To understand the María Magdalena Campos-Pons and Neil Leonard exhibit, look to the right as you walk into Manhattan's Stephan Stoyanov Gallery. There on your right side, you will see a mixed media self-portrait of María built up vertically in three separate framed pieces. At the root of the piece is a small, painted image of María s face questioningly self-assertive, youthfully energetic. The paint strokes build up, first, through locks of María’s hair layered into the portrait before floating up through warm bursts of orange, red, yellow, and brown.
The exhibit celebrates “identity as a fluid, contradictory and unstable rather than firmly fixed entity in today’s globalized world. Her visually striking compositions [… employ] fragments of different traditions, religions and mythologies, in particular the Yoruba, Spanish and Chinese” that are María Magdalena Campos-Pons.
While enjoying the visual art pieces on the ground floor, you will hear the songs of the Cuban pregoneros (street vendors) calling from downstairs. It's an intentional call, drawing you downstairs to the finished yet exposed industrial basement space. There, immersed in ten channels of sound and two of video, you become part of Neil Leonard’s Pan Verdadero (True Bread) multimedia installation. The video projects street scenes shot recently in Cuba where citizens sell goods in a small version of capitalism up until recently prohibited.
The street vendors chant and sing in veins of folkloric tradition, improvising a new livelihood. When I spoke with Neil Leonard, he shared tales of his trips to Cuba and how the sonic landscape has changed. Having traveled for over twenty years to Cuba, he's noticed a major change in the last two years as the pregoneros have returned to the streets after being prohibited after the Cuban Revolution over a half-century ago. While collaborating with the pregoneros, Leonard recalled that the first Cuban song he heard as a child was El Manisero (The Peanut Vendor), an iconic popular song that celebrated the artistry and charisma of pregoneros, even during the period in which they were banned. The pregoneros were keen to collaborate on this installation that celebrates their reemergence in the 21st century.
Leonard’s ability to produce a cohesive audio soundtrack from snippets recorded on his last travels to Cuba and and his own electronic score make pure magic. You feel transported to Cuba, standing in front of the vendors and watching their daily transactions. The vendors impact is a direct result of their charm and wit as entertainers, each a character in their push for sales.
Neil Leonard received the Berklee College of Music Distinguished Faculty Award. He is currently on the Fulbright Specialist Roster. María Magdalena Campos-Pons was born in 1959 in the Matanzas province of Cuba. She was recipient of a Harvard Fellowship '93 / '94. She currently teaches at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Leonard and Campos-Pons are married and have been collaborating artistically for over twenty years. This project is unique, however, in that they are working parallel to each other in the same gallery for the first time. Previously, they had worked on installations together where Leonard did the sound and Campos-Pons handled the visuals.
María Magdalena Campos-Pons and Neil Leonard
September 8 – October 27, 2013
Stephan Stoyanov Gallery
29 Orchard St, New York City, 10002
For more information, go to the Stephan Stoyanov Gallery's official website.