This Afro-Cuban artist says she's a 'never-sleeper.' And now a 'genius.'
"When I left the town of La Vega to go to art school [as a young girl], I was wearing pants and a top that my mother made me using the fabric from a used mattress cover. All I had was my luggage and a little piece of brown paper that had the address of where I was going. And I knew that I never was going to return to the town until I had a lot of good news to share. So now I am going back to La Vega — as a MacArthur Genius."
That's how María Magdalena Campos-Pons, who grew up on a sugar plantation in Cuba, reacted to the news that she is one of this year's 20 MacArthur Fellows – known as the "Genius Grant." The MacArthur Foundation calls it a "no-strings attached award" of $800,000 given to "extraordinarily talented and creative individuals as an investment in their potential." Campos-Pons, 64, received this honor for her work as a multidisciplinary artist whose sculptures, paintings, installations, photography and more are displayed in over 30 museums around the globe.
Much of Campos-Pons' art draws inspiration from her upbringing in La Vega, where her family lived in former slave barracks and taught her the traditions, rituals and beliefs of her ancestors, Nigerian slaves brought to Cuba to work in the sugar plantation.
In one work, Constellation, Campos-Pons groups together 16 giant Polaroid photos of her dreadlocked hair and painted landscapes. They represent the many cultures that make up the African diaspora. Despite slavery, geography and the passage of time, these cultures are intertwined, and she feels very much connected to them.
In the performance art piece Habla Lamadre, she sways through the Guggenheim Museum in New York City in a sculptural white dress while invoking Yemaya, an African deity, to "take hold of this institution and show the power of the Black body."
Campos-Pons, currently the Cornelius Vanderbilt Endowed Chair of Fine Arts at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., talks to NPR about what she plans to do with her prize money and what she thinks about being called a "genius." This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Congratulations. How did you react when you first found out that you won the MacArthur Fellowship?
Thank you. I didn't know what to say or do. I was running room to room in the house, feeling a sense of terror and elation.
What are you going to do with the prize money?
I would do a lot of good deeds in relation to my body of work. I started a program at Vanderbilt University called Engine for Art, Democracy and Justice. One of the aspirations of that program is to create a network of creative thinkers to build a more equal landscape for art — how it is acquired, collected, cared for — and who has access to what.
Are there similarities in the lives of people in the American South, where you now live, and Global South, where you are from?
We keep dreaming and producing — and we bring in an incredible amount of surprise to the human experience to overcome the complexity of life. We are a historical miracle. And this is not only restricted to the American South or the Global South, this is something you can find everywhere — in Tennessee, in Cuba, in Senegal, in the Bronx — people who maintain tradition, resilience and possibility in places in which the circumstances are difficult.
What do you think about being called a 'genius'? It's kind of a big label.
Do I consider myself a genius? I need to laugh about that! I am one of those manifestations of a miracle from the Global South. I am the daughter of a father who only was educated until the third grade. He needed to cut sugarcane in the fields. A mother who only went to the sixth grade, then started making clothes for people and ironing and washing clothes.
I don't know! We need a new nomenclature for what this is.
What words would you propose?
A visionary, a dreamer, a never-sleeper, the one who stays awake all night. But I'm honored. I'll take the cap.
You grew up with a lot of people who were very in tune with their spirituality. Your mother was a priestess of Santeria, a religious tradition developed by African slaves in Cuba. And your father used plants for healing as an herbalist. How did that affect your artwork?
My father had an incredible amount of respect for nature. He would not take a little branch of a tree without knocking on it first and offering a gift, sometimes cornmeal, sometimes a penny. Only then would he take the branch — because you don't take energy from a tree without asking permission. It inspired a piece in 1994 called The Herbalist's Tools. It includes his tools, his machete and his garabato [a hooked staff used to pluck plants from the ground] to clear a path down the forest.
As a woman from the Global South, did you have a hard time getting recognition as an artist?
I have received letters of rejection from very important places. And then ten years later, I get letters of invitation [from these same places]. I always tell my students: recognition and fame has many layers. Be sure you are recognized, respected and cared for in your home — so you are good to the people in your house — in your neighborhood, in your town, in your state and then in your nation. But it starts at home.
What will your family and friends in La Vega think of your award?
I will go back there in December and explain to them the award. But I will have to show them something.
When I was 13, I did my first plaster-cast of an antique sculpture from the Greco-Roman empire at the provincial school in Matanzas. When I came home, I showed it to my father, and he put me on his horse — that was the mode of transportation for our family — and we went from house to house so that I could show the neighbors what he called my "monument." Here I was with something of no importance, but he already knew I was on my way to becoming an artist and he wanted me to have an audience.
So for this award, maybe what I would do is bring a copy of the letter [from the MacArthur Foundation] and frame it [to show people]. Someday I plan to have a site in the town dedicated to the history of the Campos family and the history of all the indentured, enslaved people who worked there to produce incredible wealth.
I bet you wish your parents were here to see you today.
They are. They are seeing me from the sky. They are clapping.
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