E. CARMEN RAMOS: I’m E. Carmen Ramos, Curator for Latino Art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and I’m also the curator of “Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art.” I wanted to talk about María Magdalena Campos-Pons’ large-scale installation that’s titled “Constellation.” Campos-Pons is a multimedia artist that has often worked with Polaroid photography.
We associate Polaroid with the kinds of cameras that were popular in the 1970s and ‘80s that created instant prints that popped out of a Polaroid camera. The Polaroid company produced two very large-scale cameras that still exist and are used mostly by artists. These cameras can produce very large-scale photographs, like the sixteen prints that make up “Constellation.”
To create this work, Campos-Pons created painted environments and used scaffolding and worked with assistants that created an elaborate setup that allowed her to capture views of her head seen from above and fragments of her hair and extensions against these beautiful, painted, lavender and gray backdrops. The central four photographs capture her head, and surrounding pictures show fragments of her hair that meander across the photographs. She titled the work “Constellation,” as it can appear like a stellar constellation that, like her gridded installation, unites separate things to form a larger whole.
But her constellation is not formed by stars but by hair, specifically black, braided, and dreadlock hair, a bodily feature that is associated with African diaspora and African people. Campos-Pons immigrated to the United States from her native Cuba in the late 1980s, and her experience of living in another country with its own black community led her to view herself as tied to a global Africa diaspora. She increasingly became aware of African-American artists as well, especially photographers like Lorna Simpson and Carrie Mae Weems, who were forging new representations of the black body in the early 1990s. Like them, she, too, wanted to depict black culture in a less literal sort of way.
In this work, she offers a visual meditation on her connection and the connections that she feels with African culture despite the ruptures of slavery, time, and distance. African diasporic cultures, whether they exist in Cuba or the United States, are still connected to one another and to Africa. Like the panels in this composition, many are distinct, but they share commonalities that unites them. This work is also about Campos-Pons’ continuing ties to Cuba even though she no longer lives there, and it is often difficult for her to return, she still feels connected to her country of birth.
Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art presents the rich and varied contributions of Latino artists in the United States since the mid-twentieth century, when the concept of a collective Latino identity began to emerge.