Artistic Journey: MacArthur Fellow María Magdalena Campos-Pons

As a multidisciplinary artist with a diverse ethnic background, María Magdalena Campos-Pons has an important goal: “to present the complexity of duality, knowledge, history, heritage, [and] culture.” Born in Cuba, María’s ancestors hail from Nigeria (Africa) as well as Canton (China) and Spain.

María also engages with Santería tradition (a spiritual practice that combines Roman Catholicism and Yoruba religion). Santería was developed by enslaved African people in Cuba, from where María is able to trace her enslaved Nigerian ancestors.

Her work incorporates history that is vital to her identity, as a premiere artist from post-revolutionary Cuba and beyond. María’s paintings, videos, photography, performance art, and sculptures have been exhibited in many countries beyond the USA, including Canada, Italy, Japan, and Norway. Today, the 2023 MacArthur Fellow resides in Nashville (TN). She may be a self-proclaimed “one little entity in this universe,” but María’s art has the power to make a difference across the world. 

María may be a self-proclaimed “one little entity in this universe,” but her art has the power to make a difference across the world. 

The MacArthur Foundation awards fellowships to creatives who display notable innovation and originality in their pursuits. Since there are no restrictions, the fellowship functions as a profound belief in their recipients, and a trust that they will continue to make vital work. It is a major achievement and recognition of talent and impact. Only 20 artists, spanning multiple disciplines, were chosen in 2023.

At the Escuela National de Arte in Havana (Cuba), María trained from 1976 to 1979 before attending Havana’s Instituto Superior de Arte. Her post-graduate studies were completed at Massachusetts College of Art and Design in 1988, but María’s work had already been internationally exhibited four years earlier, and her abstract art began receiving wider recognition as the decade came to a close. She taught at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University, and her alma mater, the Instituto Superior de Arte (where she instructed painting and aesthetics). Currently, she serves as Cornelius Vanderbilt Endowed Chair and Professor of Fine Arts at Vanderbilt University. 

Click image to enlarge.

While navigating the landscape of artistic expression, María has embraced a myriad of techniques, employing unconventional methods as new modes of understanding. This remarkable versatility includes glasswork — featured in her installation “Alchemy of the Soul, Elixir of the Spirits” — where she explores childhood memories of her house in Cuba (which was previously a slave barracks). To comment on industries associated with slavery in her hometown of Mantazas, she emulated machinery from sugar mills and rum distilleries by arranging large-scale assortments of cast and blown glass. This achievement not only showcases her technical creativity and ambition, but her commitment to innovation as she conveys her ideas in fresh, evocative ways that do justice to their thematic nuance. 

Through bringing her ancestral lineage to the USA, María has embarked on numerous projects that can be termed autobiographical. She creates using “the viewpoint of a woman who was born in the Caribbean from a very particular, strong heritage, and how she interpret[s] not only the history of the past, but fundamental scenes of our time and a vision of the future.” Her current exhibition, Behold, is held at the Brooklyn Museum (NY), and comprises photography, painting, performance, and installation.

Behold spans nearly forty years of María’s career. The featured work focuses on her central preoccupations, such as enslavement, migration, diaspora and motherhood, spanning past, present and future, while bridging personal and universal experience. 

“It could be a surprise. It could be beauty. It could be discomfort. But all of that would be an experience of new understanding, an expansive view of a reality. That is all that art could be.” 

If you visit this exhibit — or encounter María’s work in any other corner of the world — her hope is that you take a minute to pause and think about the transformative power of art. “Try to have an understanding of what it is,” she suggests, “It could be a surprise. It could be beauty. It could be discomfort. But all of that would be an experience of new understanding, an expansive view of a reality. That is all that art could be.” 

Congratulations, María Magdalena Campos-Pons!

© Anna Nappi (11/27/23) FF2 Media


Read more about Maria’s career and her MacArthur award here.

Read more about Maria’s exhibit Behold at the Brooklyn Museum here.

Read more about Maria’s work at Vanderbilt’s College of Arts and Science here.

Visit Maria’s Wikipedia page.


Photos courtesy of John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Used with permission. All Rights Reserved!

Tags: Afro-Caribbean, Anna Nappi, Brooklyn Museum, Cuba, female artist, glasswork, macarthur fellow, Maria Magdalena campos pons, Santería, Yoruba

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Anna is currently a senior at Brandeis University studying Film, Journalism, and Psychology. At Brandeis, she writes for the student newspaper and is the undergraduate degree representative of the Journalism program. From theaters to museums to concert halls, she loves exploring the art world in Boston as well as in her Maine hometown. Anna is passionate about FF2’s mission and excited for the opportunity to work alongside a wonderful team dedicated to supporting women artists.
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