For this 11th edition of the biennial, you presented a joint project with your husband, Neil Leonard, a saxophonist and composer. Llegooo! FeFa is an encounter which is as much musical as human. How did the idea of this project come to you and what was its evolution?
María Magdalena Campos-Pons : Our project is an exhibition which is accompanied by a series of performative interventions, the first one happened on May 11th during the inauguration of Llegooo! FeFa at the Centro de Arte Wilfredo Lam. Then, on May 13th, a second performance, of a different nature, was presented along the malecón within the framework of the Detrás del muro project by Juan Delgado. We developed performances in bakeries, with art school students, as it was the case for La eminencia bakery.
The most important thing in Llegooo! FeFa is to create bonds with areas of the public life of Havana which were areas possessing a strong cultural value. This is why, with the help of the young artist Javier Castro, we led numerous interviews with families coming from destitute urban districts, which were not marginalized, but in a dire economic situation. Our action consisted in asking them if they had families abroad and what they wanted their families to send them. The installation that you can see at the CAWL is a part of these “meeting” performances.
Explain the role of bread in the exhibition Llegooo! FeFa.
María Magdalena Campos-Pons : In accordance with the guideline of the biennial and considering social space as a space of imaginary, we thought of the way to give it a different poetry.
From an aesthetic point of view and regarding the visual arts, I have been getting more and more interested in the creation of projects in which I leave as few traces as I can. We live in a world of over-accumulation, which produces an amazing amount of waste. There is a striking inequality in the distribution of the most basic objects and things. The idea was to bring to Cuba the bags containing what the local families would have asked for. In the USA, there is everything in plenty and more. As a citizen of the world, and maybe not as an artist, this is an ethical preoccupation I have.
While thinking of this theme, I decided to make bread and to give it out during my performances. For the first time in Cuba women made bread, which is traditionally a job left to men. There were seven women with me, we learned to make bread in Boston and when returning to Cuba, we introduced new recipes in bakeries. White bread is what feeds the less but is nonetheless the kind of bread you find most in Cuba. We added to it oregano, rosemary…
10 Cubans and 10 Americans made these loaves of bread together. It has become a “work of love” where enmity disappears. We were together and we were working together. Obviously, 10 bakers do not blow out the limits of the relationship between Cuba and the USA but this opens an amazing path that allows communication.
How was « composed » the sound- that we could almost define as a musical score – of the performances and the exhibition?
Neil Leonard : It all started from a reflection and a desire to work with the pregoneros (in English, pregoneros refer to the town criers or public sellers). When creating the music of this artwork, I tried to put myself back in the shoes of the foreigner who had lived in Cuba for a few years. Among the noises of daily life, my attention was drawn the most to the town crier who was selling everything: from food to kitchen utensils or mattresses… To me, when I was sitting in the house in Matanzas, listening to them all day was like attending an opera. They have in the voice something theatrical, musical, a kind of dramatic touch. Therefore I wanted to include them in our installation but in a subtle way.
Thus when you enter the exhibition, there is, at the far end of the room, a huge screen showing the interviews we made with the families from poor districts, where people talk about important things for Cuba. Near that screen, to the left, you can listen to the pregoneros, it is like a more diffuse sound or a background poetic music but not a narrative one. It gives another dimension to the artwork.
To complete this work, we decided that we did not want any recordings of public sellers when we would be performing at the Centro de Arte Wilfredo Lam. Hence we called 18 town criers so as to make a kind of contest between them. We thought of making prizes to award them, something which has never happened before. Their sound is more than a key sound of the Cuban world of sound. It is about a sound that has existed for many years, even if it has been less present for the past 40 years but now tends to reappear. We wanted to pay tribute to their art of words’ manipulation.
After having making this artwork, I realized that when I was eight, at a time when I was not aware of the Caribbean countries, my father would often listen to El manicero [The Peanut Vendor, 1930] by Louis Armstrong. This is a very Cuban symbol and testifies of the importance of town criers in social imaginaries, in the Cuban culture and even in the American one. I often have the impression that the pregonero works at Christie’s or Sotheby to sell art too. He has a crucial importance to auction houses: he has to catch the public’s attention, to liven up the auction but also to close the deals.
María Magdalena Campos-Pons : The one who strikes a deal during an auction fulfills, in a metaphorical way, the same role as the public seller. The auctioneer is also a public seller but at a higher level. But he also cries, louder, modulates his voice and cries even louder.
Were these modulations, this rhythm, that interested you and that led you to choose pregoneros?
Neil Leonard: Yes because the spectacular voice of these people is a performance in itself. Their voice has its own rhythms; it is quick when it has to name the price, slow when beginning to sell the thing in question.
María Magdalena Campos-Pons : It is very interesting to see how in the urban space, they create an element « of opera » taking place in the street. If you follow the voice of the town crier, you make out the continuity of his rhythm, a kind of circularity appears, approaches and leaves again. This movement is musical but also ephemeral, as if it was in transit.
