‘Luminous Being’ from the Un Pedazo de Mer series.

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Derek Walcott, a native of the West Indies, wrote the following words as the opening stanza of his 1977 poem, “The Sea Is History.” “Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?/ Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,/ in that gray vault. The sea. The sea/ has locked them up. The sea is History.”

Walcott, who is also a MacArthur “genius” grant recipient, shows how the sea was a “keeper of memory” for descendants of African slaves brought to the Caribbean.

For her body of artwork Maria Magdalenda Campos-Pons draws on Walcott’s shared Caribbean imagery. “The ocean is an incubator,” she says. Born in 1959 in Matanzas, Cuba, Campos-Pons creates beauty out of tragedy. Her dreamlike images convey the sorrow felt by people of the Caribbean diaspora.

The Center for Women in the Arts and Humanities at Rutgers has named Campos-Pons its 2019-‘20 Estelle Lebowitz visiting artist, and her solo exhibit, “Sea and Self,” is on view through December 13 in the Mary H. Dana Women Artists Series Galleries at Douglass Library, 8 Chapel Drive, New Brunswick.

There will be a reception followed by a lecture by Campos-Pons on Thursday, October 24, beginning at 5 p.m. Visitors must RSVP and get parking permission by writing to womenart@cwah.rutgers.edu.

Campos-Pons, a professor in the fine arts department at Vanderbilt University, is largely known for her performance pieces that address such themes as the slave trade, race, gender, identity, and Afro-Cuban religious traditions. The performances have been at the Isabela Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and other venues around the world. Here we see her large-scale Polaroids and new watercolor paintings, all meditations on the theme of the sea.

“Floating Between Temperature Zones,” a watercolor with gouache and ink from her series “Un Pedazo de Mar” (a piece of sea), draws us in with its alluring mass of watery blues. At center we see a figure, a creature of the sea, whale-like but also woman-like, with a golden spiky crown. Her mouth is open, as if startled; her eyes are pupil-less. She is swimming in the opposite direction of a group of smaller winged creatures, also with golden crowns. Perhaps these creatures are torn between islands and cultures, or have come before but are headed back.

In a Creative Time Summit video, Campos-Pons says that people travel north to find love, and that the only journey is the journey within. “Because of geography, economics, politics, and social constructs, we need to take journeys that are outside oneself.” Her role as an artist, she says, is to show the pain and desperation that makes people, forced or involuntarily, go north.

“She Always Knew of the Space In-Between,” a large five-panel mixed-media piece, seems to expand on the theme. In the central panel two figures converge, facing each other, surrounded by constellations and the sea. They have come for love, perhaps with the dream that love will ameliorate the spaces between.

In some of her Polaroid Polacolor Pro Photographs, Campos-Pons uses her own hair, braided in long intricate strands, as if it is drawing. In one work, “Nesting IV,” the braids are like fish netting that has trapped her, as if she were “fished” by colonialists. In other work, the long lines of knotted hair could be seaweed.

In “When I Am Not Here” Campos-Pons serves as her own model. “The body is a metaphor, this is not a self-portrait,” she says. “The personal is a vehicle to narrate a more complex story.” A solitary woman is holding what looks to be carved wooden vessels, perhaps made from gourds. She is looking down sorrowfully, perhaps reflecting on the journey, or the sense of feeling divided by the sea. Where is home? Or, worse, perhaps these are the empty vessels for those who didn’t make the journey.

“My work over the past 35 years addresses post-coloniality and the complexities that entangle the narratives, connections, and mutual dependency of the North and the South,” she writes. “My work speaks to an ancestral knowledge and tradition to give a voice to the darkest narratives with grace and aesthetic elegance.”

Campos-Pons grew up on a sugar plantation in a family with Nigerian, Hispanic, and Chinese roots. Her Nigerian ancestors were brought to Cuba as slaves in the 19th century and passed on traditions, rituals, and beliefs. These roots influence her work as she evokes stories of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, indigo, sugar plantations, Catholic and Santeria religious practices, and revolutionary uprisings.

“I am compelled by the democratic process of art-making that challenges the participation, presence, and bodily immersion of the viewer,” says Campos-Pons, who was an artist in residence at the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation in 2016.

In the late 1980s Campos-Pons taught at the Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana and gained an international reputation as an exponent of the New Cuban Art movement that arose in opposition to communist repression on the island. In 1991 she immigrated to Boston and has had solo exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the Peabody Essex Museum, and the National Gallery of Canada, among others. Her solo performances have been commissioned by the Guggenheim and Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. She is the founder and artistic director of Rios intermitentes (Intermittent Rivers), an art festival in Matanzas, known as “the Athens of Cuba.”

‘Wet All Day’ from the Un Pedazo de Mer series.

Curator Tatiana Flores, an associate professor of Latino and Caribbean studies and art history at Rutgers, identified Campos-Pons as a candidate for the Lebowitz visiting artist residency when she curated the major traveling exhibition “Relational Undercurrents: Contemporary art of the Caribbean Archipelago.” Campos-Pons was among the 50 artists.

Campos-Pons doesn’t have a large studio or work with a team of assistants; she draws, makes photographs, gathers material, and makes notes all the time, even while teaching. She says hasn’t taken vacation in more than 30 years but is not worn out because she thrives on her work.

From watching her son build things with Legos, Campos-Pons learned that she could work within her own means, her own size, using blocks to make something of a much larger scale. This came in very handy when, earlier in her career, she was invited to participate in exhibitions that had no budget for shipping. She would load the components of an entire exhibition into a suitcase she traveled with.

“Teaching is learning for me, so I never see teaching as something that takes my energy or takes all my time,” she told the Creative Independent. “It requires both energy and time, but as somebody who cares about it, I don’t mind … It’s invigorating to be with young thinkers because they are hungry and they eat from you. But I am still hungry, too, so I eat along with them.”

Although she can earn more selling her work than teaching, she is passionate about teaching. She reads poems and plays music for her students, introduces them to people they are not familiar with, and assigns books to open their minds; she encourages them to read before bed and have those thoughts in their heads to sleep with. Among her other “assignments”: To visualize when listening to music, to keep diaries, to consume everything along the path. She tells her students: “We are here as humans because art is our safe keeper. Our destiny keeper. The landscape of our journey. We are here as a result of that. We draw to survive. We paint to survive. We paint to eat. And that gives us the energy to keep moving.”

Sea and Self, The Center for Women in the Arts, Douglass Library, 8 Chapel Drive, New Brunswick. Through December 13. Artist reception and lecture Thursday, October 24, 5 to 6:30 p.m. 848-932-3726 or iwa.rutgers.edu

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