María Magdalena Campos-Pons. Secrets of the Magnolia Tree. 2021. Mixed media, archival digital inkjet prints, watercolor, ink, gouache, gum arabic, and Magnolia pollen on Rives BFK archival paper; unframed, approx. 132.75 × 90" (337 × 229 cm) overall. Courtesy of Gallery Wendi Norris

María Magdalena Campos-Pons marshals myriad forms and experiences to evoke the many memories, intimacies, and subjectivities that make up the African Diaspora. A pillar of Cuban art since the 1980s, her ongoing series of works on paper consists of an expanding congregation of human-owl figures—mature women of majesty and wisdom. MoMA, with support from the Latin American and Caribbean Fund and Ronnie Heyman, recently acquired Campos-Pons’s 2021 self-portrait Secrets of the Magnolia Tree. Extending the Cisneros Institute’s ongoing engagement with art and the environment in contemporary Latin America, I spoke with Campos-Pons earlier this year about her painting. Our conversation touched on the multiple years and works embedded in its making, the relationship between the body and land, the pains and powers of Black women, and the possibilities that live within the indeterminate spaces between artistic forms.

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Oluremi C. Onabanjo: How did Secrets of the Magnolia Tree emerge for you?

María Magdalena Campos-Pons: My work is always informed by geography and the implications of geography. This means nature, land, and everything that comes with it, particularly the formation of self. In my case, the formation of me, the artist, a woman who is no longer a younger woman. Secrets of the Magnolia Tree is an attempt to clearly understand how geography and nature mark the body, and the relationship between them. After four years of living in Nashville, this piece marks for me the first time that I am able to touch something about being here. I cannot say it with clarity, I cannot say the dimension, but I felt myself grounded in the making of the piece.

The area where my studio is located—at Vanderbilt University—is in the center of a botanical garden. It’s an arboretum. Every single plant in this place is staged and cared for in a construction of a narrative of the history of this land. My own history of coming out of a farm in Cuba carries a sense that I belong close to nature. When I walk in the garden, totally enchanted by the beauty of Vanderbilt and the trees and the nature that are here, in the back of my mind I also meditate on the history of horrors that natural beauty carries in the South.

So perhaps we can see Secrets of the Magnolia Tree as a poetic rumination, but also a trenchant critique.

Yes, it’s an open statement about “if these trees could talk….” If this tree could start summoning and letting out the pain that the beauty holds. Of course, I don’t hold just the land that is in Vanderbilt accountable. I am using the reference of the Magnolia tree as a signifier of this mysterious beauty of the South. Magnolias are magnificent in so many ways.

María Magdalena Campos-Pons. Initiation Rite/Sacred Bath (sometimes referred to as Baño Sagrado). 1991

María Magdalena Campos-Pons. Initiation Rite/Sacred Bath (sometimes referred to as Baño Sagrado). 1991

I’m sure it’s overwhelming, mining those roots.

This body of work stems from a project called Because the human body is a tree, which was a performance in 1990 at Powerhouse Gallery in Montreal. For me it was about this idea that the body could exist and see itself through nature, and that nature expresses itself through the body. It came from my engagement with Yoruba spiritual and philosophical systems.

Prior to that, I had completed a piece called The Truth Doesn’t Kill You (La Verdad No Mata). The title comes from a Yoruba proverb. In that piece, three silhouettes of my body were cut from three different shades of wood: one very dark, one very light, and one mid-toned. All ranges of skin tone, but different wood. With The Truth Doesn’t Kill You, I took the opportunity to shape new beginnings, it’s this same conversation about nature and body.

So when I arrived in Tennessee, this idea, this metaphor, that had been present for such a long time in my work turned into a reflection about the body and its history, here on the grounds of lynching history. I am back in this rumination about history, so I am thinking too, on this spiritual level of the the bodies of women, and also the construction of women as spiritual forces.

María Magdalena Campos-Pons. The Truth Doesn’t Kill You (La Verdad No Mata). 1991

María Magdalena Campos-Pons. The Truth Doesn’t Kill You (La Verdad No Mata). 1991

María Magdalena Campos-Pons. Nesting II. 2000

María Magdalena Campos-Pons. Nesting II. 2000

So here we arrive at the figure of the owl, and why your subject in Secrets of the Magnolia Tree takes on a form that resembles both this bird, and a human—specifically, you.

There have been owls in my world since I was a baby. I remember waking up in the middle of the night when I was very young to the sight of an owl in the window. It was just standing there, and it’s an image that never abandoned me. Owls don’t come that close to people usually. But always when I think of them, they appear. Not as metaphor, but as physical beings.

Would you say they haunt you in a way?

