New to the Indigo Arts Alliance? So run – don’t walk – to the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) at Maine College of Art & Design. The vitality this organization brings to our community and to the Maine art scene is vividly displayed in the exhibit “Visions of Our Future; Echoes of Our Past: Dianne Smith, Nyugen E. Smith and Carl Joe Williams” (until May 6).
Indigo supports “the development and amplification of intellectual leadership, vision and artistic practice of Blacks and Browns”. Its core program, Artist Residencies, has brought these multi-media artists to Portland and, now, to the ICA, which showcases the work of these prodigious talents. The show is co-hosted by Jordia Benjamin, Deputy Director of Indigo, and Ashley Page (MECA&D Class of 2020), artist and studio and program coordinator for the nonprofit.
Although Indigo’s focus is an expression of black and brown artists, it is immediately clear that the themes that Dianne Smith, Nyugen E. Smith and Carl Joe Williams are tackling – migration, environmental catastrophe, political discord, war, as well as community and identity – transcend narrow categorisations. The universality of the ‘Visions/Echos’ messages urgently invites all of us to consider their implications.
Nyugen E. Smith’s Bundle House sculptures and two-dimensional mixed-media drawings and collages occupy the first gallery. Their theme is mass migration, and they’re essentially all makeshift shelters on stilts glued together from the detritus of human existence: blue tarps, corrugated cardboard, wire mesh, a soap dish, a netting, inner tubes, baskets, hair, fabric, a glove, rope… the list of what one could ominously call “building materials” is endless.
Bundle Houses remind us of squatter colonies all over our planet, whether it’s the slums of Mumbai, the favelas of Sao Paulo or the homeless encampments of Berkeley, California. A room the size of a wall, a map of the world where every continent is replete with such structures, raises the possibility that it will be a necessary and widespread architectural typology in the future.
According to the UN Refugee Agency’s Migration Report, in 2021 a record 84 million people were forcibly displaced from their homes due to war, famine, environmental disasters and other causes. The 2.5 million Ukrainian refugees currently in Poland remind us that this situation not only persists, but also affects all classes and cultures. Poverty is certainly also the engine of these migrations. In 2021, the World Data Lab’s poverty clock recorded 750 million people living below the extreme poverty line (set by the International Monetary Fund at $1.90 a day). Soon, this map implies, this will be our dominant world condition.
Unexpectedly, however, there is also a sense of human resilience in the Bundle Houses. They are the products of an indomitable survival instinct. One, “Bundlehouse (Fourteen x Eleven No. 5),” even sounds hopeful. Fitted with pontoon-like appendages, it appears to be moored off an idyllic island dotted with palm trees. The unseen owner hung a shop sign on one side and a lantern on the other, as if the structure, equipped for nomadic life, traveled among displaced communities offering services to anyone who would buy. Life goes on in the midst of the eternal mixing of populations.
A mural installation in the hallway leading to two other galleries is both more local and more centered on the African-American experience. During his Indigo residency, Nyugen E. Smith encountered Portland’s Freedom Trail. For this piece, he created relationships between specific landmarks on the trail and his musical project ALGO-RIDDIM for which he wrote, filmed and produced songs for a limited edition album (550 in total). He calls ALGO-RIDDIM a “sound reflection” on Caribbean and African rhythms “situated” in hip-hop.
The Eastman House, on the corner of Mountfort and Newbury Streets, for example, housed Charlies Frederick Eastman, his wife and father, who were “drivers” on the Underground Railroad. Smith juxtaposes it with a song called “So Sorry I Left You” whose lyrics, in part, intone “I’m a messenger sent to remind you. I’ve been told the soul is at ground zero. Who d’ between you has what it takes to be a hero? It is rich in content, including a fascinating lecture by Amalia Mallard on the use of laughter in African-American music as a coping and survival mechanism as well as of revolution and protest.
Opposite is Williams’ installation “Imagine a World Without Prisons”. During his June residency, he collaborated with Maine Youth Justice and Maine Inside Out, two activist groups advocating for change in the juvenile criminal justice system – particularly around calls for the closure of Long Creek Youth. Development Center in South Portland.
The work explores “ideas of using art as activism to restructure the community for justice and equity,” reads one wall plaque. But it also deals with the ways in which community comes together, coming together through various kinds of shared human experiences: race, incarceration, age range, passion. Around the room, several monitors project conversations Williams had with members of both groups dealing with the negative impacts of mass incarceration.
We watch the monitors against the backdrop of large, colorful quilt-like paintings that incorporate images of the American flag. Williams wonders what “American” values could possibly support the systemic imprisonment of children. On the walls are questions that these young people discuss in the videos, such as: “Why have security guards been the focus of bringing children to jail instead of school?” or “Why is there a lack of use of emotional self-regulation tools in the school setting for children?”
Teenagers interviewed speak of friends living homeless on the street; the lack of resources to meet the mental health needs of children; how, rather than using funds to improve the system, young people are simply sent to prison, where confinement only exacerbates their behavioral problems. These young people have a lot to say and a lot to hear. Unfortunately, the volume is low and their commentary is further muddled not only by other nearby monitors, but also by Dianne Smith’s recitations from the adjacent gallery. It happened with a sound art exhibition in 2020 also. Headphones, or even a thick curtain over the entrance, would have greatly improved this experience.
There’s a lot going on in the final gallery. “Uptown Parade” is a photo essay commemorating the diverse beauty of Dianne Smith’s adopted community in Harlem (she is originally from Belize). There’s a video called “Phenomenal Black Womanist,” with clips from fashion shows featuring black models who showcase the multiple forms of beauty embodied by black and brown women, as well as the clothes they wear as forms of style, individual expression and rebellion.
On the opposite wall, another video titled “Black is Beautiful” is a tribute to black educator and impressive speaker Mary McLeod Bethune who also marked the one year anniversary of the murder of George Floyd. It scrolls through images of great African-American historical figures. These are words I heard down the hall at the Williams facility, as told by Smith. They are taken from Bethune’s 1955 last will and testament to his people.
There are wooden and textile busts from West Africa, and other heads that use found objects in more abstract (and interesting) ways reminiscent of Chakaia Booker’s rubber headdresses. But the most evocative for me was “Sacred Ground”, which looks like butcher paper rope mats. They reconnect with the traditions of hair weaving and basketry, but their corporeality also seems immediate, both textually sensual and powerfully ritualistic. They are also woven, a perfect metaphor for the community themes woven throughout the show.
Bethune’s lyrics also seem to unify the exhibit by reminding us of the importance of love, hope, education, faith, etc. This passage still rings in my ears:
“I leave you my love. Love builds. It is positive and useful. It is more beneficial than hate. Wounds quickly forgotten pass quickly. Personally and racially, our enemies must be forgiven. Our goal must be to create a world of fraternity and justice, where no man’s skin, color or religion will be held against him. “Love your neighbour” is a precept that could transform the world… it evokes fraternity and, for me , human brotherhood is the noblest concept of all human relationships.To love one’s neighbor is to be interracial, interreligious and international.
Jorge S. Arango has been writing about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected]