Art Basel, Miami Beach

Conversations | Premiere Artist Talk: María Magdalena Campos-Pons

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Art Basel 1901 Convention Center Drive Miami Beach

Thu, Dec 7, 2023

1pm – 2pm (Miami Beach)

Franklin Sirmans, Director, Pérez Art Museum Miami, Miami  

Moderator: Crystal Williams, President, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence 

María Magdalena Campos-Pons discusses her influential career as an artist and teacher with Franklin Sirmans, Director of the Pérez Art Museum Miami, and Crystal Williams, President of the Rhode Island School of Design. Exploring her multimedia practice, which considers how history, memory, gender, and religion inform personal identity, they chart Campos-Pons’s trajectory over the last 4 decades, from her youth in Cuba to her acclaimed retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum and US tour 2023- 2025. 


The art of María Magdalena Campos-Pons (b. 1959, Matanzas) addresses history, memory, gender, and religion, investigating the role of each in identity formation. Her practice intermixes photography, painting, sculpture, film, video, and performance.

Campos-Pons is a descendant of Hispanic and Chinese immigrants to Cuba and of Nigerians brought to the island and enslaved in the 19th century. She grew up with the legacy of slavery. As a child, Campos-Pons learned about Santería, a religious tradition that originated in the Yoruban nations of West Africa. Informed by the traditions, rituals, and practices of her ancestors, her work is deeply autobiographical. Using herself and her Afro-Cuban relatives as subjects, Campos-Pons creates historical narratives that illuminate the spirits of people and places, present and past. She makes personal history universally relevant. Invoking narratives of the transatlantic slave trade, her images and performances honor Black laborers on indigo and sugar plantations, renew Catholic and Santería practices, and celebrate revolutionary uprisings in the Americas. The sea as a repository of memory and site of identity formation is a frequent theme, allowing her to explore topics ranging from the Middle Passage to the contemporary migrant crisis. Campos-Pons writes that she collects and tells “stories of forgotten people in order to foster a dialogue to better understand and propose a poetic, compassionate reading of our time.”

From the beginning, Campos-Pons has combined traditional artmaking mediums with installation and time-based mediums including video, film, and performance. In the 1990s, she began making large-format Polaroid photographs that elaborate the complexities of the themes she addresses. Campos-Pons’s performances often unfold as ritualistic processionals that physically and spiritually fill the spaces in which they take place while asserting their relevance beyond the boundaries of those spaces.

Since 2020, Campos-Pons has witnessed a surge of excitement as demonstrated by recent acquisitions of her art by the Museum of Modern Art (New York); Princeton University Art Museum; Smithsonian American Art Museum (Washington, DC); Speed Art Museum (Louisville); Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University; J. Paul Getty Museum; Museum of Fine Arts (Boston); Institute of Contemporary Art (Boston); and other public and private collections. In addition, her work has appeared in Thinking Historically in the Present at the Sharjah Biennial 15 (United Arab Emirates) and soft and weak like water at the 14th Gwangju Biennale.

Campos-Pons’s art is also in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art (New York); Art Institute of Chicago; Victoria and Albert Museum (London); Pérez Art Museum (Miami); and Harvard Art Museums (Cambridge). She has presented performances at venues including the Venice Biennale; documenta 14; Havana Biennial; Dakar Biennale; Johannesburg Biennale; Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA; and (in collaboration with composer and sound artist Neil Leonard) Guggenheim Museum and National Portrait Gallery (Washington, DC).

In the fall of 2023, the Brooklyn Museum and J. Paul Getty Museum will present María Magdalena Campos-Pons: Behold, a major traveling multimedia survey of her work, the first since 2007. The exhibition will be accompanied by a catalog published by the Getty.

Campos-Pons graduated in 1980 from the National School of Art in Havana, Cuba. She went on to study painting at Havana’s Universidad de las Artes (ISA). In 1988, she earned an MFA in Media Arts from Boston’s Massachusetts College of Art and Design. In the late 1980s, she taught at the Universidad de las Artes (ISA) in Havana. There she gained an international reputation as an exponent of the New Cuban Art movement, which arose in opposition to Communist repression on the island. In 1991, she immigrated to Canada and onto Boston in 1993, where she taught at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University and received numerous prizes and honors for both her teaching and her artistic practice. In 2017, she became the Cornelius Vanderbilt Endowed Chair of Fine Arts at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, where she now resides.

Campos-Pons has founded or cofounded several nonprofit arts organizations including the Engine for Art, Democracy and Justice, a collaboration between Fisk University, Frist Art Museum, Millions of Conversations, and Vanderbilt University. In addition, she has launched Intermittent Rivers, an artistic intervention in Matanzas, Cuba, as part of the Havana Biennial, and When We Gather, a multifaceted art project in Washington, DC, celebrating the vital role of women in the progress of the United States.

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