SALEM — Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons's new installation at the Peabody Essex Museum finally brought her home. And, as she will tell you, it was a long, hard, journey.
Working with the Peabody Essex Museum seemed like the perfect fit: Campos-Pons had spent years making deeply metaphorical works about the sugar industry in Cuba, where she grew up, and the museum has a history rooted in trade and cultural exchange.
"I had the desire to close this cycle of working with sugar, which started in 1991 or 1992," Campos-Pons says. "I'd done work about the trans-Atlantic journey, the body, labor. Now there was the port, and the idea of the transaction and the production of rum."
"Ports are the flowers where cross-pollination takes place," says composer Neil Leonard, Campos-Pons's husband and collaborator, who developed sound for the installation. "They're the crossroads of commerce, labor, and entertainment."
Campos-Pons shows internationally, recently staging installations at the 2012 Havana Biennial and the 2013 Venice Biennale. She lives with Leonard in Brookline. They've worked together since 1988, the year they met.
"It's one of the longest artistic collaborations I've had, and probably the deepest," says Leonard.
"He married her," sums up Campos-Pons.
Two years ago, they proposed an idea about sugar mills and ports, and the museum commissioned "Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons: Alchemy of the Soul," which opens Jan. 9.
Sugar made in Cuba, brought to Salem, was part of the trans-Atlantic triangle trade: Goods were shipped from New England to Africa to barter for slave labor — men and women transported in slave ships to sugar plantations in the Caribbean, where sugar was milled to make molasses and rum.
You can smell the rum when you walk into "Alchemy of the Soul." The gallery is humid; a still, burbling with liquid infused with the essence of rum, pumps along one wall.
"I wanted to have real rum, but the museum wouldn't allow me," Campos-Pons says. "They didn't want this museum to blow up."
The rest of the space is populated with large-scale glass sculptures in dusky tones, the biggest, most technically challenging works she has ever made — scary, even, she'll tell you, but she had a team of helpers. The abstracted forms evoke factories, sugar cane, liquid in motion, and the landscape of Campos-Pons's childhood. She grew up on a sugar plantation in La Vega, in the province of Matanzas, where she and her family lived in a former slave barracks. Images of that plantation have reverberated through her past work.
"I thought, what if it is made of glass?" she says. "The idea of a ghostly image, an apparition, a mystery. Something not there."
Cuba's sugar industry died out in the 1970s, when Campos-Pons was a teenager. But its history, built on the backs of African slaves — including the artist's great-grandparents — looms.
"Alchemy turns something rough and difficult into gold," Campos-Pons says. "I think of the labor black people have done in America. Dedicated labor, turning hard work and abuse of the body into something magnificent."
Making sugar into rum may not be the equivalent of turning straw to gold, but for this artist, it has similarities. "Sugar has done everything by the time it comes to rum," she says. "It is just a spirit."
Campos-Pons was born in 1959, the year of the Cuban Revolution. She left in 1990, after the Soviet Union's collapse sent Cuba into an economic tailspin and a crackdown on creative expression. She was not allowed to return until 2001.
"In a lot of her earlier work, there are issues of the diaspora, of exile and dislocation," says Josh Basseches, PEM's deputy director, who curated this new installation. "Since returning to Cuba after 11 years of exile, we see her coming to terms with being Cuban."
Although she's returned to Cuba several times, it wasn't until this past August, as the US and Cuba warmed their diplomatic ties, that she returned to La Vega. She traveled with Leonard and a team from PEM. She hadn't been there in 30 years.
The trip proved magical in many ways. The couple sought out the rumba group Los Muñequitos de Matanzas — "like the Ellington orchestra of rumba," Leonard says. He sat down with Muñequitos' singer Rafael Navarro Pujada, now in his 80s, and convinced him to sing songs he had learned as a child lugging sugar sacks at the port of Matanzas.
"He sang a song about a boy and an herbalist, and as we're recording, a boy and an herbalist passed by his door," Leonard says. He pressed the music on a 45, which plays in the museum's freight elevator — the entryway to "Alchemy of the Soul."
Returning to La Vega, a speck of a town three hours drive from the port, proved difficult for Campos-Pons.
"The landscape had changed dramatically because of hurricanes and the demise of the sugar industry," she says. "It was really in ruins, and for me, very sad."
"When I couldn't go back," she adds, "I had a recurring dream that was always going back to that place."
She pauses, tearing up.
To mark her arrival, her former neighbors rang the bell, forged in 1836, that used to call the slaves to work in the sugar cane fields.
"There is magic in the making of this piece," Campos-Pons says. "If I had not gathered the courage — this was so risky to make — and gathered the people and taken the steps, I would be very mad."
Now, then, the sugar cycle has come to an end. Or has it?
"This is not the end of the sugar cycle," Campos-Pons insists. "Now we go into the ruins."
Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons: Alchemy of the Soul
At Peabody Essex Museum, 161 Essex St., Salem,
Jan. 9-April 3. 866-745-1876, www.pem.org
Cate McQuaid can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.