Becoming FeFa

Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons

Born in Matanzas, Cuba, Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons is considered one of the main post-revolution Cuban artists and represented Cuba at the Venice Bienalle in 2013. Her art has been shown in numerous exhibitions, including solo exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City; the Venice Biennale; the Johannesburg Biennial; the First Liverpool Biennial; the Dakar Biennale in Senegal; and the Guangzhou Triennial in China. Campos-Pons’s work is in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution, the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Gallery of Canada, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, The Museum of Fine Arts, the Miami Art Museum and the Fogg Art Museum. Campos-Pons teaches at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Bost

A project for Atlántica by María Magdalena Campos-Pons.Text by Octavio Zaya.

Rito de iniciación, baño sagrado, 1991, video still.
Rito de iniciación, baño sagrado, 1991, video still.

María Magdalena Campos-Pons is one of the most significant and renowned artists to emerge out of 1980s post-revolutionary Cuba, and one of the most forceful but poetic voices among them in the way she has addressed the issues of race, religion, class, and personal and collective history that have arisen out of the mythologies, traditions, and symbols shared by the communities of the African diaspora. In a multidisciplinary oeuvre that encompasses painting, sculpture, photography, video, installation, and performance, Campos-Pons aspires to bring us closer, not to the recovery of something pure or essential, but rather to the circumstances and adaptations shaped by the hybrid spaces of the cultures that she brings into her work, which are, in turn, the result of the separation, memory, and fragmentation produced by her upbringing in Cuba and her relocation to and residence in the United States. Thus, from the culturally inexhaustible Black Atlantic to the Chinese and Spanish ancestry that runs through her work, stories of displacement, survival, defiance, and celebration, dating back to the slave trade and the sugar plantations of Cuba, to revolutionary emancipation as well as exile, all make their appearance. As she has observed,

El Devenir de FeFa

My work represents elements of a personal history that has universal relevance. I use a variety of photography techniques—portrait, landscape and documentary photography—to create narratives that enlighten the spirit of people and places, past and present. My themes are cross-cultural and cross-generational. In addition to race and gender expressed in symbols relating to matriarchal society and maternity, for me the fundamental bond with family and cultural history immensely expands the limit of photographic possibilities.

The character/symbol that embodies that enlightening, those possibilities, and that family bond in the work of Campos-Pons is named FeFa. FeFa is the mother figure who touches upon stories built on memories, displacement, and separation, but it is also she who brings love and a call for reconciliation between the divine and the earthly, between haves and have-nots, and between Cubans on the island and those in exile. FeFa stands for “familiares en el estranjero” (Fe) and “family abroad “(Fa). According to the artist, “FeFa is both [my] artistic persona and a metaphor for the immigration, exile, family and community separation experienced by numerous Cuban families.”

El Devenir de FeFa

The first appearance of FeFa was in an installation and extended performance at the Wifredo Lam Center during the Havana Biennial in Spring 2012. The most recent was at a 2016 performance for the New Museum, New York, in conjunction with Simone Leigh’s exhibition The Waiting Room. In between, FeFa has been featured in the Cuban National Pavilion at the 53rd Venice Biennale, where Campos-Pons was selected to represent the country; at the Queens Museum, New York; the Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts; the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC; and elsewhere. In each case, Campos-Pons has explored conditions and connections that have united the symbolic universes of Yoruba religion and Eastern culture—universes which are part of her personal life—with experiences of exile and separation. At times FeFa has been the healing, maternal figure who brings blessings, casts out wrongs, and cleanses away bad spirits. At other times she is imposing and demanding, angry and fearless, projecting the pain, the loss, and the survival of a black woman who can display the wounds and scars of her suffering and resilience.

El Devenir de FeFa

FeFa is the quintessential emigrant. She is aware that her identity is irreversibly wrapped in the culture that she both consumes and produces; that such a condition makes her a sort of performative body, one who projects the marks of colonialism and global culture, of displacement and separation, of her ancestors and her roots, into the larger arena where the global imaginary seems at times indifferent and at other times brutal and criminal. In every case, Campos-Pons has managed to keep FeFa’s humanity and hope afloat because the strength and the purpose of her performances have always grasped, and are always the result of, her connective and family sources.

El Devenir de FeFa

In truth, FeFa links Cuba and the world imaginary through the experience and knowledge of an artist who has devoted her work to celebrating Cuban culture and to registering, poetically and through the prism of Cuban family life and family rites, the enduring experience of those who challenge isolation and forgetfulness in order to continue to belong. In this sense, FeFa’s first appearance wasn’t in the 2012 Havana Biennial, but in Rito de Iniciación. Baño Sagrado (Initiation Rite: Sacred Bath), an “obscure,” intimate video work from 1991 that she produced with the musician Neil Leonard, who is now her husband and her close collaborator in most of the pieces related to FeFa. I believe we can say that this video is the seed and the conceptual reference out of which Campos-Pons has been inspired to develop her character. In various ways and across many different situations, FeFa yearns to re-establish a connection—not merely in order to seek a different intellectual commitment, but in order to allow her to encounter a new way of imagining the world, one that will embody what Campos-Pons calls “the memories of differences.”

Atlántica

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