Cultural Negotiation in Alchemy of the Soul

Day 10

In my post on Day 1, I wondered, "What does it mean for someone in coastal New England, an area that was once wealthy because of its investment in Afro-Caribbean sugar and rum production, to look at this exhibit?" The exhibit was Alchemy of the Soul: Elixir for the Spirits, a temporary installation by Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA, and I just finished reading the short book they published to accompany the exhibit. I didn't expect to get an answer, but a partial answer came out of one of the few times the book directly quotes the artist. The exhibit starts in an elevator, where you hear Cuban singer Rafael Navarro Pujada sing a cappella on a 45. Essayist Nancy Pick quoted Campos-Pons reflecting, "Navarro loaded sacks of sugar onto ships that arrived in Boston Harbor," said Campos-Pons. "Here in Boston, you eat the sugar, you drink the rum, but you never hear the voices of the people who produced them. When you put his voice in an elevator in Salem, it's a beautiful gesture of cultural negotiation."

That's what it means. It's cultural negotiation. That's not all that it means, of course. For one thing, labor practices creating sugar and rum are not up to many consumers' ethical standards, and in facing the fact that the laborers are real people, it's harder to ignore our complicity in the system. Attending an art exhibit or reading a book doesn't solve anything. But, it's not intended to. This isn't an exhibit with a call to action; it's an exhibit about memory, and a sense of place.

Image is of the inside of a frieght elevator. Stacks of sugar in cloth bags rest on pallets, surrounding an old record player on a crate.
Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, Alchemy of the Soul, Elixir for the Spirits, 2015,  Peabody Essex Museum. Photograph by Peter Vanderwarker.

I wish that the exhibit book had more of the artist's own thoughts on the work. I was hoping for an artist's statement at the least. But she and the composer of the exhibit's soundscapes, Neil Leonard, are profiled and quoted by curators and essayists who provide third-person context for the art. Even though I wanted more in first person, I appreciated seeing the exhibit placed in historical and art historical context.

I could probably write a short book about my thoughts on this short book, but I'll pause here for now. Do I think that you, the casual museum-goer, should see Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons's art the next chance you get? Absolutely! The immersive quality of this installation in particular made it easy to get something out of it whether or not you "get" contemporary art, and her work is really powerful. 

Next time on A Catalog of Curiosity, I'll talk more generally about the experience of reading an exhibition catalog.