SALEM, Mass. — When Europeans first tasted sugar during the Crusades, they immediately begged for more. However, it wasn’t until Columbus brought sugar cane to the Caribbean to be cultivated that this exotic luxury grew into a hotly traded world commodity, akin to petroleum today. Such sweetness had a price, and Cuba met international demands by bringing enslaved Africans across the Middle Passage and subjecting them to a lifetime of brutal labor. By the mid-19th century, Cuba produced a third of the world’s sugar.
Alchemy of the Soul, Elixir of the Spirits, a large-scale, blown-glass sculptural installation on view at the Peabody Essex Museum, takes visitors on a trip to Cuba to explore its sounds, smells, tastes, and sights, all through this rather dark historical lens. Afro-Cuban artist María Magdalena Campos-Pons created the complex, multipart exhibit with her husband and collaborator, musician and composer Neil Leonard.
“It is a multilayered experience that combines visual imagery with sound elements that engage the viewer in more than one sensorial experience — more than just look and see and move quickly,” says Campos-Pons, who has been dreaming about this project for 28 years.
Campos-Pons grew up in former slave barracks in Cuba and played in the shadows of what were once sugar cane factories. She’s of Yoruba descent — seven of her grandfathers were enslaved in Nigeria and taken to Cuba between 1838–66 to work the sugar cane.
Visitors begin their journey to Campos-Pons’s Cuba by entering the museum’s freight elevator, loaded with burlap sugar sacks and a vintage record player. The elevator operator cues up a 45 rpm record, from which a lone voice sings in Spanish about the beauty of his country and how proud he is to be from Matanzas, Cuba’s main port. Campos-Pons spent much of her childhood there.
Those who know rumba music, its urgent drumbeats and African roots, will recognize the voice as belonging to Rafael “El Niño” Navarro Pujada: the Frank Sinatra of the form. Leonard recorded him in his home as he reminisced about the docks, where he sang during breaks from loading sugar. Between his sweet, solitary voice and the lumbering motions of the elevator, visitors can imagine a ferry voyage, cresting the waves and heading toward the port city.
“I’ve been working with Cuban musicians since 1986, since before I met Magda,” says Leonard, who wanted to meet and record musicians who’d worked in the ports and sang songs reflecting rumba’s roots. “They let me record them in their homes without the drums, without their producers, just telling their stories and singing songs they learned,” says Leonard. “This sound of the port is a very iconic sound of Cuba. That’s an aspect of the work that is Magda’s entire life. It’s about what I am seeing in the sugar trade, distilling it, and bringing it back to the work.”
Arriving on the third floor, visitors enter an ethereal, multisensory dreamscape made up of six 10- to 12-foot blown-glass sculptures. Glass piping connects the bulbous vessels, so the gallery looks a bit like a science lab. One unit is filled with amber fluid that bubbles, flows, and pools in glass bowls and kicks up the sweet scent of rum. This is a surreal, skeletal landscape — an artistic interpretation of the ruins left by the 1,000 or so sugar and rum factories that once flourished in Cuba.
“The presence of smell and temperature in the room, combined with the moisture of the fountain and the distillery bring together this experiential idea,” says Campos-Pons.
At special events, visitors can try quarter-sized slices of sugar cane. In one bite, the juicy liquid explodes in the mouth. That’s it. Then the sweetness is gone and what’s left is a straw-like, tasteless wad that one can’t wait to spit out. The sweetness and bitterness present an uncomfortable dichotomy.
“Sugar is bittersweet,” says Campos-Pons, referring not just to the cane’s taste but also the harshness involved in the harvest. The plant’s razor-sharp leaves slice workers arms and faces, sometimes blinding them.
“What has been beautiful is that the Peabody commissioned this piece, so it really allowed us to be ambitious,” says Campos-Pons. “This idea has been in my mind since 1988. I was just waiting for the proper place and moment.”
The artists worked with two glass factories — one in Boston, the other in San Francisco — to create blown vessels that fit together like Lego parts. “When you’re making a process that is new, there’s not a notebook for it,” says Campos-Pons. “It’s all about taking risks, and you may fail. Glass is fragile. It could break. This is about process. One of the things that I’m excited and happy about is that [the museum] allowed us to go forward with the process and make ourselves vulnerable.”
Leonard digitally manipulated several sources — saxophone, singing voices, and waves — to compose a sound collage that echoes throughout the exhibit. “My concern for the work is that glass is shiny, precious, beautiful, but glass is also cold and Matanzas is not cold,” says the musician. “How can I put something of the warmth, spirit, and rustic quality of Matanzas into the work in the gallery?”
He takes a single note from his saxophone, cuts off the end sound, and digitally manipulates and curves it as one imagines a glassmaker does with molten liquid. “You hear the saxophone after I’ve stopped playing. It’s ringing into space, a reverberation, very much like reflection — like the beauty of Magda’s glasswork, like what you see through the glass and what you see from the shadows on the floor,” says Leonard.
Life also emerges through the songs sung by male and female voices and the sounds of water. They wash back and forth through the installation like a tide.
“One of the things the piece was intended to evoke, which sort of came out intuitively, was how sounds migrated from Africa,” says Leonard. “In Cuba, [the songs] are transformed, some sung in Spanish, some are secular, sacred things that happened in Cuba that didn’t happen in Africa. They migrate like a spirit in one direction.”
In “Agridulce,” one of a couple of performances held in the museum’s atrium in January, Campos-Pons entered the upper bridge above the audience’s heads, wearing a 19th-century slave dress. A machete in hand, she made swift, violent motions as she hacked at a row of sugar cane. Minutes later, she approached the audience and extended her fresh-cut cane: “Try it. It is sweet.”
The crowd pushed forward, gravitating to the artist, wanting see her up close and receive this gift. I felt honored as she paused before me and looked me in the eye. I took the cane, and my heart ached a little, feeling transported back to a 19th plantation, receiving this humble but weighty gift. “I was trying to juxtapose the brutality of that with the taste [of sugar],” says Campos-Pons. “What I say in the performance is, how could anyone find energy to go home and love a close one after 12 hours of this? What love is left over? What energy is left to breastfeed your baby?”
Such history may be skimmed over by Cuba travel guides, especially as they’re being updated for a new era of tourism, but those in the know will find traces remaining in the country’s people, culture, and landscape.
“Contemporary art is about daring to make an experiment, daring to try something new, daring to fail, daring to try to go to a place where no one has entered,” says Campos-Pons.
Alchemy of the Soul dares to tell the truth about a beautiful county with a greedy past, desperate to satisfy the world’s craving for sugar.
Alchemy of the Soul: María Magdalena Campos-Pons continues at the Peabody Essex Museum (161 Essex Street, Salem, MA) through April 3. Neil Leonard and Rudresh Mahanthappa will perform an experimental saxophone concert with projected images by Campos-Pons at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (25 Evans Way, Boston) on April 7.