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Listen to audio clips of the artist discussing her work.
"I come from an island. Continental experiences and borders are so meaningful, and to be surrounded by water is quite a unique and magnificently humbling thing. There is no place to go except to the sea."
"The ocean is blue because it takes on the color of the heavens—there is darkness in certain spaces in the universe just as there is at the bottom of the ocean."
"My work over the past 35 years addresses post-coloniality and the complexities that entangle the narratives, connections, and mutual dependency of the North and the South. My work speaks to an ancestral knowledge and tradition to give a voice to the darkest narratives with grace and aesthetic elegance. "
"I’ve been using diptychs and triptychs to comment on the idea of fragments and how we make a whole. It’s almost like we take particles of identity to create this new one."
"The work that I did in the ‘90s, just about the time that I left Cuba, put an incredible focus and emphasis on the issue of identity, the body, the location of the body within the discourse of feminism, with the discourse of race, the discourse of translation of location, of cultural construct. And the work was very much figurative; the body was very much at the center as an important place."
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Materials and Mediums
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
"My name is Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons and this conversation is regards to the exhibition 'Sea and Self.' In relation to the approach to materials and mediums in my work: in the last, we’ll say, five years or so, I have dedicated a significant amount of attention to work on paper, to works that are [two] dimensional. At the same time, I have constructed numerous performative interventions that explore some of the materials and some of the physicality of making that was so important to my formation as a younger artist.
The very first medium that I explored that resulted for me in a complete satisfaction was painting. And my own approach to questioning the meaning of my work and the location of my work brought me to a kind of expansive investigation of materials and mediums. I would never locate myself in a steady place and say “I don’t move from that.”
When I was young, I received a lot of criticism for the diversity of my practice. I consider myself very much a fluid thinker and a fluid maker. The versatility of what I do is consistently connected with the versatility of how I learn and how I develop my own perceptions and my own response to “what is the meaning of making art?” So, I feel that I am equally happy and equally flexible when I am working in glass as when I am working with watercolor, gouache, and ink. I am trying to work with similar or different materials and trying to understand what they mean to each other.
When I wanted to talk about the ocean and the sea I found two ways. I went to the color blue because I saw the amazing magnificence of the color of Renaissance murals, and I was mesmerized about how it was made. And I have always been mesmerized by the blue of the ocean, of the shores in Cuba. I was trying to figure out, how do I represent this? So, I went with this almost luxury of artificiality of creating this blue tableaux in photography. I talk about the lusciousness of that medium because the surfaces of the 20 x 24 Polaroids are almost like water— they have a density and a viscosity of the surface when they come out of the camera and they are just amazing. So, I wanted to play with that, I wanted to work with watery materials and the elegance of layers of watercolor and gouache.
Everything I want to tell, all of the ideas that I want to share with the world [through my art] will be valuable should I actually manage to do that through a structure and a language that really seduces the viewer. I am curious about whether they want to see [my art] again, whether they want to stay a few minutes with it trying to understand it. Part of the question is: how is this made, what is this about? And part of the question is the curiosity about how visual art represents and encapsulates the world in a sort of materiality that is both evocative and dreams of the possibilities of seeing something and imagining something that is there in that moment.
I am trying to really immerse myself and the viewer in the plasticity, the beauty, and the evocative forces of the ocean. But also, the darkness and the difficulty, and why I sat in front of the ocean when I was young and cried. The overpowering presence that the ocean still has for me is because it is history. There is a history in the sea as Derek Walcott said, that is ancestral. That is in a packet of DNA, of memory. Capturing that and speaking about that and finding the materiality and visuality for that is fundamental to me. I say all the time, we are human because we inscribe it in art. Because we manage to represent it and we manage to express desires, anticipate ideas, and things that we don’t comprehend, but to start to discern that we need to represent it, we need to inscribe it.
This is something that is of profound value, and a profound implication of visual representation. And the literacy and the language of what art making is about. Art making, mark making in art allowed us to become the humans that we are now, and it still does that. So, for me, in a simple way, in a very modest way, I am just putting physicality to what I see. And it doesn’t matter how it is captured: in photography, in a video, in a drawing, in a painting. In a song! In my mind I was thinking Nina Simone. I paint a lot of things and listen to her. And I find that kind of graphic depiction of the emotion of her heart, through what her voice evokes. So, in a way I want to do that with my modest attempt to do inscription. Because it doesn’t matter if it is a brush stroke or if I drop an entire bottle of ink on the paper and I start from that. Which I do often! It captures so much of the abstract map in the brain. I keep thinking, everything single gesture that any visual artist has ever inscribed in any form is a self-portrait.”
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The Process of Making
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
"My name is Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons and this conversation is regards to the exhibition 'Sea and Self.' I always say to people when they ask me about photography I say, remember that I am not a photographer. I use photographs, and I use the methods. Specifically, I have many other photographic works that I do that are not useful at all. I am using a lot of that with the watercolor, and the gouache, and the ink now.
But when I was starting to do the Polaroids (I was introduced to Polaroids in 1988 when I was at MassArt) when I came back to the camera, I was fascinated by the space that was opened for me which I call the performativity of the camera. Any camera is performative. Because it is an instrument, a machine that produces something and has some conditions to do that. But there was something about the possibility of what I call constructing the photograph. Constructing the photograph in the moment of what is going to happen. What polaroid did for me was this incredible moment in which I not only perform, I do painting in the studio, I do sculpture. So, I craft my entire dexterity of tools to construct this photograph. I create entire installations in spaces that are like a little movie set in which sometimes my body in the scene is in the most precarious condition. I remember lying down on a table, hair down (I was younger, legs up all the way in the space [laughs] I cannot do that now). But for the people that see the set [constructing these photographs] is like an entire duration of performances and dangerous positions. All of that to create those small tableaux, those small fragments that constitute the whole.
So, [working with the Polaroids] was a very rich and intriguing practice. The Polaroid for me really offers performativity and immediacy. I treat the Polaroid almost like a watercolor: I could modify this right now; I could change it at this moment and get it to the place that I want. I don’t need to wait for anything. It happens in an instant.
Most of the grounds of my Polaroids are big, big watercolors and inks on papers. In the beginning [of my career] I threw all of them away, but now they are rolled there waiting. I may one day take them and stretch them and paint over them again. Who knows what they will be? But I love the opportunity inherent in that and the transition that I am doing now is that I take my digital photographs and then I print them on watercolor based paper and literally destroy them or alter them. I paint on the paper before I print on top of the paper and sometimes reprint after I have already printed and painted over it. I’m glazing and layering with all this material.
I think a lot about what is available to me in my time that marks my time with intention. What is the conversation that I want to have with the tools of my time? But I love to think that colors fade, watercolors fade, or photographs fade like we [as humans] fade. We get little marks of time [passing]. And this kind of ephemerality and transientality is present in the Polaroids and in the making of the Polaroids and in the making of any photograph: that moment, that light that is there and then you grab it, but it has already passed, it is fleeting. I love that. The “permanency” of the watercolor, the “permanency” of the ink, “permanence” of the gouache, or the “permanency” of all these materials.
What I did in 'Sea and Self' [in 'Un Pedazo de Mar]': there were so many difficult scenes and people have witnessed so many terrible things. For me every single piece is a prayer, every single piece is a marking of something I put my whole heart into [to ask] how do we make all these situations a little better."