Sugar to Rum: Alchemy of the Atlantic

by Francesca Soriano

Figure 1. María Magdalena Campos-Pons (b. 1958, Cuba). Alchemy of the Soul, Elixir for the Spirits (2015). Blown glass, cast glass, steel, cast resin, silicone, acrylic, polyvinyl chloride tubing, water, and rum essence. Dimensions variable. Peabody Essex Museum. Image © Peabody Essex Museum, photo by Peter Vanderwarker.

Alchemy of the Soul, Elixir for the Spirits (fig. 1), a sculptural installation made from glass, metal, and liquid by the Cuban-American artist María Magdalena Campos-Pons, is designed to evoke memories of the Cuban sugar and rum industries. When it was exhibited at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, in 2016, the installation was comprised of six sculptures, each a different color: blue, yellow, dark green, brown, clear, and a greyish-pink.1

The sculptures have many connected components—bulbous shapes lead into cylindrical shapes, which lead into pill-like shapes. They recall the elevated silos and containers that would have held sugar or rum during industrial production. Some of the shapes resemble the cylindrical pots which hold the boiling fermented sugarcane, separating alcohol from water. But there is also something anthropomorphic about them, especially the way that the smaller components connect together to form larger organic shapes.2 The sculptures are almost reminiscent of bodies with limb-like protrusions.

Campos-Pons grew up in a former slave barrack in Mantazas, the center of the Cuban sugar industry in the nineteenth century. The interwoven themes of sugar and slavery are prevalent in many of her works of art. But Alchemy of the Soul, Elixir for the Spirits extends beyond the artist’s personal associations with sugar in Cuba. The ways in which the installation evokes alchemical and spiritual transformation, as well as literal movement and change, connects to the larger history of the Atlantic diaspora. The act of transforming substances from one state into another, whether from sugar to rum or via religion and alchemy, illustrates the social history of the Atlantic. Viewing Alchemy of the Soul, Elixir for the Spirits as a representation of cultural memory, in addition to personal memory, opens the artwork to a broader discourse about hybridity and exchange across the ocean, and about what is natural and what is unnatural.

Campos-Pons’s title, Alchemy of the Soul, Elixir of the Spirits is laden with meanings. On the one hand “spirits” refers to the mystical divinities crucial to Afro-Cuban religious practices such as Santería. But “spirits” is also synonymous with alcohol, including rum. An elixir is a magical or medicinal potion, usually with life-giving or sustaining properties. So then, what is the elixir for Campos-Pons? She indicates in her title that the alchemy is for the soul, implying that the process has beneficial or healing properties. Perhaps the elixir is the ability to turn something like sugar—the production of which is associated with pain, labor, death, and commodity—into something beautiful and powerful, such as art.

Figure 2. María Magdalena Campos-Pons (b. 1958, Cuba). Alchemy of the Soul, Elixir for the Spirits (2015). Blown glass, cast glass, steel, cast resin, silicone, acrylic, polyvinyl chloride tubing, water, and rum essence. Dimensions variable. Peabody Essex Museum. Image © Peabody Essex Museum, photo by Peter Vanderwarker.

One element of the installation overtly alludes to the transformation of sugar into rum. In the smallest of the sculptural installations, five clear glass vessels made from open bowls and jars are all connected by a series of clear tubes (fig. 2). A brown liquid, much like rum, runs through the pipes. For Campos-Pons there is a connection between glass and sugar. She writes, “In my mind, there is a conceptual parallel between the materiality of these two substances: liquid to solid, solid to liquid: transparent, translucent, material, immaterial.”3 On a literal level, glass is made out of particles of sand, much like the small particles of sugar. Sand is heated, melts into a liquid, and then cools into an entirely different substance. Both are alchemical processes—the transformation through which sand becomes glass is not unlike the one in which sugar becomes rum.

Paul Gilroy’s conceptualization of the Black Atlantic, the “cultural, spatial, and temporal aspects of the African diaspora,” offers a theoretical framework for viewing Campos-Pons’s work.4 For Gilroy, the Black Atlantic is both a conceptual and a physical space that is continually crossed by the movement of people, both as commodities and also while engaged in the process of achieving autonomy.5 Through physical and metaphorical connections of trade and the exchange of commodities—including people, natural resources such as sugar, manufactured products like rum, and cultural practices like Santería—links are forged across a body of water. The commodities that traverse that body of water inevitably are transformed. 

