Whispering Together: An Interview with María Magdalena Campos-Pons
The Cuban artist discusses her self-portrait, Secrets of the Magnolia Tree, and other works.
María Magdalena Campos-Pons, Oluremi C. Onabanjo
Oct 24, 2022
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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