Identity could be a blessing: an Interview with María Magdalena Campos-Pons

Identity could be a blessing: an Interview with María Magdalena Campos-Pons

María Magdalena Campos-Pons is a Cuban born interdisciplinary artist sprinkling her culture, spirituality and sexuality through mediums of installation, photography, performance art, and so much more. Her work has been seen in galleries in Italy, Tennessee, San Francisco, Japan, Chicago New York, Brazil and Florida. Before sitting down with her to have a small chat I participated in a performance with her called "Identified" at the National Portrait Gallery in DC where myself and an ensemble of other artists gathered to create an experience that would show the parallels between the lack of respect for the black body in the past (eg. slavery and the civil rights movement) and the recent cases of police brutality.

In this interview we discussed social justice, taking risks in performance art and what drives her to do what she does.

So when the Smithsonian asked me to work here I said ”It is very important for us to gather and to talk about black history and American history and work with it”

Naila Saphia: What inspires you to create?

María Magdalena Campos-Pons: Well I have been an artist for a number of years now and I have worked as an interdisciplinary artist and I have a lot of performance practice as well. I started making art when I was very young. Something I always tell my students is that inspiration will always find you working. Even when I was working here today I got new ideas that were just popping into my head. I am very interested in social issues, justice, history, legacies all of those things that were in the piece today. So when the Smithsonian asked me to work here I said ”It is very important for us to gather and to talk about black history and American history and work with it,” so I think that is some of the elements.

"IDENTIFY" Photo by Naila Saphia.

"IDENTIFY" Photo by Naila Saphia.

"IDENTIFY" Photo by Naila Saphia

"IDENTIFY" Photo by Naila Saphia

NS: Could you talk about “Identified”?

MMCP: ”Identified,” which is what you and I did today, is part of a series that started with the Smithsonian Museum almost a year ago and they launched this product that invites performance artists to explore the museum and to discover a new possibility for performance art. So we were apart of the series and that was actually the last of the series. They gave us a space and an opportunity for us to investigate and take risks and that's what I did today.

[...] even though they made a rule that I cannot touch the fountain. I like to break the rules.

NS: So you were telling me earlier about the installation that you did with the fish at the Guggenheim? Could you tell me a little bit more about that?

MMCP: It was one of the installations in Anna Del Madre at the Guggenheim Museum in 2014. The Guggenheim has a fountain and when I saw it I immediately thought that this person's work is something that must be marked to talk about and I should connect my body of work to it. Because I have been working for many years with aspects of water - the ocean, the sea - it's been a big part of my work, like when I traveled from Africa to America, from Cuba to all of those places. In Anna del Madre I wanted to celebrate yemayá, which is the Goddess of waters, and that's why I put the fish in the Guggenheim fountain even though they made a rule that I cannot touch the fountain. I like to break the rules.

IDENTITY: Performance Art as Portraiture / María Magdalena Campos-Pons." Photo by Paul Morigi.

IDENTITY: Performance Art as Portraiture / María Magdalena Campos-Pons." Photo by Paul Morigi.

NS: How does Cuba influence your work?

MMCP: Well I was born in Cuba and Cuba has a very rich culture and it is very syncretic. I have done a lot of works that in some way were connected to Cuba and show my culture and even in this piece that we just did, it is somehow connected. You know, one day I would love for you to come to Cuba and explore all the ideas there.

NS: I was reading in your biography on how you found your ties with Santeria could you tell me about that?

MMCP: Well I am very interested in Grito being a part of performance art and the Gritos are a part of Santeria tradition which has an influence of Aruba culture in Cuba. I think in some ways the people who are watching and have knowledge on it can find the links and for some people who don't they just see it as creativity.

When we are in Cuba we don’t identify with being Latinos, it is only when you step foot outside of Cuba.

NS: What does it mean to be Latina for you?

MMCP: In Latin America there is a vastity of different people and different regions and all of that. When we are in Cuba we don't identify with being Latinos, it is only when you step foot outside of Cuba. I am very much intrigued by the broken down compartments of identity which is you know this, that, the other. I am a woman of Latina, Afro and Aruba. There are so many things that come together. In the end I am a citizen of the world.

IDENTITY: Performance Art as Portraiture / María Magdalena Campos-Pons." Photo by Paul Morigi.

IDENTITY: Performance Art as Portraiture / María Magdalena Campos-Pons." Photo by Paul Morigi.

Interview by Naila Saphia

Edited by Mari Santa Cruz

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