by Renny Pritikin
Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, the acclaimed Cuban-born artist, has a modestly scaled but authoritative exhibition of four works at the new iteration of Gallery Wendi Norris in Jackson Square. Campos-Pons emigrated to the United States in 1991 to teach at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts School at Tufts, and in 2017 became a professor at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. Her work, often performative, here takes the form of large polaroid photographs in groups that form, at the largest, four wall-length rows of seven framed images and, at the smallest, two triptychs whose component parts measure 24 x 20 inches each.
Campos-Pons based these images on her family, whose roots trace to Nigeria (and its long-standing practice of Santeria, a form of spiritualism) and to China. Into that mix, she blends feminism, Catholicism, the legacy of slavery and Cuban history. Finding Balance (2015), the title piece and the largest work on view, shows the artist in whiteface wearing a black and gold floor-length robe decorated with an abstract seascape and an Asian-style demon. She wears a wooden bird cage as a hat and holds severed pieces of black rope — props that refer to confinement and traditional craft, signaled by shades of indigo that dominate the piece. (Indigo in Nigerian Yoruba culture indicates wealth, abundance and fertility.) The montage of images, which measures nearly 12 feet in length, invokes Buddhist temple art and European tapestry, its mysterious female figure evincing a dreamlike regal power.
One of the triptychs, Freedom Trap (2013), again depicts the artist in whiteface, from the shoulders up, peering directly at the viewer from different angles. Her head is encased in a see-through cloth cage, implying that imprisonment can appear as open-ended as freedom. A second triptych, titled December 17th (1999), also homes in on a single body part: the shins. These, too, are shown at different angles, wrapped in cloth and bound with sticks and plants, highlighting the discrepancy between the appearance of health and the reality of hidden injury. The title, as it happens, is significant: It’s the Cuban pilgrimage day honoring Babalú-Ayé, the Afro-Catholic deity that grants or withholds health for the coming year.
Finally, the artist shows Classic Creole from 2003. Dominated by a mustardy yellow background, it has five long, thin vertical images placed equidistant from each other. Two long lines of beads—white on black – flank each side of a woven burlap tube in the center out of which seedlings emerge from the top.
Though this show consists of only a tiny sample of the artist’s oeuvre, drawn from works created between 1999 and 2015, it nevertheless delineates an ongoing set of concerns, motifs and forms of image-making: evidence of an artist operating at the peak of her powers.
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About the author: Renny Pritikin was the chief curator at The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco from 2014 to 2018. Before that, he was the director of the Richard Nelson Gallery at UC Davis and the founding chief curator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts beginning in 1992. For 11 years, he was also a senior adjunct professor at California College of the Arts, where he taught in the graduate program in Curatorial Practice. Pritikin has given lecture tours in museums in Japan as a guest of the State Department, and in New Zealand as a Fulbright Scholar, and visited Israel as a Koret Israel Prize winner. The Prelinger Library published his most recent book of poems, Westerns and Dramas, in 2020. He is the United States correspondent for Umbigo magazine in Lisbon, Portugal.