On December 3, 2016, when we sat together in their Boston kitchen, María Magdalena Campos-Pons and Neil Leonard shared with me the recording of a friend’s voice:
My name is Alfredo Comas García. I have spent twenty-two years working as a bartender. The dream of my life is to have a bar, or transform an existing space into a bar … that is called … Matanzas 1945.
They had met Comas García during their extensive research into the sounds of Matanzas city in Cuba for the Matanzas Sound Map and Bar Matanzas, which will be presented in Athens and Kassel respectively, during documenta 14. In meeting him, they had found their ideal bartender, one who shared their sense of the social possibilities of a bar—but this turned out to be just weeks before his untimely death.
Matanzas is the birthplace of Campos-Pons, an artist whose continued assertion of supernatural forces is grounded in material investigations that cut to the heart of the soul-draining colonial processes which continue to shape global history, and particularly the history of her native Cuba. On a recent visit with the artist to the city where she was born in 1959, I realized that Matanzas has a different quality to Cuba’s famed and singular capital. Throughout this beautifully scaled city of many bridges, neoclassical edifices, and clues of cultural and mercantile fortunes, one reads the city slogan: Matanzas: La Atenas de Cuba (The Athens of Cuba).
The nomenclature reportedly evolved from exceptional cultural ferment, including an eclectic musical tradition greatly enriched by Africans arriving via the transatlantic slave trade. The Pennsylvania-born composer and saxophonist Neil Leonard, Campos-Pons’s long-time collaborator in art as well as in life (they were also born in the same year), has honed an ear for these sounds and the society they have contributed to since 1986. Members of the rumba group Los Muñequitos de Matanzas already featured in a joint work from 2015, entitled Alchemy of the Soul, Elixir for the Spirits, a complex evocation of the sugar and rum industries that brought Campos-Pons’s ancestors to Cuba.
At this time of historic transition for the island, Campos-Pons and Leonard’s work, centered on Matanzas, engages the cultural specificity of this urban jewel, but never in isolation—a condition that Cuba has suffered for too long. Imagining a future for this city, for Cuba and beyond, now involves constructing a map and a bar called Matanzas, in tribute also to the ethos of a bartender. Might we enter these spaces as thought-islands to be added to the Greek archipelago too?