María Magdalena Campos Pons: “Habla La Madre” | #CAA2016

LIVE (at the Guggenheim): María Magdalena Campos Pons, Carrie Mae Weems and Black Feminist Performance

María Magdalena Campos-Pons, Performing “Habla La Madre” at the Guggenheim on April 27, 2014. Photo by Nikki A. Greene.

Nikki A. Greene | Assistant Professor of the Arts of Africa and the African Diaspora | Wellesley College

Panel: Performance as Portraiture

Wednesday, February 3, 2016, 9:30 a.m.-12:00 p.m.

The 104th College Art Association Conference, Washington, DC
Chairs: Dorothy Moss, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution & Jamie L. Smith, CONNERSMITH Gallery
Mariott Wardman Park Hotel, Wshington 1, Exhibition Level

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All photos by Nikki A. Greene

María Magdalena Campos-Pons and Carrie Mae Weems, originally from Cuba and the United States, respectively, have thrived internationally creating works of art that examine African diasporic identity using the physicality of their own bodies as process, subject, and object, literally and figuratively. On April 27, 2014, María Magdalena Campos-Pons processed through the lobby and onto the ramps leading to the second floor galleries of the Guggenheim Museum of New York, shouting incantations among hundreds of visitors, costumed in a startlingly white, hooped dress that mimicked the iconic Frank Lloyd Wright building. Eight female attendants and an Afro-Cuban band sang and played along. In celebration of the exhibition Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video, the performance took place during Carrie Mae Weems LIVE: Past Tense/Future Perfect, a weekend of programs of artist talks, dance, music, and theater.
This paper will examine how Campos-Pons performance “Habla La Madre” offered on that Sunday afternoon her Afro-Cuban body as a site of/for “Africa” and “womanhood” in harmony with Weems—and in dissonance with the museum space—serving to complicate performance art as portraiture within the African Diaspora. Stuart Hall defined the circular relationship of people of African descent to the continent as they return physically, intellectually, and/or spiritually as having to do with “what Africa has become in the New World, what we have made of ‘Africa’: ‘Africa’ as we re-tell it through politics, memory and desire.” Campos-Pons’ insertion within the Guggenheim stands as an exemplary performative portrait of a black feminist artist that is at once present and absent, still and in motion, familiar and foreign, historical and contemporary. By engaging (and interrupting) an “Africa” that thrives vis-à-vis Cuba and the United States through the artist’s own metonymic presence—in the museum/as the museum—in concert with the self-portraits and performances by Carrie Mae Weems concurrently on exhibition, Campos-Pons distinctly reveals how the portrait of an African diasporic body acts as a site of difference, rupture, fantasy, and indeed, self, in ways not traditionally available in feminist art history.

For the full video of the performance, see Carrie Mae Weems LIVE: Performances – “Habla La Madre” |

The Grind: Going to Ethiopia (or Can Parents Have it All?)


I’m leaving on January 1 for Ethiopia to teach at the Alle School of Fine Arts & Design at Addis Ababa University. Exciting? Yes. Nervous? Oh, yes! Why, it’s a fabulous opportunity to meet students and faculty in a gorgeous country. I get to not only teach art history, but also, I suspect, learn so much about the art, culture, and cuisine of the region. I will be there alongside my Wellesley College colleagues, filmmaker and native Ethiopian, Salem Mekuria, and artist David Olsen. I tagged along with Salem to Cuba for nine days, and I managed to have one of the most significant art and cultural experiences of my life (see “Belonging in Cuba“). Dave has been there for two weeks already. He assures me that I will enjoy myself, the people, the art–everything. Bonus: I get two Christmases. Ethiopian Christmas (Ganna) is January 7.

