María Magdalena Campos-Pons, Spoken Softly with Mama

María Magdalena Campos-Pons, Spoken Softly with Mama, 1998, embroidered silk and organza over ironing boards with photographic transfers, embroidered cotton sheets, cast glass irons and trivets, wooden benches, six projected video tracks, stereo sound, 8.6 x 11.7 m, dimensions variable (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa) © María Magdalena Campos-Pons

María Magdalena Campos-Pons, Spoken Softly with Mama, 1998, embroidered silk and organza over ironing boards with photographic transfers, embroidered cotton sheets, cast glass irons and trivets, wooden benches, six projected video tracks, stereo sound, 8.6 x 11.7 m, dimensions variable (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa) © María Magdalena Campos-Pons

How can a work of art encompass the layers of family memory embedded in the history of a place? María Magdalena Campos-Pons’ Spoken Softly with Mama is a delicate installation that encompasses sculpture, photography, performance, and video to weave together Campos-Pons’ own memories and those of generations of Black women in her family, all of whom were employed in domestic work as seamstresses and laundresses. Campos-Pons uses her personal family history to connect with the African diaspora and the site of the Middle Passage of transatlantic slavery to draw attention to the ongoing physical and spiritual presence of those displaced in the shaping of history.

Antechamber with 3 stands of folded white sheets (detail), María Magdalena Campos-Pons, Spoken Softly with Mama, 1998 (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa) © María Magdalena Campos-Pons

Antechamber with 3 stands of folded white sheets (detail), María Magdalena Campos-Pons, Spoken Softly with Mama, 1998 (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa) © María Magdalena Campos-Pons

The threads of the installation

After entering the darkened installation, visitors first moved through an antechamber with three stands holding folded white sheets stacked in columns with phrases such as “For Beauty,” and “For Necessity,” embroidered on each sheet along the spine. A video of hands embroidering and folding the sheets was projected from above, encouraging visitors to engage with the hands that labored over making the objects before them. 

The main room of the installation appeared like an altar with seven tall and rounded ironing boards covered in white silk arranged in a semicircle. For four of the boards, Campos-Pons silkscreened photographs of her mother, grandmothers, and great-aunt onto the silk and embroidered their names and the details of their dresses onto the fabric. Interspersed between the photographs of her family were three larger and more rounded boards with videos of Campos-Pons performing a range of small gestures projected onto the fabric. Ornate cast glass irons radiated out in patterns on the floor, simultaneously appearing as delicate lace and ships moving out and away from the center. At the same time, speakers play Campos-Pons singing “Arroz con leche (Rice with Milk),” a children’s song about a young man whose idea of a perfect wife is a woman practiced in sewing. The installation publicly honors and celebrates the beauty and care of Black women’s domestic labor and the artist’s own debt to such labor.  

A history of a people and a place

Spoken Softly with Mama was first installed at The Museum of Modern Art as the second part of a series entitled History of People Who Were Not Heroes. The series began with the 1994 installation History of People, A Town Portrait that forms a portrait of the individuals who live around and are connected to the former slave barracks in the province of Matanzas, Cuba where Campos-Pons was born. Both installations highlight the marks left by the generations of Chinese indentured servants and enslaved Africans who were forced by Spanish colonists and Creole Cuban elites to work on sugarcane and tobacco plantations. Of the series, Campos-Pons said, “A space can bear the imprint of its inhabitants even in their absence. An object can personify an individual even more than his or her portrait. This is the concept behind the selection of objects-furniture for the installation; a portrait of a family narrated through the voices of objects that constitute their environment.” [1] For Campos-Pons, individuals, objects, and geography are all connected and can leave traces on each other. In Spoken Softly With Mama Campos-Pons uses the materials and objects related to garment work and laundry to bring forward the marks the women of her family left on her and Matanzas. 

Glass irons (detail), María Magdalena Campos-Pons, Spoken Softly with Mama, 1998 (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa) © María Magdalena Campos-Pons

Glass irons (detail), María Magdalena Campos-Pons, Spoken Softly with Mama, 1998 (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa) © María Magdalena Campos-Pons

The slave ship and the Black Atlantic

The shapes of the ironing boards and the glass irons also reference the slave ships that transported enslaved Africans to the Americas. Campos-Pons recalled seeing the illustration Description of a Slave Ship from 1789 in a book at school and based the shapes of the boards on that famous image. Similarly, the glass irons appear as boats voyaging along the black pool that is the floor. Their white triangular shapes appear to float and permeate out in multiple directions, visualizing the displacement. The boards and irons then invoke the vessels that forcibly carried millions of Africans and act as a visual link for simultaneously engaging the violence of the voyage and foregrounding the persevering cultural connections across the diaspora. For artists in the African diaspora like Campos-Pons, referencing the slave ship becomes a way to focus on the Middle Passage, the links across the Atlantic, and the circulation of ideas and cultural practices.  

Installation (detail), María Magdalena Campos-Pons, Spoken Softly with Mama, 1998, embroidered silk and organza over ironing boards with photographic transfers, embroidered cotton sheets, cast glass irons and trivets, wooden benches, six projected video tracks, stereo sound, 8.6 x 11.7 m, dimensions variable (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa) © María Magdalena Campos-Pons

Installation (detail), María Magdalena Campos-Pons, Spoken Softly with Mama, 1998, embroidered silk and organza over ironing boards with photographic transfers, embroidered cotton sheets, cast glass irons and trivets, wooden benches, six projected video tracks, stereo sound, 8.6 x 11.7 m, dimensions variable (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa) © María Magdalena Campos-Pons

Santería and Afro-diasporic spirituality

Upon entering the darkened room of the central installation, attendees encountered a sacred space. The installation encircled viewers by the seven boards covered in white fabric carrying the silk-screened and projected images of Campos-Pons and her family. Together, the objects, images, and materials that make up Spoken Softly With Mama form an intricate altar to Campos-Pons’ ancestors and Afro-Cuban knowledge. In particular, Spoken Softly With Mama includes numerous references to Santería, an Afro-Cuban religion now practiced throughout the world that continued and adapted the Yoruba spiritual traditions brought from West Africa. The staging of the installation mirrors the altars Santería practictioners create to honor and call forth ancestors and orishas. In addition, Campos-Pons’ repeated use of white throughout Spoken Softly With Mama, seen in the seven boards encased in white fabric as well as the white opaque glass irons radiating out across the floor evokes the centrality of white within Santería. White can be seen in fabric used on altars, the clothing worn by new initiates into the priesthood of Santería, and to Obatalá, the orisha of creation. However, Campos-Pons’ installation is not an official or literal enactment of Santería spiritual traditions, but rather a poetic evocation of the ways such practices permeate generations of women in Matanzas. Within Spoken Softly with Mama, sacredness and spirituality become an additional lens for Campos-Pons to manifest the threads that link her, her art practice, and her family to the broader African diaspora.

Projected videos of Campos-Pons walking (left) and peeling a pomegranate (right), María Magdalena Campos-Pons, Spoken Softly with Mama, 1998, embroidered silk and organza over ironing boards with photographic transfers, embroidered cotton sheets, cast glass irons and trivets, wooden benches, six projected video tracks, stereo sound, 8.6 x 11.7 m, dimensions variable (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa) © María Magdalena Campos-Pons

Projected videos of Campos-Pons walking (left) and peeling a pomegranate (right), María Magdalena Campos-Pons, Spoken Softly with Mama, 1998, embroidered silk and organza over ironing boards with photographic transfers, embroidered cotton sheets, cast glass irons and trivets, wooden benches, six projected video tracks, stereo sound, 8.6 x 11.7 m, dimensions variable (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa) © María Magdalena Campos-Pons