I would say that they accompany me. They indicate how to look, or how to feel. They are the unseen but all-seeing witnesses in the forests. For me, Secrets of the Magnolia Tree is almost like an open window, to look in and to see the presence of these forces. Forces of good, forces of redemption, with the power and energy to unveil, to reveal. That is why I went with the expansive size for the work. By the way, the whole time I was working on the piece, I never saw it standing. I did the piece in my studio, which isn’t very big, so I just worked on the floor.

Oh, that’s fascinating. So you haven’t shared physical space with the work while all three paintings have been upright.

Yes, and as a result I’ve always imagined the piece in a funny way. Because she’s crouching in the image. So if she decides to stand up, she’d be three times that size. But I am interested as much in the miniature as in the gigantic. Literally, you need to use a ladder to get very close to the top of her head and look at her hair, but when you get there, every strand has been painted—one by one. This was hours and hours of very delicate rendering. The idea was that at a middle distance you can still kind of get engaged with that forest of her tresses. The white hair is like grass growing, but of course the horizon for the human view is at her knees!

Secrets of the Magnolia Tree is an homage to the nurturing role of women, and Black women, in the world.

María Magdalena Campos-Pons

Truly, we are all dwarfed by her.

Yes, these are useful metaphors for me, these questions about size and scale. In my video Initiation Rite / Sacred Bath, there are many points of relation between the body and nature. In one fragment of that piece, it’s all about the parallels between the braiding of hair and the preparation of something to be planted. It was important for me to say that “we are the same thing,” somos la misma cosa. When I refer to that, I feel us, the body, nature in any form—water, soil, feathers, skin, bones, flesh. We are the same thing. So Secrets of the Magnolia Tree has helped me to ground myself here in trying to be my own kind of geography.

In thinking about the body as part of nature, constituting the identity through metaphor, could you share how you are working across different forms to create this piece? What kinds of decisions are you making across photography, drawing, painting?

In these drawings, the material is the plant, and then I preserve it with a layer of acrylic-based medium gel, which is compatible with paper. Fundamentally, a petal of a flower could be considered paper. The only thing that is missing there is the additive to preserve the object. In this work there is photography, watercolor, gouache, ink, and then I used Arabic glue as an additive to some of the materials. That’s it. The piece is totally exposed on the open surface, there’s nothing that I use to seal it. The photographic components bleed into these big expressive brush strokes.

It’s clear that these themes and hybrid modes of making are evergreen for you. Will this work be a sole piece, or the beginning of a new series?

You know, MoMA will have the first owl. But there will be a parliament of owls. I see this as a group of women together. They will ultimately occupy a full room together. Deb Willis will be there, Betye Saar will be there, Carrie Mae Weems will be there. They are women that have been very important in my life. They have been friends and colleagues that I have proximity to, and who have worked in a powerful way to do transformative history in our realm. They are all women who are alive. I love that the word “owl” in Spanish, we say la llamamos la lechuza. Lechuza. It’s feminine, la lechuza. It’s not lechuzo, it’s la lechuza. It’s majestic. We are majestic.

This is a beautiful gesture, and particularly when one thinks about how you have situated your own body in this work, and your own self in your practice. The notion of the autobiographical epic takes on a different tone with this unfurling narrative, and relationship between subject matter and bodily forms.

It’s really a gathering of friends, this parliament of owls. Owls have knowledge and wisdom, but they are also visionaries. Imagine when sisters get together and talk. They talk in a way that only happens within the intimacy of that caring group. This trusting space is where energy, determination, and also revolutions are built up and sustained. All of that is in this body. Secrets of the Magnolia Tree is an homage to the nurturing role of women, and Black women, in the world. There is no other group of women that has exposed itself to much pain and suffering and given so much care and love in return.

María Magdalena Campos-Pons. Initiation Rite/ Sacred Bath (sometimes referred to as Baño Sagrado). 1991

María Magdalena Campos-Pons. Initiation Rite/ Sacred Bath (sometimes referred to as Baño Sagrado). 1991

María Magdalena Campos-Pons. Secrets of the Magnolia Tree. 2021

María Magdalena Campos-Pons. Secrets of the Magnolia Tree. 2021

So tell me why you decided to name this piece Secrets of the Magnolia Tree.

The title, and many of the ideas for this work, felt like they were whispered in my ear. You know, Oluremi, I was in bed a few days ago, and I was having this argument with myself about photography and painting. Where did this need come from to paint alongside, or on top, or beneath, or above a photograph? Where does photorealism start and photo documentation end? What is this all about? For me, there is the argument of the eye, the mechanical eye that we created to see and observe. Then there is the other eye, the one that I don’t have control over, that is within and witnesses all. At the end of the day, I am interested in materialities. I don’t want to say I am interested in painting, or photography, or drawing, or printmaking, or performance art. I don’t have a hierarchy of materials or disciplines. I am imagining myself in the making. I am making an entity. This is my landscape, too. The studio is my forest. The studio is my ocean, my mountain, my everything. I am swimming, climbing, crouching, making…. I am all of the things.