Then, why am I so nervous? I have a family. I’m on the grind

We’ve all heard the African proverb, “it takes a village to raise a child.” I know this more acutely than ever. When both of my children were born, I lived in South Jersey in a cozy suburb with dream-come-true neighbors with children our kids’ ages. I had a separate group of mom-friends whose friendships sustained me with non-stop playdates for our kids and grown-folk nights out when we all needed a break. Since moving to Wellesley College, just off-campus, we’ve established a new village. Faculty and staff members with children, with whom we go on walks, splash around in the kiddie pool, go trick-or-treating, and, most recently, decorate holiday cookies. That’s the village I’m depending on while I’m away.

Christmas cookie decorating with "the village" (December 2012)
Christmas cookie decorating with “the village” (December 2012)

But, let’s be honest. My husband is doing the heavy lifting. He’ll have get them ready and out the door in the morning. He’ll have to juggle picking them up at the end of the day, feeding and bathing before bed, and doing it all over again for not one, not two, but nearly three weeks! So, when I’ve announced to people that I am going to Ethiopia, most people then ask, “and you’re leaving the kids?!” Especially the moms. Some look at me with delight. Others, I can tell, look at me curiously, saying the same thing, “and you’re leaving the kids?!” I’m pretty sure those people, especially moms, are really thinking, “what kind of mother does that with two young children at home?” Or, perhaps what I may be taking for judgement of me is fascination/admiration for my husband. Honestly, neither of us truly knew what this wild ride of a career in academia would bring when we got married after my first year in grad school. I only finished up my degree in January 2010, and we’re both adjusting to my having a “real” career in a new destination (Wellesley College). In the last year alone, I’ve had to leave the kids behind to travel to Washington, DC, Philadelphia, the UK, New York, and Cuba (did I mention I was away for nine days?). That’s in the last year! Great opportunities for me, but a fine dance in communication and compromise for both of us. He’s held down the fort in a way that few fathers could manage for a day or two. I’m grateful. I’m lucky. (Well, really, I chose well).

I want to work. I want a family. I’m a better academic for the lessons learned from having children: patience, time-management, a life beyond the classroom and research. I’m a better parent for having a career: patience, time-management, a life beyond my children. I don’t want to relinquish the accomplishments I’ve made thus far in becoming “Professor Greene” nor do I want my children to feel like they are simply afterthoughts to Mommy’s lectures, articles, and world travel. Frankly, it would be much easier if we had family nearby to help us along the way. Though I’ve had an arsenal of very competent, fun, brilliant Wellesley College students to babysit, last-minute meetings, guest speakers on campus or article deadlines don’t always fit their schedules. There’s nothing like having a grandparent or auntie nearby to help out here and there (for free). Thus, my husband and I are figuring things out on our own for the most part. We negotiate schedules that include early morning and late-night work hours for me, and disruptive kid pick-up times for him. Believe me, it’s taken some creative circus-like juggling to make this trip to Ethiopia happen.

If you haven’t had a chance to read Ann-Marie Slaughter’s article in The Atlantic “Why Women Can’t Have it All” from earlier this year and if you’re a working mom, read it today. She talks frankly about what so many working mothers worry about in the 21st century. More importantly, she warns young people (not just women need to concern themselves with this) about what it will mean to have both a career and a family. Being a working parent is tough. It’s exhausting. It’s beyond frustrating at times. There are occasions when you just have to say enough is enough. Slaughter’s son needed her home. She gave up her career in the State Department in order to return to a more manageable life in academia at Princeton (wow). I have friends who have given up jobs to stay home (including dads) or taken part-time positions in order to better balance family and career. I also have friends who have been able to pursue their careers with full gusto, taking high-powered positions or starting their own businesses that require long hours and commutes. Often, for the latter group, they can afford the extra daycare or have family around to help out. We don’t necessarily have those two privileges. But, I’m still in the early stages of my career. I want (and need) to take advantage of incredible opportunities like this one I’m embarking on.  I’ve been reassured by my mom-friends that everything will go well while I’m away. Intellectually, I know that. I have a competent, loving husband and father. Emotionally, the fact is this will be my longest time away from my kids (gasp). This will be the longest time I’ve been away from my husband  (clutching pearls). I’ve had a hard time sleeping for the last three weeks thinking about my time apart from them. The Newtown shootings made me feel even more desperate to stay close to my kids than ever. But, on January 1st, I leave for Ethiopia.

