in the Piazza San Marco’s Archeology Museum. The work was displayed in a museum gallery with classically proportioned spaces and its usual exhibit of classical sculptures (busts of emperors, primarily) left in place. The hard, acoustically “bright” floors and walls, along with the sparkling neo-classical decorative architectural elements, placed the piece in precarious and dynamic balance with its setting. Its soundscape played against a meaningfully reverberant and acoustically brilliant sonic space, while the artisanal simplicity of the cages contrasted with the elegant decorative visual environment. The discrete electrical lighting, coming primarily from wall sconces, was enhanced by the indirect light coming through the windows, which opened onto the grand historical space of the Piazza San Marco. The multi-sourced sounds resonated off hard surfaces, merging and multiplying, as they would in a narrow street. The museum’s architecture provided a backdrop of wrought, neoclassical decoration and classical art that cradled the installation and echoed the past, emphasizing the simplicity of material and craft embodied in the installation’s various components. The contrast was striking, the effect compellingly whimsical, yet strong, thanks to the layers of temporal significance and varying registers of cultural reference and meaning.

The artisanal quality and natural wicker of the dominant installation element—the birdcages tied together in an organized neighborly and cacophonous “gathering”—presented a deep contrast to the angled formality of the gallery and the marble solidity of its imperial occupants. Through the artist’s conceptual framework and their occupation of the space, the handcrafted birdcages were displayed as equals alongside the marble busts of Roman emperors. Arranged in two groups so as to create a street-like central space, the stacked birdcages were finished with solid bases, on many of which rested colorful balls of yarn or string, suggesting the skeins of life, the materials through which lives are woven together. The majority of these balls of yarn were coiled or wrapped, appearing inert. However, in selected instances, the balls were uncoiled, with the strands wandering within their own caged space and, in some cases, wandering across the boundary into other spaces, occasionally attaching themselves onto items belonging to them. Set against the architectural and static composition of “cages,” the connections were contrastingly random and unpredictable; some of the connections linking the cages had greater weight than others, suggesting indeterminate connections of varying intensity. The skeins echoed the narratives emanating from the video screens that occupied the center of some of the birdcages, replacing the birds that would be their natural inhabitants. These narratives also weaved their way out of the cages, suggesting a freedom to escape their boundaries, joining other narratives and establishing the connections needed to form a community.

Emanating from selected cages were sounds and images: discrete sounds emerging from each individual speaker, and discrete visual narratives projected from individual small video screens. The predominance of women’s and children’s voices produced a distinctly domestic ambiance, and, with multiple sources at low levels, the cumulative sonic effect was intense and highly spatial, creating a street scene soundscape from which the noises of daily life called up memories of the past in most any city. The past was strongly suggested by a notable lack of vehicular or other motorized noises. There were no engines, horns, or mechanical sounds. While this absence captured the past in many cities, it alluded specifically to the present in Havana, where vehicles are in shorter supply than in most urban areas, particularly in the gorge-like depths of the centuries-old streets of the old city, which has remained mostly untouched since the early-20th century. The sounds brought to mind the experience of walking in the late afternoon through the very narrow, nearly alley-width streets of colonial Havana, deeply rich with visual and sonic urban life.

Chief among these voices joining the space’s cacophony was that of Havana’s street criers, vendors who traverse the streets of the city hawking merchandise, chiefly food—from pork cracklings and peanuts in paper cones to sandwiches, deep-fried plantain chips, and fruit juices. They work their chosen neighborhoods daily, alerting customers of their arrival through characteristic sounds—whistles, harmonicas, bicycle bells, and other distinctive cries­­­–all captured in the exhibit’s soundscape. Reminiscent of the peddlers of decades ago, they created an “antiphonal map” which, as a critic has proposed was “suggestive of innovations carried out in Basilica San Marco, directly across form the Cuban pavilion, where 16th century composers began using site-specific placement of instruments and voices in their musical scores for the first time in Europe” (“About the Artists”). This antiphony, a call-and-response style of singing, was evoked in the interactions between street peddlers and clients implied by the soundscape. In turn, these were suggestive of the growing social and economic openness represented by Cuba’s informal economy, to which the street criers belong and which provides valued services outside of the state’s strict entrepreneurial controls. In 53+1=54+1=55/Letter of the Year­, Campos-Pons and Leonard incorporated some of the street crier elements they had developed for Llegooo! FeFa, an installation at the 11th Havana Biennial in 2012, as well as from a project by Leonard called Pan Verdadero (True Bread), which consists of video clips of Havana street vendors whose voices create “a haunting, rhythmic, chantlike score, secular spiritual music for a New World” (Cotter 2013). In an interview with Clelia Coussonnet for the Uprising Art blog, Campos-Pons spoke of the use of the street criers in the project installed in Havana: “It is very interesting to see how in the urban space, they create an element ‘of opera’ taking place in the street. If you follow the voice of the town crier, you make out the continuity of his rhythm, a kind of circularity appears, approaches and leaves again. This movement is musical but also ephemeral, as if it was in transit” (Coussonnet 2012).