Memory and displacement

Memory and displacement are central themes for Spoken Softly With Mama, themes that also engage the larger experience of the African diaspora through personal story. Campos-Pons has lived in the United States full-time since the early 1990s, and her family history traces back to Nigeria and China. The gestures Campos-Pons performs and projects onto the boards in the installation each reference different popular narratives of longing for home, both real and imagined. One video shows Campos-Pons’ bare legs and feet walking slowly back and forth, clicking her heels together like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz at the end of each turn. The video projected on the central board tightly frames Campos-Pons’ hands peeling a bright pomegranate, one seed at a time, referencing the Greek myth of Persephone whose fateful ingestion of pomegranates meant living her life away from her mother. In the final video, the footage shifts between Campos-Pons walking with folded laundry on her head and hands carefully sewing with thin white thread. In moving with the folded laundry on her head Campos-Pons physically engaged the practice of head-carrying in the Caribbean, a tradition that was transferred over from Africa, representing the continuation and adaptation of traditions across multiple moments of displacement. Campos-Pons’ repetitive physical movements enhance the powerful ways her body acts as a carrier for the labors, cultural traditions, and resilience of those who came before her.

Glass irons (detail), María Magdalena Campos-Pons, Spoken Softly with Mama, 1998 (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa) © María Magdalena Campos-Pons

Glass irons (detail), María Magdalena Campos-Pons, Spoken Softly with Mama, 1998 (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa) © María Magdalena Campos-Pons

The glass irons patterned on the floor similarly materialize memory and displacement. Such concepts are difficult to visualize and represent, as they both are characterized by distance—for memory, the moments are often far in the past—and for displacement, geographically far. As Campos-Pons has stated, “When I was doing History of People Who Were Not Heroes, I think that the transparency is a very, very, very important concept …Transparency is about memory. Also, I think that transparency is about displacement. When you are an émigré you are always in this space that is in-between, in-between physical and not seeing, but they are here.” [2] The partially translucent but still solid effects of the glass sculpture radiating out on the floors materialize the in-between state Campos-Pons references, simultaneously solid but opaque. 

With Spoken Softly With Mama, Campos-Pons created an installation that spotlights the creative and cultural legacy of the women in her family and used her personal history to foreground experiences of the African diaspora that are difficult to visualize but present nonetheless. 

Notes:

[1]  Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons quoted in “Press Release: Spoken Softly with Mama,” Museum of Modern Art, 1998. 

[2] Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons quoted in Michael D. Harris, “Meanwhile the Girls Were Playing: Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons,” Nka (Spring Summer 2001), p. 50. 


Additional resources

This work at the National Gallery of Canada

“Press Release: Spoken Softly with Mama,” Museum of Modern Art, 1998.

Sally Berger, “Threads of Memory–Invisible Lines,” Diaspora, Memory, Place, edited by Salah M. Hassan and Cheryl Finley (London: Prestel, 2008), pp. 212–19.

Okwui Enwezor, “The Diasporic Imagination: The Memory Works of María Magdalena Campos-Pons,” María Magdalena Campos-Pons: Everything is Separated by Water (Indianapolis: Indianapolis Museum of Art in association with Yale University Press, New Haven).

David C. Hart, “Spoken Softly with Mama: Memory, Monuments, and Black Women’s Spaces in Cuba,” Racar, volume 47, number 2 (2022), pp. 56–72. 

María Magdalena Campos-Pons and Sarah Lewis-Cappellari, “On the Art of Alchemy and Unfolding Desires: A Conversation with María Magdalena Campos-Pons,” Theatre Journal, volume 72, number 3 (September 2020), pp. E-1–E-7.

 

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This essay is part of Smarthistory’s Latinx Futures project and was made possible thanks to support from the Terra Foundation for American Art.

Cite this page as: Dr. Ana Cristina Perry, "María Magdalena Campos-Pons, Spoken Softly with Mama," in Smarthistory, January 4, 2024, accessed May 27, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/maria-magdalena-campos-pons-spoken-softly-mama/.