I had humble beginnings in Newark, New Jersey, but I later went on to boarding school in Connecticut, a year abroad in Barcelona at age 16, and onto a career in the arts (see “I was a poor black kid…”). I want my children to know that the sky really is the limit on what they can become professionally and what it will take to get there. I want them to truly see the world for themselves and not just understand it virtually through books, television, or the Internet. I’m attempting to lead by example. Three weeks in the big scheme of things is not that long (if you’re not my husband). I won’t be able to continue to make big trips for too much longer without them. I hope to have the wisdom to know when it’s no longer feasible. Actually, one of my goals is that as the children get older, we’ll be able to take extended trips together as a family. I agree with Slaughter, women cannot have it all. But, like Slaughter, at this stage in the game, I’ve gotta try!

I expressed to a high school friend, somehow who knows me well, in other words, about my anxieties about leaving the kids. I told her how I was doing this because I wanted to set an example for them about exploring the world, but that I was terrified. Her wonderful response? “Your kids are going to love you for this!” Another good girlfriend, a mom who is also on the grind, remarked, “You will love you for this.” I hope they’re both right.

Here’s how it went:

January 3: “Notes from Addis: Arrival”

January 4: “Notes from Addis: Art in the Making”

January 6: “Notes from Addis: Netsa Art Village”

January 18: “Notes from Addis: Departure”

January 16, 2014: “Notes from Addis: A Look Back”

Cuban cuisine: ¡Que sabrosa!

Ay, ¡que sabrosa! The food in Havana was truly delicious. I’m in the process of writing a review of the 11th Havana Bienniel for publication. Since it will be nearly impossible to “digest” all that I saw and experienced while in Cuba in a single post (I took over 1200 photos on my iPhone!), here are some photos just dealing with drinks and food!

I must first say that for the everyday Cuban, food is very expensive. We were told that on average, 70% of one’s salary goes toward food. Much of the food must be imported, but I did have friends who visited cooperative farms while in Cuba where they are producing more and more of the country’s produce at much lower prices. Nevertheless, if you’ve been to Miami or any other location with really good Cuban food, you know that there is so much to enjoy. They more than make do with what they have, they make magic!

When it comes to drinks, there are two things you need to know and taste in Cuba: café y ron!

Nothing kickstarts your day better than a hot cup of café cubano (Cuban espresso):

Café at La Villa Maria where I stayed in Vedado.

Roberto Fabelo’s homage to the Italian caffetteria, called La Cafedral, 2002-2003. Museo Nacional de las Bellas Artes, Habana, Cuba
My traveling companions, Salem and Lena, at our first Cuban meal in Vedado

Sipping on mojito at the VIP party at La Cabana while listening to a slammin’ band. Yep, THAT happened!
Lovely drinks to enjoy on the balcony of an Havana art collector, overlooking el Malecón
Art + Habana Club rum + new friends = slice of heaven

Now when it comes to food, there are two things you must remember: pork and seafood…ok…and tamales, flan, fruit, bread…just look at the pics!

My breakfast every morning at the house of Teresita Suarez, Vedado:

Artist Esterio Segura wacking a ripe mango from the tree within the courtyard of his studio:

VIP Party at the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, Havana:

Dona Eutimia, Old Havana – best food in Havana practically (and most affordable):

Cuban version of paella

Ah, seviche and all kinds of seafood at La Moraleja…

Our spread for our impromptu film screening at the house:

Fresh tamales made at the house by Doris:

We ran into Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. at this cozy restaurant on our last night in Havana at Café Laurent:

Pescado con papas:

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