The history of sugar and sugar cane harvesting in Cuba is painfully entwined with that of slavery. Most enslaved peoples who were forcibly brought to Cuba from the area inhabited by Yoruba peoples (what is now Nigeria) between 1833 and 1866 were set to work in the sugarcane fields.6 Working in the sugarcane fields was dangerous, especially during the harvests, with back-breaking labor, rampant disease, and targeted violence toward enslaved peoples. Among the many dehumanizing aspects of slavery was the oppression of religion, as sugarcane field owners attempted to force enslaved peoples into the Catholic faith. A range of alternative religious practices grew in response, as methods of survival and cultural preservation. Some people of African descent came to Cuba with already syncretic practices from Africa, other people continued their religious practices in disguise by incorporating a range of beliefs with Catholicism.7

This dynamic practice, with systems of belief from Africa, Europe, and the Americas, is called Santería or Lucumí.8 To call Santería a syncretic religion is perhaps even too simplistic. Religious practices such as Santería stem from transnational and trans-historical processes, such as the transatlantic slave trade, trade and commerce, art and music.9 More than overlaying one religion onto another, Santería (still practiced actively across the Americas today) is an amalgamation, infused by both Catholic and Yoruba beliefs. Santería emerges as a religion configured through mobility of people and ideas across the Atlantic.10

The practices of Santería also include seven day long initiation ceremonies where initiates dress up as and make offerings to the orisha, a transatlantic Yoruba deity, ultimately allowing the orisha to take possession of them to complete the ceremony. Deeply influenced by the practices of Santeria and its diverse sources, Campos-Pons is an alchemist-artist.11 Seventeenth-century French alchemist Pierre-Jean Fabre wrote, “Alchemy is not merely art or science to teach metallic transmutation so much as a true and solid science that teaches how to know the center of things, which in the divine language is called the Spirit of Life.”12 As a medieval practice and forerunner to chemistry, traditional alchemy was concerned with turning metals into gold, transforming one natural resource into another, the latter more commodifiable. Campos-Pons’s Alchemy of the Soul, Elixir for the Spirits engages with the alchemical process of transforming a substance from one state of being into another. Her sculptural installation engages with alchemy through the guise of turning an organic naturally growing material (sugarcane) into a commodified liquid substance that has a temporary boosting, stimulating effect on human morale.13 With the overt reference one of the sculptures makes to sweet, brown liquid, it is impossible not to think of sugar’s two most popular liquid counterparts: rum and coke. Combined together the two form a Cuba Libre, a drink which is itself intertwined with the country’s political history. When Fidel Castro overthrew Fulgencio Batista in 1959, the iconic beverage combination was coined to celebrate the revolution. In the context of Campos-Pons’s work, however, we must also consider how long the alcohol dulls the pain. It tends to alleviate it temporarily but it always wears off.

Figure 3. Remedios Varo (1908–1963, Mexico). Creación de las Aves (Creation of the Birds) (1957). Oil on Masonite. Image © Remedios Varo.

Campos-Pons’s sculptural elements in Alchemy of the Soul, Elixir for the Spirits also converse with a painting by the Spanish-born surrealist artist, Remedios Varo’s Creación de las Aves (Creation of the Birds) from 1957 (fig. 5). In the left foreground of Varo’s painting is a structure resembling Campos-Pons’s glass sculpture. The structure is a waist-high set of oval containers connected to an unknown source of liquid by tubes and pipes. The figure sitting beside the oval repositories is the alchemist, and perhaps also a product of her alchemy, a figure half woman, half bird. The woman-bird hybrid, possibly a personification of the artist herself, seems to be actually creating the birds, bringing them to life.14

A comparison between these two artworks is compelling for a few reasons. Not only are there visual similarities with reference to machines that aid in transformative processes but both artists bring art and alchemy together. The tubes and pipes in Varos painting lead to an oil palette and seem to be producing the very paint that the woman-bird figure uses to create the birds. Her heart is replaced by a violin. These references to music and painting indicate how crucial art is to life. For Campos-Pons, sugar is associated with pain: “every lump of sugar is produced by the sweat of some individual.”15 While she may not be able to bring back the lives lost in the long and violent history of sugar, Campos-Pons can enact alchemy to remember, commemorate, and fortify the social history of the Black Atlantic with art.

