María Magdalena Campos-Pons: ‘Sugar’ is a bittersweet autobiography

Cate McQuaid reviews María Magdalena Campos-Pons art exhibit at Smith College.

“Sugar makes me cry,’’ says artist María Magdalena Campos-Pons, “and the tears are salty and bitter.’’

The quote is from an interview in the catalog for “Sugar,’’ a provocative exhibition of three installation pieces by the Cuban-born, Brookline-based artist at the Smith College Museum of Art. The show, both harrowing and sweet, interlaces an examination of the history of the sugar industry in Cuba with Campos-Pons’s personal history as an Afro-Cuban woman raised in the province of Matanzas, a center of Cuban sugar production from the late 18th into the 20th century, and, according to the catalog, at one time a port of entry for African slaves.

The exhibit was prompted by curator Linda Muehlig’s desire to put together a show about the Sugar Triangle, a trade route linking Europe and the United States — specifically, Massachusetts and Rhode Island — in transporting slaves to work in the sugar cane fields of the Caribbean. Campos-Pons was clearly the woman for the job.

The artist’s roots in sugar go deep. Campos-Pons’s childhood home was a former slave barracks in the town of La Vega, where a defunct sugar factory was a town landmark. Her great-grandfather was brought from Nigeria to Cuba as a slave, before slavery was abolished there in 1886. Her great-grandmother, a Chinese woman said to be from Canton, came to Cuba as an indentured servant, and may well have worked in a sugar mill.

The museum commissioned the artist to create a new in stallation, “Sugar/Bittersweet,’’ the centerpiece of the show and deftly positioned between two previous works. All eloquently delve into Campos-Pons’s story from different angles, with details and poetic resonances that shift perspectives from personal to societal to historical.

“Meanwhile the Girls Were Playing’’ (1999-2000) anchors the viewer in Campos-Pons’s girlhood. A video projected on the wall shows the artist dancing like a bride beneath a white shroud; it evokes both Santeria and Catholic ritual. Three pools of light illuminate round forms on the floor representing the artist and her sisters, Amparo and Marta. Each is decorated with glass flowers and textile appliqués. Video projections light up the center of each circle. One features toys, such as a sparkling game of jacks; another shows birds.

The video center of the third skirt, the one that is Campos-Pons’s self-portrait, was on the blink the day I visited. Muehlig describes it in her catalog essay: “Sugar is shown as an obliterating cascade and sifting onto her head to become an all-encompassing landscape. Her hands knead colorful cotton candy and stir lumps of sugar into water held in an etched glass.’’

The piece evokes the innocence of childhood, but that obliterating cascade sounds more dangerous than sweet — something monumental and obsessive.

The 1994 installation “History of a People Who Were Not Heroes: A Town Portrait,’’ draws a picture of La Vega. In typical Campos-Pons fashion, every solid object seems built on an armature of dreams, memories, and metaphors, here evinced by text imprinted on everything: a brick wall, a fountain, glass doors, the sugar factory tower. The Spanish is translated on a nearby wall text: “Of the sugar mill I knew, ‘The Tower,’ the great distillery tower — a site full of legends. It was a place where every year, for many years, I would throw a pail of water over the bricks of one of its points. The adults would say it was advisable to cool off that place.’’

Three videos murmur hypnotically, ghostly apparitions on their monitors in the dim gallery. In one, images of the artist’s grandparents flit over a rocking chair; in another, the artist gathers water in her hands from a metal bowl and, as if reading tea leaves, sees indigenous trees reflected in the water’s surface; in the last, Campos-Pons strings garlands, singing a nursery rhyme about the town fountain. From these haunting evocations of her childhood, and the history alive in La Vega, we enter “Sugar/Bittersweet.’’

The centerpiece of the installation is a grid of upright African spears, each pointing to the sky. Each pierces a stack of disks and balls, made of sugar and glass, which rise over (and sometimes drop beneath) small wooden stools from Africa and China. The stools are not the regal ones made for African royalty, but domestic seats used by women in the home and the marketplace. The spears, with their sharp blades, represent sugar cane: This is a sugar cane field, built on the sweat of African and Chinese workers.

These sugary totems don’t come in the vibrant green of a cane field, but in shades ranging from white to deep molasses, and suggesting the skin tones of Cubans. They recall Brancusi, and Louise Bourgeois’s early sculptures; they share Bourgeois’s psychological urgency.

A large video projection of an interview the artist conducted with Buena Vista Social Club singer Omara Portuondo provides a backdrop, but it doesn’t compete with the sculpture; the two Cubans talk about Matanzas, and about sugar, and Portuondo breaks into song more than once. The older woman is a living link to the past.

The final component of “Sugar/Bittersweet’’ takes up a corner of the gallery: A Chinese weighing rod hangs high on the wall, with cast glass weights balancing a skewed glass sheet upon which shines a video projection featuring old images of sugar mills and a brief statement about the history of the sugar trade by Magalys González Hernández, director of the Archivos Histórico Provincial of Matanzas.

History’s weight can’t be measured. Campos-Pons uses material and metaphor to begin to parse its heft, and shares with us how international power, desire, trade, and hurt went into making her who she is.

SUGAR: María Magdalena Campos-Pons At: Smith College Museum of Art, Elm Street at Bedford Terrace, Northampton, through Jan. 2. 413-585-2760,

For the original report go to

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