Ghost hunting in Cuba with Magda

Traveling with an artist means that every experience, every encounter is potential grist for their creative mill. And when that artist is Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons (Magda), and you’re accompanying her to the tiny hamlet in Cuba where she grew up, the effect is magnified enormously.


Photo by Chip Van Dyke

We had come with Magda and Neil Leonard, her husband and creative partner, to conduct a series of interviews to complement the commission she is undertaking for the museum. Alchemy of the Soul is to be a monumental abstract glass installation that expresses Magda’s experience of growing up amidst the gigantic ruins of the sugar industry. These had, for centuries, been Cuba’s lifeblood, and the source of untold misery for the unfortunate souls brought there to work the sugar fields. We would visit several factories, revisit Magda’s childhood home of La Vega and try to capture something of the essence of modern Cuba. The moment we arrived in Havana, it became apparent that the trip would unfold in unpredictable ways.

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Photo by Ed Rodley

As soon as we checked into the cavernous Hotel Nacional in Havana, the pace of Cuban life asserted itself. Our first production meeting was scheduled to happen immediately. As our party straggled downstairs to the courtyard, Magda held court. A mojito was necessary, both to chase away the heat and to reflect on the juxtaposition it holds for her. How could something so clear and fluid and sweet come from a hard, tough grass like sugar cane? When you taste the sweetness of the rum, why don’t you taste the grueling effort that it takes to cut sugar cane with a machete? Rum and sugar are both beautiful and delicious and sweet, while being the product of exploitation, suffering and misery. What makes this transformation possible?


Photo by Ed Rodley

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Photo by Ed Rodley

We’re interrupted by the hotel band passing by and serenading guests. As they approach, Magda calls out to them the first stanza of a song. Sensing a kindred spirit, they join us. Magda, who is also a performance artist, begins a duet with the singer. Back and forth, a call and response goes. It’s impromptu and heartfelt, and lovely to witness as I scrabble for my audio recorder to capture it. And all the while, in the courtyard behind us, a steady stream of young girls in frothy Cinderella dresses frolic and curtsy for the camera as they celebrate the female adolescent rite of passage known as a quinceañera.


Photo by Ed Rodley

We’ve been in Cuba now maybe an hour.

Though we’re surrounded by rich culture, there are obvious absences — a ghost-like presence of people and things. Landmark buildings are known by their modern names, as well as by the names they had before the Revolution. Driving along the Malecón, Havana’s main waterfront road, Magda points toward the water, at the horizon. “What do you see?” she asks. There’s the ocean, the sky, birds. We guess at the answer: “Nothing.”  “Exactly!” she says. We’re driving along the harbor of the biggest city in the country, and there’s not a vessel to be seen from horizon to horizon. “There is the bloqueo.” Its presence is everywhere: the idle cranes, the rusting locomotives parked outside empty warehouses speak of the absence, of something that was once vital and is now missing.

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The author on the road with the PEM crew. Courtesy photo


PEM’s Deputy Director Josh Basseches, the artist Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons and, her husband, composer Neil Leonard. Courtesy photo

A few days later, we’re barreling along a rutted road in Matanzas province. There are ten of us packed into a van, including Magda’s sister and niece, who has been our interpreter since arrival. We’re looking for factories in which to interview Magda, and we’ve been looking for awhile. The vagueness with which Magda and sisters describe the locations of these ruins is a little worrisome. We’ve been struggling to stay on schedule the whole trip and time is running out. In the distance, a huge chimney rises above the trees, the only tall object around for miles. ‘Look! A sugar mill!” “Which one is that, Magda?” Magda and Conchie consult. “Limonar?” “Limonar.” We roll into the mostly abandoned factory and start prospecting. The residents who have moved into some of the buildings watch us with interest as we clamber around, photographing and scouting interview locations.

Next on the itinerary, Magda’s birthplace. We roll into La Vega. Magda gasps quietly. It’s been over 30 years since she was last here and her reaction to the changes is palpable. Buildings missing, a new water tank in the center of the village and overgrowth that hides most of the town from sight. We unload all our gear and fan out. Magda is already half in the past, narrating to the show’s curator, Josh Basseches, what he would have seen when she was a girl. It’s so different that even figuring out the path to her house takes a little work.

Finally, though, we are directed down the right path and Magda sees her home, what was originally a slave barracks and later, worker housing. In Magda’s day, it was home to several families. She calls out as we enter the front yard, asking permission to come in, and explaining who she is. “Ai, Magda!” calls out one of the women. It’s Magda’s childhood best friend, who still lives in the house. Her father, Gustavo, a tough looking octogenarian in a cowboy hat and chomping on a cigar, comes over and waves us in. Magda is staring at the house. She cries quietly as we set up our camera. “That door went to my room. I could look out and see the whole village; the chimney of the factory, the water tower….” It’s all so different now. Magda and her older sister rattle off all the missing trees that their father planted in the yard, all the other old barracks that have been torn down. They live on in their minds, but not here.


Photo by Ed Rodley

It’s getting towards nightfall and Alberto, our driver, is anxious to head home. The condition of the roads, pitch black at night, varies wildly and unexpectedly. The crabs come out, too. We’ve rounded a few corners in the darkness of night to see the road full of glowing white scuttling shapes, claws raised in defiance. If we’re out after dark, we’ll have to go slowly, taking even longer to get back to our hotel. We still haven’t found the kind of ghost we’re seeking. Many of the old factories have been converted to new uses or allowed to fall apart. The image in Magda’s mind of the ghost factories of her youth don’t seem to exist any more. As we drive away from La Vega, though, we see stacks in the distance; another factory, and then another.

Josh says we should check one more before we leave. Alberto grudgingly points the van in the direction of the stack and we thread our way through the cane fields. By the time we get to it, the sun is dropping fast. Dusk doesn’t last long near the equator, but even in the gloom it’s obvious that we’ve finally found our ghost. It’s exactly like Magda’s sketches; a huge skeletal structure against a blank sky. Piping from one vanished tank to another still hangs here and there. It’s dark by the time we pick our way through the rubble of a demolished building and approach the main factory. Aside from dogs barking in the distance, the singing cicadas are all to block out a deathly still.


Photo by Ed Rodley


Photo by Ed Rodley

Listen in on the night here.

It’s too dark to attempt to capture any of it, so we’re left to wander a bit, each alone with their thoughts, and the giant ghost slowly vanishing into the gloom. Now that I’ve seen a ghost, I can’t wait to see how Magda will conjure up its spirit in the gallery.


Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons. © 2015 Peabody Essex Museum. Photograph by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

Editor’s Note: Congratulations to Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons for being named one of ForeignPolicy’s 100 Leading Global Thinkers of 2015.

One Comment

  1. Faith Smith says:

    I have been following Campos-Pons’s work for a while now. This new project is just amazing. I live in Boston but I’m just about to leave for the spring semester — I’ll have to find a way to come back for the show! Bravo, Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons!!!

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