Art and Healing: Nyugen Smith

Missed out on the Art and Healing talk with Nyugen Smith last month? Catch the highlights and Q&A here! And don’t miss out on the distributed exhibit, Bundlehouse: Rising Into Something New, on display until November 24, 2020.

Nyugen Smith, artist talk

Good evening. First I would like to start by giving honors to the ancestors who would want to be with us during this space and time. I would like to acknowledge the Black and Brown people we have lost to violence at the hands of police. Most recently, to my knowledge: Walter Wallace Jr in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I would like to thank Dr. Leonie Bradbury for the invitation to share my work and my thoughts with the Emerson College community, and Boston, Massachusetts, and beyond. Thank you to my friends, family, supporters, and everyone who has taken the time out of your life to spend with us this evening.

Bundlehouse: Rising Into Something New. This is the title of my campus-wide activation at Emerson College. Although our preliminary conversation about showing work here had begun pre-pandemic, the bulk of the conversations about the exhibition happened while we were quarantined here in the North East and our streets were on fire. I said yes, but, due to my state of mind at that time, much about the discussion of the project faded in and out of clarity. The time for when the project was to be presented seemed forever away, and then the emails began to roll in. Oh Lord!

I was in a bit of shock, I think. In the height of it all, this summer, along with conversations about the future of institutions, systems, and structures in the United States and world-wide, were conversations about the future of art. I recall many exchanges where it was said that we will not be going back to exhibitions in person any time soon, not happening. And I couldn’t see the resurgence coming. For me, it seemed that in person exhibitions and art experiences started happening one by one, two by two, three by three, and then came the invitations in my email with the obligatory statement about social distancing and wearing masks to come see the work. I was still traumatized.

There were artists who were great sources of motivation for me during this time, such as Yashua Klos, Ayana Evans, Marvin Fabien, Basil Kincaid, and Helina Metaferia, to name a few. Not being able to actively create in my visual art studio, I turned back to music. It was there within sound that I reconnected with myself, and was able to poetically channel my energy. My longing for collaboration and creative exchange was being managed here, as I collaborated remotely with my brother (who was my first creative collaborator), D. R. Smith, and Gemma Weekes.

In mid-August, I got back to my visual art studio and began to press forward. I felt encouraged. I don’t remember where I heard it, but it was said that when one changes their relationship to the thing, the experience with and within it also changes. When the time came to send in a title for this exhibition, I focused on the question that I posed to myself: Why am I placing a greater level of emphasis on water within this new work? The first answer came to me: The water provides a space for me to put all of the pieces that have fallen apart, and are falling apart, and they can sink or float along with all of the bones of our African ancestors, treasure, pollution, marine life, history, culture, and all. Then, one day, I was walking my dog in the park and listening to The Water Dancer again by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I was listening to it from the beginning, and the answer came to me in the first chapter. In the first chapter, the protagonist, Hiram, is an enslaved African, a young boy, and he was tasked with watching over his half-brother, who is the son of a slave master. The slave master starts to drown, and Hiram tries to save him. In the process of trying to save him, Hiram begins to drown. The words of the text said something like: As Hiram began to go under, he began to see himself rising into something else. And that “something else” is the spirit world. He begins to have visions of his family greeting him, dancing, and waiting to embrace him as he enters into the spirit world. And there, I had it. Rising into something else.

I knew I wanted to have water as the theme of the work that I would show around campus. The idea of “rising into something else” was a metaphor for the way I had been feeling about reemerging. Reemerging, or emerging into something new, after this entire experience of being quarantined while the protests were going on. Things were compounding on top of each other into the heat of the summer. As I felt myself rising into something else, I thought that this would make for an apt title.

My subsequent conversations that I had with Leonie about the concept and the available sights around campus were key to deciding which works to begin to bring together.

Bundlehouse literally translates to “bundling materials together to make a home.” It speaks to the idea of people having to rebuild their lives from things that remain. People who are forced to leave their home because of natural disaster, man-made disaster like war, famine, or genocide. It is also about community, it’s about ingenuity, resourcefulness, architecture, culture, spirituality, and land. I often think about Bundlehouse as this overarching theme embedding those ideas as I continue to build my work. So I often use the term bundlehouse even if the work doesn’t specifically reference these particular structures or drawings. That work is still about all of those other themes embedded into Bundlehouse. Bundlehouse: Rising Into Something New is about the collective experience of us rising, coming out of a contentious period of time, and moving into new waves.

This is the lead image for this exhibition. At first, I really didn’t want to include images of bundlehouses as central images. I wanted to deal with and think about the other things that were connected. And here is the water with the bones, with the luggage, with the fabric, with the barrels, with the fences, with architecture, with bodies and belongings. This is a bird that comes from the Senufo people of Côte d’Ivoire in Africa. This bird is often found within the villages as protectors and are associated with secret societies. It’s also a symbol of fertility. I’m thinking about all of this happening, all of the stuff in the water, yet with this idea of protecting one another and watching over each other, while continuing on, procreating, and moving forward.

