Alchemy of the Soul: María Magdalena Campos-Pons Multisensory Installation Inspired by Cuba and the History of the Sugar Trade


Alchemy of the Soul: Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons


The Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) presents a multimedia and multisensory installation inspired by Cuba and the history of the sugar trade. This installation, part of PEM’s Present Tense Initiative, marks the largest commission to date for celebrated Cuban-born artist Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons. Accompanied by a gallery of recent works by the artist,Alchemy of the Soul: Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons is on view at PEM from January 9 through April 3, 2016.

Beginning with an entry experience through the museum’s freight elevator, this multifaceted installation offers a transportive and visceral experience that ignites the senses. Through large-scale blown-glass sculptures, images and evocative soundscapes created by Campos-Pons’ husband, musician and composer Neil Leonard, Alchemy of the Souldraws on the structural forms found in the abandoned sugar mills and rum distilleries of Cuba. Incorporating the sweet smell of rum, this exhibition creates an intoxicating reconceptualization of the often-brutal history of the Cuban sugar industry while raising our emotional awareness of place, memory and meaning.


Born in 1959 in Matanzas, Cuba, internationally-recognized artist Campos-Pons is descended from the enslaved Yoruba peoples who endured the back-breaking work of growing, harvesting and refining sugar cane in the heat of the subtropics. As a child, Campos-Pons lived with her family in former slave barracks in the sugar plantation town of La Vega where the effects of transatlantic trade still reverberate. After years of exile in the United States, Campos-Pons returned to Cuba and was inspired by the skeletal ruins of abandoned sugar factories that were so central to the visual and cultural texture of her childhood.

“This work stems from an idea that I have been cocooning in my notebooks and in my dream chest for many, many years. It’s the most ambitious body of work that I have put together — for the complexity and technical skill it requires — but it’s a very old piece in my mind,” says the artist. “I am interested in capturing and collecting, in metaphorical ways, the history of sugar production as it relates to my personal experience and to the history of Cuba.”

Collaborating with glasswork studios in San Francisco and Boston, Campos-Pons has created sculptural “ghosts” of the small factories used to mill sugar and distill rum, more than 600 of which remain in various stages of disrepair across Cuba’s landscape.


“PEM is a museum whose origins are inextricably tied to cross-cultural exchange and global trade,”  says Josh Basseches, PEM’s Deputy Director and curator for the exhibition. “Over the last 60 years, Cuba has been the focus of political and cultural fascination for Americans, signifying both a romance and a trepidation. Campos-Pons’ exhibition at PEM comes at a critical juncture in Cuban-American relations, and works to bridge the cultural divide while stoking the flames of imagination and creative possibility.”

Part of PEM’s Present Tense Initiative, Alchemy of the Soul reflects the museum’s commitment to commissioning and exhibiting the work of today’s most vibrant and creative minds. “This work links communities past and present across the Caribbean and the globe,” says Basseches. “It offers opportunities to explore ideas of identity and our shared humanity.”


Artistic co-collaborators as well as spouses, Campos-Pons and Leonard have worked together for 25 years on performance, film and video installations that have been featured at the Havana Biennial, the 49th and 55th Venice Biennales and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. As Campos-Pons notes, “We were born the same year, yet worlds apart. He’s the son of Kennedy and I’m the daughter of Castro.”

For Alchemy of the Soul, Leonard has made extensive recordings of traditional Cuban musicians as well as original soundscape compositions. The exhibition entry experience through a freight elevator features a record player spinning Leonard’s limited edition Cuban music LPs while elsewhere in the galleries atmospheric sonic arrangements echo the translucent feel of Campos-Pons’ blown-glass sculptures.


An accompanying gallery features an additional glass sculpture and a selection of works created by the artist in the last decade including watercolors, photographs, drawings and a mixed-media installation. When viewed with the Alchemy of the Soul sculpture, the works in this gallery provide a window onto Campos-Pons’ aesthetic, the new directions her work is taking and her creative fluency in a broad range of media.



Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons

A rising star of the contemporary art world and of the global art festival circuit, Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons has lived in Boston since the early 1990s. She works primarily in photography, sculpture, video-based approaches, often creating large-scale mixed-media installations. Performance art and the use of her own body is a large element of Campos-Pons’ artistic practice. Her works address issues of history, race, gender, memory and the formation of identity, in an aesthetically lyrical and sensual way. Her art has been shown in scores of solo and group exhibitions, including solo shows at the Museum of Modern Art in New York; the Indianapolis Museum of Art; the Venice Biennale; the Johannesburg Biennial; the First Liverpool Biennial; the Dakar Biennale in Senegal; and the Guangzhou Triennial in China. Campos-Pons’ work is in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution, the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Gallery of Canada, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Miami Art Museum, the Fogg Art Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Neil Leonard

A composer, saxophonist and interdisciplinary artist, Neil Leonard is the Artistic Director of Berklee College of Music’s Interdisciplinary Arts Institute. He is currently on the Fulbright Specialist Roster and is a Research Affiliate at MIT’s program in Art, Culture and Technology. His work ranges from solo concerts for saxophone/live electronics, to works for orchestra, audio/video installation and sound for dance, theater and performance. His compositions/performances have been featured by Carnegie Hall, Boston Globe Jazz Festival, Musicacustica (Beijing), International Computer Music Convention (Montreal), Tel Aviv Biennial for New Music, Moscow Autumn, Auditorium Parco della Music (Rome), Museo Riena Sofia (Madrid), Panama Jazz Festival, Jazz Plaza International Festival (Havana). Leonard composed the music for Relatives, by Tony Oursler and Constance DeJong that was featured by the Whitney Biennial and the ICA, Boston. Leonard’s work with Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons spans 25 years. Their collaborative performance, film, video and installations were featured by the Havana Biennial, 49th and 55th Venice Biennales, Museum of Modern Art in New York, purchased by the National Gallery of Canada and presented by Dakar Biennial.


The Present Tense initiative is an extension of PEM’s contemporary art program and celebrates the central role that creative expression plays in shaping our world today. The Present Tense Initiative engages leading creative agents and thinkers to cultivate innovative experiences fueled by the intersection of cultures, disciplines and technologies. By encouraging innovation and fostering new forms of creativity, the Present Tense initiative seeks to push the boundaries of what a museum experience can be.


A 120-page illustrated print publication will be available in the PEM Shop and at

A digital publication featuring artist interviews, audio and video components as well as an essay by exhibition curator Josh Basseches, will be available at the following link once the exhibition is open:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s