Alchemy of the Soul, Elixir for the Spirits also serves as a link to and a metaphor for the transformations that happen across the Atlantic. As the alchemist-artist, Campos-Pons draws together Santería practices and the power of the orishas; the history and pain associated with sugar in Cuba; and the distillation of sugar into rum and its subsequent trade as a commodity. If we think back to the title of the artwork, alchemy is for the soul. In other words, the process of altering and converting substances—memories, histories, organic material—is a magical and powerful act. By engaging with transatlantic cultures, religions, commodities, and history, Campos-Pons is creating a performative legacy. In other words, she is performing the Black Atlantic.16 The elixir for the spirits, what is the product of the alchemical process, is perhaps more than the literal liquid solution and instead the creation of something beautiful—the artwork itself.


Francesca Soriano

Francesca Soriano is a PhD student in the History of Art and Architecture at Boston University. Her research focuses on late nineteenth to early twentieth century American Art, with a particular interest in acknowledging artistic ecological sensibilities and cross-cultural understandings. 



1. The Peabody Essex Museum now has one of the sculptures in its permanent collection.

2. Joshua Basseches, “Transforming Pain into Beauty: The Alchemy of Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons,” in Alchemy of the Soul: Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons (Salem, MA: Peabody Essex Museum, 2016), 44.

3. From an interview conducted between Joshua Basseches and María Magdalena Campos-Pons, September 11, 2015; Basseches, “Transforming Pain into Beauty,” 52.

4. Basseches, “Transforming Pain into Beauty,” 33; Paul Gilroy, “Cultural Studies and Ethnic Absolutism,” in Cultural Studies, eds. Lawrence Grossberg et al. (New York: Routledge, 1992), 193.

5. Paul Gilroy, “Cultural Studies and Ethnic Absolutism,” in Cultural Studies, eds. Lawrence Grossberg, et al. (New York: Routledge, 1992), 193.

6. Basseches, “Transforming Pain into Beauty,” 44.

7. Like vodun in Haiti and Louisiana.

8. See David Brown, Santería Enthroned: Art, Ritual, and Innovation in an Afro-Cuban Religion. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003) for detailed explorations and analysis of the ceremonies and visual culture associated with Santería practices.

9. Aisha Beliso-De Jesus, “Religious Cosmopolitanisms: Media, Transnational Santería, and Travel between the United States and Cuba,” American Ethnologist 40, no. 4 (2013): 705.

10. Rebecca Maksym, “Créolité and Cultural Cannibalism: Reconstructing Cuban Identity in the Work of Marta María Pérez Bravo and María Madgalena Campos-Pons,” (Master’s thesis, University of Utah, 2012) 26.

11. Esther Allen, “Constellation in Sugar: On Alchemy of the Soul: Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons,” in Alchemy of the Soul: Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons (Salem, MA: Peabody Essex Museum, 2016), 97.

12. Fabre, Jean-Pierre. Les secrets chymiques. Paris, 1636. Quoted in Garrigues, Suzanne Daniel. “The Early Works of Wifredo Lam, 1941-1945.” (PhD diss. University of Maryland): 1983, 82.

13. Ibid.

14. See Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993) for more on performing the Black Atlantic.

15. For more on Remedios Varo’s interest in magic and alchemy, which she experienced and investigated in Mexico after leaving Spain at the outbreak of World War II, see Tere Arcq, “Mexico and Surrealism: “Communicating Vessels,” in Surrealism in Mexico, ed. Jennifer Field  (New York: Di Donna Galleries, 2019).

16. Basseches, “Transforming Pain into Beauty,” 47; Alejandro de la Fuento, ed., Sugar: Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons (Northampton, MA: Smith College Museum of Art, 2010), 28.

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