Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons and her early life in Cuba

Alchemy of the Soul, Elixir for the Spirits [unit 1], 2015. Peabody Essex Museum. © 2016 Peabody Essex Museum. Photo by Peter Vanderwarker.

Alchemy of the Soul, Elixir for the Spirits [unit 1], 2015. Peabody Essex Museum. © 2016 Peabody Essex Museum. Photo by Peter Vanderwarker.

For Alchemy of the Soul: Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, PEM presents a newly launched in-depth interactive digital publication to complement the exhibition and accompanying print catalogue. The digital publication offers a multimedia journey through essays from curator Joshua Basseches, writer Nancy Pick and writer/translator Esther Allen.

The publication explores the context of the contemporary Cuban-born artist and her work, detailing the first decades of her life; her more recent work, including the PEM-commissioned installation, Alchemy of the Soul, Elixir for the Spirits; the collaboration between Campos-Pons and composer Neil Leonard; and the history of sugar and slavery in Cuba.

Among the multimedia features of the site are music, photographs and film, including interviews with the artist and performances by Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, whose voices and rhythms echo in the sound aspect of the exhibition. In addition to the range of content, readers are welcome to read the publication in both English and Spanish.

In his essay “Transforming Pain into Beauty,” Basseches shares insight into the cultural history of the rural village where the artist lived as a girl and where she and her family worked the cane fields. Having traveled from Boston to Cuba with Campos-Pons, he invites us to engage in the first-hand experience through documentary footage and to learn more about her early life and its influence on her work. An excerpt:

“On a late afternoon in August 2015, following a long drive on rutted roads beside miles of rich, dark soil and lush, green fields, Campos-Pons returned to the village of her childhood after three decades. The centrality of place emanates from her words as she recited, with the feeling of an epic poem or the power of an incantation,

‘We are in the town of La Vega in the vicinity of Manguito in the municipality of Calimete in the region of Colón in the province of Matanzas. But, specifically, we are in front of the door of what was my childhood home, which is in a former sugarcane plantation.’

The visit had some of the quality of the prodigal daughter returned, with distant relatives and old family friends who still lived in the village eager to see her, hug her, invite her into their homes.”

Campos-Pons and family in Cuba, August 2015. Photograph by Emily Fry/PEM.

Campos-Pons and family in Cuba, August 2015. Photograph by Emily Fry/PEM.

“Campos-Pons’s artistic practice has focused on the power and fragility of memory. Is what you remember real or is it a fragmented recreation of experience distilled through later events and a mixture of hope, joy, longing, and loss? Returning to La Vega, Campos-Pons’s memory of a thriving, albeit poor, farming village, with neatly kept paths and homes with small flower gardens, was belied by the current reality of 2015. La Vega today has a forlorn quality, owing in substantial measure to the end of the local sugar industry in the 1970s and the economic hardship that resulted, along with the physical ravages of hurricanes blasting across the island, damaging much of the village. Today, paths and gardens are overgrown with dense tropical vegetation; many houses seem poorly cared for or abandoned.”

Tower of the former Tirso Mesa y Hernandez sugar factory, La Vega, Matanzas, Cuba, August 2015. Photograph by Emily Fry/PEM.

Tower of the former Tirso Mesa y Hernandez sugar factory, La Vega, Matanzas, Cuba, August 2015. Photograph by Emily Fry/PEM.

 “Gone is the La Vega slave plantation manor house, which the artist recalls from her childhood, as is the elementary school she attended, now nothing but a few rotting timbers covered by a riot of leafy plants and wild avocado trees. But the large brick tower that marked the site of the La Vega sugar mill still looms over the village where the artist remembers playing for hours with her friends, ‘unaware of the parallel history [for Afro-Cuban slaves] encased in the walls.’ The enormous bell forged in 1836, which had been used to call the slaves to the cane fields, continues to hang in the village’s central green. Also, the house where Campos-Pons grew up remains: a long, skinny building with whitewashed walls and tiled floor. These resonant elements of place are the touchstones of history and for the artist’s memory.”

  Bell of the former Tirso Mesa y Hernandez sugar factory, La Vega, Matanzas, Cuba, August 2015. Photograph by Ed Rodley/PEM.

Bell of the former Tirso Mesa y Hernandez sugar factory, La Vega, Matanzas, Cuba, August 2015. Photograph by Ed Rodley/PEM.

Read, watch, listen in the exhibition digital publication here. For more information on the exhibition and related programs, click here. The exhibition catalogue is available for pre-order in the PEM Shop and online.

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