Collected Alchemy

“With Alchemy of the Soul, Elixir for the Spirits, we breathe the scents, we hear the echoes, we see visions of Cuba past and present.”

Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, Alchemy of the Soul, Elixir for the Spirits, Peabody Essex Museum, 2015. Photo: Peter Vanderwarker.

Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, Alchemy of the Soul, Elixir for the Spirits, Peabody Essex Museum, 2015. Photo: Peter Vanderwarker.

The latest exhibition to open at PEM, Alchemy of the Soul: Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, presents recent works by Cuban-born artist Campos-Pons, specifically the newly commissioned installation Alchemy of the Soul, Elixir for the Spirits, a multimedia work incorporating blown glass, sound, and scent. In this work, she re-imagines Cuba’s sugar mills and rum distilleries, tracing the painful history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and offering a new cosmology for the future.

The PEM team, in addition to traveling to Campos-Pons’s Cuba in preparation for the exhibition, dug into the museum’s permanent collection to uncover objects connecting the island nation and our New England home. Today, Campos-Pons is a resident of greater Boston, and, since the beginning of the PEM commission project, she has described the artistic inspiration she finds here in Salem, Massachusetts.

Rum bottle, before 1830, B.W. Stone Distillery, Charter Street, Salem, Massachusetts, glass, Peabody Essex Museum. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM

Rum bottle, before 1830, B.W. Stone Distillery, Charter Street, Salem, Massachusetts, glass, Peabody Essex Museum. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM

Scanning the collection records, Dan Finamore, Russell W. Knight Curator of Maritime Art and History, and associate research curator Sarah Chasse offered further historical context for the exhibition. What they found among the holdings were remnants of Salem’s past at the height of local involvement in trade with the Caribbean colonies and in rum distillation—simply put, the bottles and barrels of another time.

To learn more about these objects of old Salem, visit the Alchemy of the Soul: Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons digital publication section In the PEM Collection. Learn more about Salem and the rum trade via Phillips Library Fellow Jordan Smith’s post on Conversant. For more information on the exhibition and related programs, click here.

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