Q&A with Emerson Contemporary curator, Dr. Leonie Bradbury

Dr. Bradbury: Wow. Well, I obviously already knew that there was so much to your work, and how rich and layered it is, but, after listening to you talk about, I’m struck again by how much there is that you’re giving to your viewers, how much you put into these pieces, and how much people can connect to the work. One of the things I wanted to ask you about today is that there seemed to be a lot of dualities in your work, sometimes opposing forces, sometimes person versus nature, loss versus love, history versus the future. I’m wondering if those dualities are intentionally pursued, or do they just emerge?

Nyugen Smith: It emerges, I think, that those are themes always in the work. Depending on the medium that I’m working with, depending on the things that are around me at the time of making, perhaps some of those themes emerge into prominence in the work. Nature is everything within the work, thinking about the forces of nature. In my spiritual African traditions, nature is essential. So I think those themes are evolving through the work.

Dr. Bradbury: You’re the first in this series of talks on Art and Healing in which we examine the role of art in society today, in particular this moment in time when there is so much loss and grief. Can art be a source of healing? Whether it be individual or collectively?

Smith: First and foremost, I think that art does have the power to heal. Absolutely. I want to highlight that sometimes it’s not about the “art” that is produced, the object itself whether it’s a painting or sculpture or video. The result isn’t the thing that produces the healing. The other aspects to that are the energy that is generated, the intentions that were put into the work, and the desire to move forward and persevere. Earlier, I mentioned some artists who were sources of motivation for me. And I should say inspiration, too. I would look at their social media and be in text threads with them, and many of them weren’t “making things”, but they were engaging. The energy they were putting out there was the thing that was healing. I think that’s where the healing happens, when the intentions are meditated upon and enacted in the process of making. And then that healing is transferred into the work. That’s what we mean when we say the work is charged or the Aṣẹ builds in the work. Then the object also heals, but it’s the process.

Dr. Bradbury: When I first saw your work, over a year and a half ago at the Boston Center for the Arts, I was so struck by how your objects were so potent and full of association. They also seemed to have a spiritual dimension to them. I know you mentioned it earlier, but I’d like for you to talk more about the spiritual aspect of the work.

Smith: The spirit is always present and I believe that it also needs to be called upon. There’s an active engagement with the spirit during the creative process. Without that active engagement, I don’t think that would come through in the work in the end. In fact, my work wouldn’t leave the studio until I felt that it had a spiritual charge. Growing up in a half Trinidadian and half Haitian home, you give thanks first thing in the morning and you give thanks as the last thing before bed. And throughout the day, there was always this constant reverberation of thanks being given, not taking anything for granted, and understanding that tomorrow is not promised. There’s always active engagement with the spirit through gratitude. In the creative process, that has been such a big part for me. I can’t imagine making and engaging without that. One of the things that I had to learn really quickly as I began to really exhibit and speak about my work publicly was that people didn’t like that I talked about the spirit in my work. They want to keep that stuff inside, and keep the work intellectual. I made an agreement with myself that no matter the pushback, I would continue to talk about spirit and find like minded people who understand that. That’s my creative community. There’s no way that I was going to try to move into an art career or practice without the spirit behind me.

Dr. Bradbury: One term you used this evening was “new folklore” and also this concept of “new traditions.” I see that in your work, that there are objects engaged in seemingly ritual actions. Can you talk more about those ideas and terms?

Smith: When I think about folklore, I question how folklore is created, how myths and stories are created. All of the different components that create folklore and support the idea of a myth are created by circumstances. Circumstances change, the environment changes, languages evolve, and customs change. When all of those changes are happening, the folklore within that space also then changes. That doesn’t mean that the text of folklore changes. If it’s written, you can pass it down and read it. However, if it’s read a hundred years later, the context will have changed. I feel a sense of agency to be able to participate in creating new folklore. And it’s not out of blue, but having my culture as the foundation from which I can continue to imagine. I started using the phrase “shared imaginary space” after collaborating with other artists because we’re sharing imaginary spaces when we’re collaborating. Going deeper and being more literal, we are imaging the songs that we will sing. The engagement in these actions creates the possibility to build a new folklore and new ritual.

Dr. Bradbury: My final question this evening is about the new piece that will be installed at the Paramount Theatre. In that commission, you so beautifully combine and layer these historic texts with the current urgency of activism and protesting. The marquee at the Paramount Theatre has always been a site for that type of language, especially in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s very appropriate to showcase your work there and it causes me to think about art and activism. Is the activist element of your work explicit? Is there renewed urgency or has it always been a part of your work?

Smith: Those themes are always in the work. It hit me one day when I saw someone make a little side note about my work saying that it was so “unapologetically Black.” And I was like “you’re damn right.” Even though I am not constantly thinking about how to insert Blackness into everything, I’m just being and it ends up there. It is seen and felt. I think my work will forever be linked to protests and activism. I also want to make it clear that there are roles within a battle or war, and not everyone is going to be on the front lines. I think about where I can make a difference and be of service in my fullness. The work that I do is true to me, to my authentic self. When I think of activism, the work will always be a part of that. Specifically, with the Paramount Theatre, I feel like this is a way for me to actively engage with the public in the conversations of what’s going on now. Through that installation, I am directly engaging with our current conversations.