These fluid interactions, which sought, like the skeins of wool, to transcend the strictures of cages and other official mechanisms of control, also pervaded the video images. Reflecting the soundscape, they were perceived simultaneously as a flickering, slowly moving mass. Yet the discrete images—mostly of women, among them the artist herself—took turns engaging the viewer: first one, then another, and another. This dynamic attention shifting, along with the multiple sound and image sources perceptually in motion through the space, elaborately combined to evoke a street scene. The videos were another element incorporated from the earlier installation for the Havana Biennial, as well as from a 1999 video installation, Not Just Another Day, that showed images of Campos-Pons with heavily white-powdered features. In the interview with Coussonnet, Campos-Pons described them as “interviews we made with the families from poor districts, where people talk about important things for Cuba,” and which were meant to provide a narrative to play against the “background poetic music” of the street criers, giving “another dimension to the artwork” (Cloussonnet 2012). As they blended into the installation, they emerged as sounds of everyday urban domestic life—as the cacophony of random people of varying ages and genders, conversing, calling, communicating, and hoping. Their stories underscored their hopes for the future, their struggles for survival, and their uneasy negotiations with the Cuban economic system. The overall impact was that domestic lives flowed in and out of each other, in a seemingly random way, adding to a collective portrait of urban everydayness that energized the public spaces of a dense urban neighborhood. While most of the elements of the installation were static, the moving images and the temporal motion of sound from source to source imparted a sense of motion, suggesting a condition of flux and indeterminacy.

In this fragmentary portrait of an urban neighborhood, Campos-Pons returned to preoccupations with the reconstruction of communities that she had addressed in early works like Growing Up in a Slave Barrack: A Town Portrait (1994), where she sought to reflect “on the importance of public space in the configuration of memory and personal narrative” in her home town of Matanzas (Martín-Sevillano 146). Concerned with the central role race and forced labor have played in Cuban history and culture, 53+1=54+1=55/Letter of the Year­ evoked race and its complexities through both the choice of interviewees and the nature of the stories they tell. Above all, race is addressed in the repeated videos of Campos-Pons herself, her white-powdered face a reminder both of the history and legacy of slave labor in the Caribbean. This legacy is underscored by the direct allusion to Santería in the title of the project: 53+1=54+1=55/Letter of the Year­. The “Letter of the Year” is drawn by babalawos (Santería priests) through divination in the hours between the evening of December 29 and the morning of January 1. Based on a skilled interpretation of the teachings of the Odu, the sacred narratives of Orula, the master diviner, it is meant to guide practitioners of the Regla de Ocha (as Santería is known to its practitioners) during the coming year. The allusion to the “Letter of the Year,” which links the concept behind the art installation to the importance of Santería as a guiding force in the urban communities partially reconstructed in the project, was underscored by Campos-Pons during an unannounced performance at the Piazza San Marco that preceded the opening of the Cuban pavilion in Venice. Dressed in an elaborate costume that combined Chinese, Spanish, and Afro-Caribbean elements with a birdcage-like headdress, she was accompanied by Los Hermanos Arango, a band of Cuban musicians dressed as angels, with whom she performed call-and-response Yoruba chants and Abakuá dances. The Abakuá is an African-derived confraternity and magicoreligious esoteric society that is (ironically) closed to women. Their public presence is established only through the Abakuá dance, performed on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany, and by their elaborate costumes, echoed in Campos-Pons’s sumptuously syncretic dress.

Campos-Pons’s performance of the Abakuá dance as the means of ushering in the opening of the Cuban Pavilion at the 2013 Biennale pointed to the importance of epiphanies in 53+1=54+1=55/Letter of the Year­. Both the reference to the “Letter of the Year” itself, with its focus on seeking a path to the future through consulting the Santería orishas through divination, and the association of the Abakuá dance with the Feast of the Epiphany, which proclaims the manifestation of Jesus to the world as the son of God, stressed the installation’s hopeful approach to issues of freedom and boundaries. In 53+1=54+1=55/Letter of the Year­ this hopefulness was conveyed through the fragility of forms of containment that could easily give in to resistance and through the uncontainable energy and spirit of the narratives and the voices joining as a community. In this work, as Campos-Pons has explained, she saw the videos “as a little luminous force trying to break the entrapment of the cage” and the architecture of the multiple birdcages as a village, as “a series of islands” (Sloat). Its construction suggested correspondences to the lives of captured birds in birdcages—quaint, protected, bright and noisy, yet ultimately vulnerable and not free. But this birdcage village, in its fragmentation, suggests sturdiness and continuities, a vertical village of collapsing boundaries growing under the watchful gaze of ancient emperors.

Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert is Professor of Caribbean culture and literature on the Randolph Distinguished Professor Chair at Vassar College. She is the author of Phyllis Shand Allfrey: A Caribbean Life (1996), Jamaica Kincaid: A Critical Companion (1999), Creole Religions of the Caribbean (2003, with Margarite Fernández Olmos), Literatures of the Caribbean (2008), and the forthcoming Extinctions: History, Biodiversity, and the Narratives of the Caribbean. She is at work on Troubled Sea: Art and Ecology in the Caribbean.

Works Cited

“About the Artists: María Magdalena Campos-Pons and Neil Leonard.” 2013. Artsy. 26 May. . Accessed on 4 November 2014.

Cotter, Holland. 2013. “María Magdalena Campos-Pons and Neil Leonard.” The New York Times Art News. 27 September. Accessed on 4 November 2014.

Coussonnet, Clelia. 2012. “Exclusive Interview: María Magdalena Campos-Pons & Neil Leonard.” Uprising Art: Contemporary Caribbean Art. 7 June. Accessed on 11 November 2014.

Martín-Sevillano, Ana Belén. 2011. “Crisscrossing Gender, Ethnicity, and Race: African Religious Legacy in Cuban Contemporary Women’s Art.” Cuban Studies 42: 136-154.

Sloat, Ben. 2013.  “Interview with Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons.” BR&S. Accessed on 7 November 2014.