“Sugar” at the Smith College Museum’s Food Series

A new exhibition, Sugar: Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, opened in the Smith College Museum of Art earlier this month. Sugar features a newly commissioned site-specific installation, Sugar/Bittersweet, along with two earlier installations by the artist, both related to her family’s ties to the sugar industry in Cuba.


The exhibition is shown in conjunction with the Museums10 collaborative project Table for Ten: The Art, History and Science of Food.

The work of Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons addresses the Afro-Cuban diaspora and her identity as an exile—a woman of Yoruba ancestry, born in a former slave barracks in the sugar plantation town La Vega in the province of Matanzas, Cuba—now living and working in Boston.

Campos-Pons’ personal history mirrors the so-called sugar triangle, a transatlantic trade route involving many European nations and the United States, particularly New England, in the infamous exchange of slaves from Africa for sugar from the Caribbean. From South Pacific origins, spreading from India and the Middle East to Mediterranean and Africa, sugar cane crossed the ocean to the New World in the late 15th century and became the agent of human dislocation and tragedy on an epic scale. In the 19th century, Cuba’s slave-based plantation economy rose to become a leading sugar producer worldwide.

The artist conceived of Sugar/Bittersweet as a simulacrum of a sugar cane field, with columns of disks of raw sugar and cast-glass forms pierced by African spears as visual metaphors for the tall, graceful stalks of the sugar cane plant. These forms, set into African stools, reference the slaves who worked the sugar cane fields. Roped Chinese weights allude to the weighing of the canes after harvest. They also refer to another aspect of the artist’s ancestry: the Chinese indentured laborers who were brought to Cuba to work for the sugar mills as they became increasingly mechanized. Video components of the installation incorporate interviews with individuals in Cuba and from other sugar-producing countries.

Sugar/Bittersweet is shown in the context of two other installations by Campos-Pons: History of a People Who Were Not Heroes: A Town Portrait (1994) and Meanwhile the Girls Were Playing (1999-2000). A Town Portrait recasts architectural elements—a domelike fountain, a tower from the sugar factory, a door, and a wall—from La Vega and merges personal family memories with moments of Afro-Cuban history. The tower in the installation is one of several former distillery towers from the now defunct sugar mill and represents a conflicted landmark for the artist. Meanwhile the Girls Were Playing combines textiles, cast-glass flowers, and video projections of toys, sugar, and cotton candy, intermingling memories of childhood innocence with the conflicted legacy of sugar cane.

Taking over the lower level of the Museum, the three installations create a powerful visual and artistic statement of the way in which sugar is inextricably tied to the artist’s personal history, to Cuba’s national identity, and to slavery.

The artist will do a two-day residency at Smith on November 11 and 12. On Thursday, November 11, Campos-Pons will give a free public lecture entitled, “The Making of Sugar/Bittersweet” in Weinstein Auditorium, Wright Hall, at 5 p.m. On Friday, November 12, SCMA will host a free Second Friday program featuring Campos-Pons in a free performance art piece entitled, “They told me that…“

View a complete roster of programs related to the exhibition Sugar.

The press release above can be found, with additional photographs, at http://www.smith.edu/news/2010-11/sugar.php

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