NASHVILLE, TENN.-BASED, Cuban-born artist María Magdalena Campos-Pons makes deeply personal and poetic work. A key figure in post-revolutionary Cuban art, she has received international attention over the past three decades.

Currently, her unique practice is being celebrated with a prestigious prize from the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM); acquisitions at the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark.; and a major forthcoming solo exhibition at Haggerty Museum of Art at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisc.


From left, April 17: PAMM Director Franklin Sirmans; María Magdalena Campos-Pons, 2021 Perez Prize winner; and Darlene Pérez and Jorge Pérez, at PAMM Art of the Party. | Photo by, Courtesy PAMM


Campos-Pons explores how identity is influenced by history, memory, gender, and religion. Her official bio speaks of her family history and blended heritage, which includes Nigerian, Hispanic, and Chinese roots. She grew up on a sugar plantation in the province of Matanzas, in the town of La Vega, Cuba. In the 19th century, her Nigerian ancestors were enslaved and brought to Cuba, where their traditions, rituals, and beliefs endured, were passed down through the generations, and absorbed by the artist.

Expressing herself across a range of mediums, Campos-Pons works in photography, performance, painting, sculpture, film, and video. Her diverse family background—a mix of cultures and languages—has directly informed her artistic practice. She’s considered the trans-Atlantic slave trade, revolutionary uprisings, Santeria and Catholicism, Black labor on sugar and indigo plantations, the symbolism of the sea, and what contemporary justice and equality looks like.

An artist and teacher, Campos-Pons immigrated to Boston in 1991 and taught at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University. In 2017, she was named the Cornelius Vanderbilt Endowed Chair Professor of Fine Arts at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, where she founded the Engine for Art, Democracy, and Justice (EADJ), a collaborative initiative between Frist Art Museum, Fisk University, Millions of Conversations, and Vanderbilt “that explores creative approaches to living together in the South(s).” EADJ won a 2021 Curatorial Award for Excellence from the Association of Art Museum Curators.


MARIA MAGDALENA CAMPOS-PONS, “The Magician’s Tools,” 2004 (15 Polaroid prints, 25 x 24 inches each; 75 x 120 inches overall). | Collection Pérez Art Museum Miami, Promised gift of Jorge M. and Darlene Pérez

Artist Prize

At PAMM, Campos-Pons received the 2021 Pérez Prize for outstanding artistic achievement. Franklin Sirmans, director of the Miami, Fla., museum, announced she won the unrestricted award of $50,000, at the institution’s Art of the Party fundraising dinner on April 17. Campos-Pons is the third recipient of the annual artist prize funded by museum patrons Jorge and Darlene Pérez. He praised the artist and her work, emphasizing its engagement with the mission of the museum and the milieu of Miami.

“María Magdalena is a very special person. Not only is she a great, great artist—in photography, in video, in performance—she uses a lot of mediums to express her artistic talents, but she always gives back a lot. So I could not think of a better representative of what we are, particularly in Miami, of that mix of cultures, the Black Afro culture, the Chinese culture, the Cuban culture, and now the American culture, as she lives in the United States and teaches in an American, a very prestigious, American university,” said Jorge Pérez in a PAMM video about the prize.

“But more than that, she cares about her surroundings and about her community—her Cuban community, her American community, her art community, and her student community. That’s what Miami is. Miami is a great mixture of people from different backgrounds and she exemplifies this beautifully. So I am really proud to call her my friend and for her to be the recipient of this prize.”

“María Magdalena is a very special person. Not only is she a great, great artist…But more than that, she cares about her surroundings and about her community—her Cuban community, her American community, her art community, and her student community.” — Jorge Pérez

The feeling was mutual. In the video, Campos-Pons said the recognition was so extraordinary her reaction was physical.

“To be the recipient of the Pérez Prize is an extraordinary moment of joy, an extraordinary honor, and an extraordinary achievement for me, for what my work represents…the ideas, the narrative, the fundamental aspects that are core in my quest as an artist,” she said.

“I started jumping when I received the call and screaming out of my lungs because it was such a gesture of re-affirmation, such a gesture of saying, ‘What you are doing we see it. We are looking at it. It’s as meaningful to us, as it is meaningful to you.'”

She continued: “I have been looking very careful at the history of what it is to be a Black woman from the Caribbean, of a complex heritage, living in a world in which still justice and equality is in a fight. So to the language of visuality, I have been trying with the most possible and profound sincerity that I could access from my tools to speak truth. This is the truth as I understand it and this is my vision of the truth.”

“I have been looking very careful at the history of what it is to be a Black woman from the Caribbean, of a complex heritage, living in a world in which still justice and equality is in a fight.”
— María Magdalena Campos-Pons

PAMM has four works by Campos-Pons in its collection. The museum’s earliest purchase by the artist is “Replenishing” (2003), acquired in 2005. The holdings also include “Triptych 1, from the series When I am Not There/Estoy allá” (1996-99), “The Magician’s Tools” (2004), and “Unspeakable Sorrow” (2010). “The Magician’s Tools” is currently on view at the museum in “Allied with Power: African and African Diaspora Art from the Jorge M. Pérez Collection.”


IMAGE: Above at right, Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons. | Courtesy the artist


ICA Boston Acquisition: MARIA MAGDALENA CAMPOS-PONS, “Classic Creole,” 2003, (composition of 9, Polaroid Polacolor Pro, 72 x 110 inches / 182.9 x 279.4 cm). | © María Magdalena Campos-Pons, Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, Courtesy the artist and Gallery Wendi Norris

New Acquisitions

Campos-Pons is represented in more than 30 museum collections, including major institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Art Institute of Chicago, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, PAMM, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

New acquisitions include “Classic Creole” (2003) at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston and “Finding Balance” (2015), which was added to Perez’s private collection housed at El Espacio 23. The Miami art space is open to the public and is currently presenting “WITNESS: Afro Perspectives from the Jorge M. Pérez Collection.”