At the Centro de Arte Wilfredo Lam, we decided to use the architectonic space of the place and to install the pregoneros on the balconies. You had to look up to listen to this sound and the balcony is usually the place where somebody important stands. We imagined three prizes for the criers: one for the most musical, one for the most poetic and one for the most innovating. The prizes were not money, they were just a symbolic gesture but it made some of the pregoneros cry. The public sellers who were invited were extremely happy, their job is beautiful but remains marginal. To draw attention on them shows that their job is not only a matter of survival, but also that it includes some artistic values. They create culture in the street every day and produce itinerant artworks!
They have a great sense of humor and the way they seduce the customers is very personal, unlike in a supermarket, for example, where customers face mass marketing. The sense of local place and individuality deeply matter to them when they present their goods. You could witness it during the performance: we had two women selling peanuts and they sold them in two different ways! The pregoneros also announced the arrival of FeFa and the distribution of bread. It was like an opera. And they even included themselves to the performance of FeFa, as artists.
Neil Leonard: We should make an opera that would start in the street and would finish in the theater…
How were the pregoneros selected? Is this a single project?
María Magdalena Campos-Pons : We worked in close partnership with a group of young Cuban artists: , Javier Castro, Rewell Altunaga, Naivy Pérez, Susana Delahante Matienzo, Carlos Martiel… They helped us choose the pregoneros, with Neil too, find their phone numbers and gather them.
I do not think FeFa is a single project. It is an ongoing artwork. I think that FeFa is going to play a role, to have a place in the Cuban art and that she is going to create bonds with other Cuban artists. I do not know how she will come back but she will… We would like to create a “house of FeFa”.
We have been talking about FeFa, but you have not explained who is she? When was she born?
María Magdalena Campos-Pons : FeFa has always been here… But officially she was born in January and her first performance occurred during the 1478 MB exhibition.
Fefa is both the nickname of Josefa and also a name that comes above all from my niece Nelvis. During one of my visits in Cuba, she said to me « tia llego la Fe » (Auntie, the “Fe” is here). I asked her what fe meant and she told me that it was familiares en el extranjer, hence the FE which is said in English family abroad= FA. FeFa was born out of the result of separation and dislocation, of this Cuban-American story of exile. Exile is part of the history of Cuba. FeFa is also the result of a reflection on our period of globalization.
She is here to unite us, to connect with one another. In a certain way, FeFa tries to “repair the distances” and to create bridges. That is why there are many cloths in my installations…
I use the image of FeFa as a hybrid woman-character that is composed of all parts of Cuban culture, parts that I can find in my own family of Asian, African, Arab and European ancestors. FeFa is a woman from a village, who fights, who comes out in the streets. She is the embodiment of a kind of priest. Her vision of the world and of life is centered on the idea of spirituality. I cover her body with a white powder which is the one that us Cubans use to protect ourselves, like a shell (white is not a reference to race). For now, FeFa has never showed her skin. This element of hybridity is fundamental: it is what we call in Cuba el ajiaco : it represents the cultural miscegenation that happens in Cuba where several flavors mingle. This does not happen in Norway for example. This hybridity is a typically Caribbean thing. Cuba has always been a bridge; it is the key of the Caribbean islands in a way.
For FeFa, I use a lot of Asian and African elements. She is wearing a kimono for instance, both severe and dignified. It is what I used for the performance at the malecón: FeFa was looking at the sea and if she was looking at the malecón or at the buildings then she would close her eyes as if to look within herself. There were singers who were invocating spirits and dancers. Also, pregoneros who repeated « help FeFa, help FeFa », they were leaving her space to lead FeFa to the edge of the sea. This looked like a ritual, or a pilgrimage. It was very spiritual. This matters a lot to me. The audience saw a unique image of Cuba, a half-African half-Asian character who was leaving doves behind her.
What was your message?
María Magdalena Campos-Pons : The idea was to occupy the public space with new images to reimagine daily life. People then see the public space in another way, with another dimension. Everything that we did triggered a new vision or created new links so as to turn the public space into a space of communication through art, not in a populist goal but in a way that would enhance us, that would increase the understanding of what the people is. We wanted to open a new window to look at the world and for this the Detrás del muro performance was more meditative, using sunset as a scene.
Do you always work together?
Neil Leonard: Of course, we like this idea of working together. But we also have our own projects on each side. For example I am a teacher at Berklee College in Boston, and I like creating exchanges between Cuban and American students, to create artworks, make them meet and interact.
We have been working together since around 1988. We have interdisciplinary approaches and our individual identities sometimes merge. We are very interested in the creation of special projects, at the biennials in São Paulo or Venice for instance.
María Magdalena Campos-Pons : We have not named our partnership yet… Maybe it is FeFa…
Headline Photograph’s credits : María Magdalena Campos-Pons & Neil Leonard when we met in Havana © Uprising Art
 Traditionnally, it is a kind of stew but it is also an expression of the ethnologist Fernando Ortiz to express the role of multiple cultures in the construction of the Cuban national identity, editor’s note.