Family has long been one of the central subjects of Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons's art. Early on, her paintings spoke of ties stretched when she emigrated from her native Cuba to Boston more than 20 years ago. Here she found the man she would marry. She took up large-sized Polaroid photography right after their son Arcadio was born. Her first print showed her bare, nursing breasts painted blue like the Caribbean and dripping milk into a simple wooden boat that she cradled in her arms.
"Love and sorrow, birth and growth and fighting. Family, there is always something going on," she tells me. "How tender, how vulnerable, how fragile, and at the same time how strong."
"Something About Family" is a small exhibit of her Polaroids at the Rudenstine Gallery of Harvard's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute that for the most part doesn't flatter her big talent. But there's one extraordinary artwork: Unspeakable Sorrow (2010).
"My brother died. And then my mother died. It was a very long process. For about two years, she was unable to do anything to care for herself," Campos-Pons recalls. "I feel like an orphan. I don't know how to explain that. I felt so lonely when she died."
As Campos-Pons confronted her own loss, she says, "I was looking at all these gestures that women do after their losses . . . how they put their hands on their head in signs of desperation."
Unspeakable Sorrow is three photos recording performances in front of the mammoth 20x24 Polaroid camera in its special studio in New York. A woman is dressed all in black — ruffled shirt, gloves, and a mask that reveals only her braided hair. At left, she bows forward, holding flowers toward us. In the center, she holds the flowers atop her head, almost like horns. At right, her arms are raised and blurred with motion. It's a haunted, uncanny ritual channeling global gestures of sorrow.
"There are many changes and transitions as you grow older," Campos-Pons says. "And they become final. There's a loss of benignity."
"I talked to her every Sunday of my life," she says of her mother. "Still some Sundays I grasp the phone and I think I'm going to call my mother. Then I remember I can't."
MARIA MAGDALENA CAMPOS-PONS: "SOMETHING ABOUT FAMILY" :: Rudenstine Gallery at Harvard's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, 104 Mt. Auburn St, Cambridge :: Through May 31 :: 617.495.8508 or dubois.fas.harvard.edu/rudenstine-gallery