Perched on sugar sacks and leaning against the metal walls, a small group of us are riding up the museum’s freight elevator. It’s a space that’s been creatively re-imagined as a portal leading to our newest exhibition, Alchemy of the Soul. An art reviewer, Andrés Isaac Santana, has just flown in from Madrid and is shaking his head in slow disbelief as he listens to Cuban folk songs playing on a record player.
Andrés is surrounded by burlap sugar sacks stamped with the word MATANZAS — this is the name of the province in Cuba where both he and the artist, Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, are from. He seems to recognize the traditional folk song, but perhaps could never imagine hearing it in this context: in a museum in Salem, Massachusetts. As we rise up to the second floor, Ben and Sarah, our exhibition interpreters lend their voices to the folk tune, singing in unison the refrain “sigueme pollo!” Our small group bursts out laughing and they explain that they’re learning Spanish in the slowest (and strangest) way possible by listening to these songs on the freight elevator all day.
It turns out that “sigueme pollo” roughly translates as “follow me chicken” and has a bit of a word play in its context within a love song. I had no idea. That’s because I speak no Spanish whatsoever. A reality that’s mirrored by the fact that our visiting journalist, Andrés, speaks no English whatsoever. Thankfully, Maria Magdalena (‘Magda’) is with us, helping bridge the language barrier and uncovering new understandings in the space in between.
Magda is enthusiastic and animated, toggling rapidly between the two languages to get her points across. Occasionally the wires get crossed and when they do Andrés rolls his wrist counter-clockwise to prompt her to jump back to Spanish. It’s a fast moving river of stories and impressions frequently guided along by the words “claro, claro” (“of course, of course”).
In our Google-Translate-assisted email correspondence leading up to his visit, Andrés expressed confidence that the “artwork would transcend any language difficulties.” That said, he seemed delighted (and a bit relieved) to see both English and Spanish translations of wall text throughout the galleries. Helpfully, the exhibition publication — available online here — is also presented in bilingual translation in order to reach Spanish-speaking art enthusiasts the world over.
At a certain point as we walk through the galleries, I try to stop picking out individual words and let the Spanish conversation wash over me. It’s surprising how much you can intuit and interpret given context and ample gesticulation:
“These forms echo Wifredo Lam.”
“Cubans are serious about researching memory.”
“This choral symphony raises the hair on my arms.”
In addition to blown glass sculptures and two-dimensional works, a big component of Alchemy of the Soul is music and soundscapes created by Magda’s husband, Neil Leonard. In the main gallery, the music washes like waves across the room, moving from one column to the next. As we take this all in, a museum guard named Robert politely introduces himself and tells Magda how soothing and meditative the experience is to be posted in this gallery. As we move to the next gallery Andrés notes and Magda in turn translates, “You know the art is authentic and real when people respond in this way.”
The freight elevator is now in full swing bringing school children up the exhibition. Choruses of “sigueme pollo!” can be heard every few minutes as groups file up to the second floor. Some of the children like the freight elevator experience so much that they keep riding up and down, giddy with the thrill of a new experience and refusing to exit.
A school teacher leading the group asks if Magda could say a quick hello to the students. She introduces herself then asks each child their name, giving them each a brief moment to shine: Jennifer, Chris, Cameron, Alejandro…”I recognize some of these names,” Magda says encouragingly. The exhibition is making quite an impression as they soon clamor to ask Magda to sign their workbooks. One of the students tentatively speaks to Magda in Spanish, explaining that his father is from Spain and he that he speaks un poco. Magda poses for a photo with the school children as all smile, saying ‘CUBA’ in unison.