A 28-panel Polaroid work, “Finding Balance” is featured in “WITNESS.” The expansive work documents an important 2013 performance and installation Campos-Pons presented in the Cuban Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale.

“When I am not here/ Estoy allá” (1997), a vertical triptych, was acquired recently by the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. The Bentonville, Ark., museum described the work and its symbolism in a blog post:

    Campos-Pons explores the distance between her home in the United States and her homeland of Cuba. The pattern of blue and white seen in the handmade gingham dress in the top panel is an homage to Yemaya, the Orisha goddess of the ocean and motherhood, who’s traditionally represented with these colors…

    The pattern of blue and white continues through the composition, as seen in the artist’s hair and background in the middle panel and the abstracted patterns in the bottom panel. Campos-Pons also hand-carved the six wooden boats she cradles in her arms in the middle panel, like one might imagine the Goddess of the Ocean would do. Conceptually, the tie to the ocean is connected to her relationship to migration and displacement: having her heart and home both in Matanzas, Cuba and the United States.

The Haggerty Museum of Art in Milwaukee acquired “Nesting IV” (2000), a photographic work composed of four parts. A self-portrait, Campos-Pons depicts herself divided by an expanse of sea, while remaining connected by her hair, long locs that form loose nests at either end of the work and unite the four panels.


Crystal Bridges Museum Acquisition: MARIA MAGDALENA CAMPOS-PONS, “When I am Not Here/Estoy Allá,” from When I am Not Here/Estoy Alla series, 1997 (dye diffusion transfer print (Polaroid Polacolor Pro), triptych; Each print: 24 × 20 inches / 61 × 50.8 cm; Each framed: 29 × 25 inches). | © María Magdalena Campos-Pons, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, 2021.7.


Haggerty Museum of Art Acquisition: MARIA MAGDALENA CAMPOS-PONS, “Nesting IV,” 2000 (composition of 4, Polaroid Polacolor Pro, 24 x 20 photograph, 24 x 20 inches each / 24 x 20 inches each). | © María Magdalena Campos-Pons, Haggerty Museum of Art. Courtesy the artist and Gallery Wendi Norris

Solo Exhibition

After opening at the Center for Women in the Arts and Humanities at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., in 2019, “María Magdalena Campos-Pons: Sea and Self” will debut at the Haggerty Museum of Art in August.

The solo show presents works produced from the late 1990s to present, including photographs, photographic installations, and a new series of drawings by Campos-Pons. Both “When I am not here/ Estoy allá” and “Nesting IV” are featured in the exhibition.

Throughout the works on view, the symbolism of the sea is a recurring thread, serving as both a gulf between and connection to the artist’s Caribbean roots. The sea also functions as a repository of memories. The disparate themes are exemplified by “Nesting IV.”

In 2018, Campos-Pons was recognized with an Anonymous Was a Woman grant. The following year, she participated in the 13th Havana Biennial. She was tapped to curate an exhibition in Matanzas, a bastion of Black culture, where she grew up, 60 miles outside Havana.

“I have been thinking for very long time of how to highlight the beauty and cultural history of this amazing city, which had a very strong economy as the center of the sugar industry and a significant black population that preserved the traditions of the African diaspora,” Campos-Pons told Vanderbilt News.

The 2019 biennial marked the first time the exhibition’s programming occurred beyond Havana, in Matanzas, as well as other regions of Cuba. It was a project the artist long envisioned. The Perez Prize was another coup.

Upon learning she had won the prize, Campos-Pons said: “It means a lot to me to be recognized, to be sought out, and in front, and put into this moment of relevance in the context of Latin American art, in the context of American art, in this moment. It is a gift and it is a gift that I don’t take lightly.” CT


FIND MORE Earlier this year, María Magdalena Campos-Pons made “When We Gather,” a collaborative video project inspired by a dream about the historic election of Vice President Kamala Harris

FIND MORE María Magdalena Campos-Pons is also featured in “Promise, Witness, and Remembrance” at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Ky. The group exhibition reflects on the life and police killing of Breonna Taylor and the racial justice protests that followed


Jorge M. Pérez and PAMM Director of Curatorial Affairs and Chief Curator René Morales laud 2021 Pérez Prize winner María Magdalena Campos-Pons. The expresses her gratitude and explains why the prize means so much to her and her work. | Video by PAMM


El Espacio 23 Acquisition: MARIA MAGDALENA CAMPOS-PONS, “Finding Balance,’ 2015 (composition of 28, Polaroid Polacolor Pro 24 x 20 photographs on aluminum panels, 96 x 140 inches / 243.8 x 355.6 cm). | © María Magdalena Campos-Pons, Courtesy the artist and Gallery Wendi Norris


“María Magdalena Campos-Pons: Everything Is Separated by Water” documents the first full-scale survey of the artist’s career and includes a contribution by Okwui Enwezor. Organized by the Indianapolis Museum of Art (2007), the exhibition traveled to the Bass Museum in Miami, Fla. More recently, “Alchemy of the Soul: Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons” accompanied the artist’s 2016 exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. From Prestel, “Diaspora Memory Place: David Hammons, Maria Magdalena Campos-pons, Pamela Z” was co-edited by Salah M. Hassan and Cheryl Finley.


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