María Magdalena Campos-Pons’s “Liminal Circularity”

Kimberly Bradley

June 27, 2023
Galerie Barbara Thumm, Berlin
April 28–June 24, 2023

According to Yoruba myth, only one of the seventeen deities sent by the supreme being Olodumare to populate the earth could do so. After her sixteen male co-divinities failed, Oshun, the goddess of water, fertility, love, and protection, used her sweet waters to revive Earth and create its creatures. At Galerie Barbara Thumm, María Magdalena Campos-Pons pays homage to Oshun with the vibrant gouache triptych Untitled (2021). The artist was born in Cuba in 1959, the year the Cuban Revolution succeeded; Oshun is an important figure in Santeria practices, integrated into Latin American and Caribbean belief systems via the slave trade. Here, a female figure’s outstretched arms cradle a burst of dark-brown blooms, framed by yellow petals—a stylized sunflower spilling over three framed pieces. The sunflower is a symbol of Oshun, and the piece, an invocation of sorts, exudes generosity, abundance, and hope.

Campos-Pons—whose ancestry is Yoruba and Chinese as well as Cuban—is experiencing her own burst of recognition. She’s been known, shown, and studied since the 1980s, but institutional exhibitions in both the Global North and Global South have since 2020 arrived in a rush like the flowing waters she often depicts in her multimedia work. While this reflects a surge of institutional interest in Black artists in the wake of the Movement for Black Lives, it also speaks to the increased acceptance of ritual, myth, and healing in the art field. “Liminal Circularity” is relatively compact: only three works are on view. Yet they represent the core of what Campos-Pons has been up to for decades, excavating her own multiple lineages, honoring herself and her ancestors with ritual and storytelling, and cultivating an earthy optimism despite, or more likely in direct response to, the current state of the world. “We are in the middle of decay, death and despair—and hope, huge amounts of hope. This is why I am here,” she said about a 2022 performance of When We Gather at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.1

The show’s backbone is a large-screen display of Rite of Initiation - Sacred Bath (1991), one of the artist’s signal video works, propped diagonally on the floor like a slab in the center of the space. In its opening scenes, we see a figure’s bare feet and legs step around a red line drawn around a tree trunk, then, shod, take to a manmade road—a passage from nature to city. After a jump cut, the initiation rite begins with the figure—Campos-Pons—setting up five stemmed glasses around her again-bare feet. She fills them with flower petals, herbs, and then water, and over the next half-hour the ceremony continues: incantations; deliberate movements; close-ups of body parts often decorated with leaves, earth, or symbols like chalky white crosses or footprints. Liquids including water, milk, and blood flow on or over the body. There’s percussive, jazzy music, and incantatory narration in Spanish and English (“We came to water to find rest,” “Those who love can recognize each other at first glance”). The video culminates when a kneeling Campos-Pons—half of her silhouetted, nude body tinted white in post-production, the other half blue—silently pours water from two pitchers into a river or ocean.

On another wall is the three-channel video Family Whisper (2023), which debuted earlier this year at the Sharjah Biennale. A central screen shows older relatives of the artist facing the camera on a floral sofa and recounting intimate histories, often referring to the family’s Angolan ancestry. The other two screens show a man performing rhythmic dances: each screen is meant to represent a spiritual state or plane. The two video works, made thirty-two years apart, are intriguing to observe so close together. One uses outdated technology (parts of Rite of Initiation were originally shot in Super 8, as documentation of a live performance of the ritual in 1988), the other is digital. One dives into the mystical and symbolic, the other’s approach is almost journalistic. Still, seen together, the works reveal many facets of her biography, exploring their broader contexts and musing on time’s fluidity and nonlinearity when it comes to unearthing and linking lost or fragmented memories and beliefs.

And as spare as this show is, the gallery space feels almost like a shrine or a chapel: a contained zone in which to contemplate, undisturbed. The artist’s first show in Barbara Thumm’s roomier main space, in 2021, was a cacophony of oversize hanging mobile sculptures of stylized flowers and symbols (like the evil eye found across many cultures) in Murano glass, like an aerial garden of color and form. “Liminal Circularity” is much quieter and more narrative-led, and the ensemble of works carries a different kind of power. It is a reminder of the continuity and (apropos the show’s title) circularity of life’s flows, and the threads that weave and interweave through diasporic, creolized identities. “Let us never forget our origins,” says the narrator at the very end of Rite of Initiation, quoting a Malian aphorism. “The future is full of the unforeseen.”


See María Magdalena Campos-Pons’s “When We Gather,” YouTube (June 15, 2022):

Religion & Spirituality
Mythology, Africa, Caribbean, Diaspora

Kimberly Bradley is a writer, editor, and educator based in Berlin. She is the co-editor, with Hildegund Amanshauser, of Navigating the Planetary (2020, Verlag für moderne Kunst, Vienna).

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