Nyugen Smith





My Time In Wassaic


My time at Wassaic was interesting. I learned quite a few things about myself during that time. I spent the first week and a half finding interesting locations to shoot video and make performance for the camera, editing the photos and videos, teaching myself Adobe Premiere, writing songs, and collaborating with fellow resident and housemate, Amanda Edwards, on the video work. For these projects, I made a costume, incorporated some objects I purchased at a local salvage store and some I found on the Wassaic Project grounds. It was incredibly hot in Wassaic during the first week and this I did not mind. I was dripping with sweat carting around heavy, old doors that were used to keep animals in their pens when the Luther Barn housed livestock, moving around a concrete pedestal, and a tiled podium for the photo and video work. Labor. Sometimes these tasks, which I documented, felt as interesting, if not more interesting than the “stories” developed for the intended shoot. So... ”productive” is how I would describe the beginning of my residency at Wassaic. Then it began to rain heavily and consistently for days, so I couldn’t shoot outdoors. I figured that I would make work in my studio, perhaps work on paintings, collages, and/or drawings, but my studio would take in a lot of water when it rained heavily, so that plan was a bust. This made me a little depressed. Bonding with some of the other residents over drinks and food and visiting their studios was helpful during my “blue period."

The staff was extremely welcoming and made themselves available for trips to the grocery and hardware stores, for studio visits, and casual conversation. They seemed genuinely interested in and excited about the work that residents were doing. I’m grateful for the experience. A Big Up! to Oshun Layne for nominating me for this residency. One Love!




By Joe Brommel, July 2018

In your pre-interview questionnaire, you said that your art is “a response to past and present conditions,” and that you “want future generations to have a deeper knowledge” of those conditions. But having seen your work and your studio, it seems to me that your work is equally a process of reimagining possibilities for the future. Does that seem right?

Yeah. I think there are a few different things. There’s the performance aspect, and then there are what I call the “objects” — drawings, paintings, photos, and videos. My performance thinks a lot about spiritual traditions in the African diaspora, about how spiritual traditions historically have been used as a way to cope, about liberation, about ways to use spirituality to define and shape the future.

So that's one aspect of the work. With the drawings, the paintings, photographs — let’s talk about Bundle House specifically, because that’s what’s going on in the studio at the moment. Bundle House does think about the future, but it doesn’t necessarily have a positive outlook on the future. It's about realities of what's happening globally. The way climate change is affecting our planet, the way that we live, and migration patterns. For example, the mining of natural resources in Africa is actually causing displacement among the people who live in the areas where these minerals and resources are being sourced. So Bundle House is responding to the future, but not necessarily a positive future.

I remember that on your site you talk about a line between “real independence” and “flag independence.” Which seems connected to the work with maps in Bundle House — there's a difference between how the map is generally portrayed and what the places in that map are like on the ground. Can you say a little bit more about that?

The flag work is definitely taking from that tradition. Flags have been in my work since around 2002 — whether they're depicted in drawings or paintings or things like that. But the actual making of flags rooted in particular ideas that I've been researching is fairly recent. The flags that I've been designing are based on a particular set of concerns that I have within a particular country. One flag, called A Flag for the New Caribbean, is based on a speech given by Sir Hilary Beckles in Barbados about reparations from former colonial rulers in the Caribbean.

The flag In Martinique was thinking a lot about language and independence, because Martinique is not independent from France. I also think about the materials that exist within these communities, these countries that are tied to a specific position of black people and people of color in the Caribbean. In In Martinique, the material that I use is called madras, which was brought by indentured servants that came from India, from the city of Madras. So I'm designing and creating this flag made of madras to think about independence, using the design of the indépendantiste flag in Martinique, and using this material that is tied to a subservient past as it relates to black people in Martinique, blacks and the Indians that were brought there.

In Bundle House, we're talking about territory, we're talking about land, we're talking about refugees, refugee camps, or locations where people who are refugees are settling. This idea of autonomy and independence, these ideas of borders and questions of borders. I’m also thinking about what Frantz Fanon said about “flag independence” and “true independence” — whether blood is shed to gain independence, or if it’s just an agreement on paper, after which one flag gets lowered than another gets raised. And what does that mean? What does it mean to have some sort of agreement with your former colonial ruler? No one just gives up power out of the goodness of their heart — there's always some sort of caveat, there’s always some sort of arrangement. Do those arrangements benefit the people that live in the place that has been liberated? How do they affect the future of that location, the people of that location? And what will history tell us many years from now? Or what will the feature reveal about these deals that were that were made during these times of independence?

Revealing is an interesting way of putting it. So do you feel that your work is partially archaeological in nature, if that's the right word for it? That it’s undergoing this process of uncovering just as much as it’s recasting and reimagining?

Absolutely, absolutely. This uncovering is is made possible by my research. Whether it's reading, or watching films, or listening to speeches, or speaking to people who live in these places or have knowledge of these things — it's about uncovering information, known or unknown to myself. It’s this peeling-back of what's on the surface to get as close to the core as possible.

But as we know, history is always one person's account. The accounts, depending on who you speak to, may be totally different. So what am I uncovering as I make the work? And then, once the work is made, what does the work itself reveal? Because the work isn't necessarily the story: the work is about ideas related to the story. So what does the work then produce or unveil about the actual information that I have researched to inform it? What does the work get at that those other things don’t? Art can say so much more than words, so what else does the work add to the conversation?


What does it mean to have some sort of agreement with your former colonial ruler? No one just gives up power out of the goodness of their heart — there’s always some sort of caveat, there’s always some sort of arrangement.
— Nyugen Smith

Let's return to our discussion of the materials you use in your pieces. You talked about how you did some research and made some flags out of madras, but you’ve also used some pretty interesting materials for Bundle House, right?

Yeah, the materials that I'm using to make the bundle houses are found materials. I say “found” — sometimes these materials are bought, but most of the time they’re purchased from a secondhand store. I prefer to use materials that already have some sort of lived history. Materials that have had life, have been damaged, beat up, or soiled. Aesthetically, when I look at those materials, I see the there's already a life and history to them. And then bringing these histories together to talk about colonialism or climate change.

But not necessarily knowing the specific history of an object then adds other layers of conversation with the other objects that I'm combining to make the bundle house. It’s a way of saying that whatever life this object has had in the past, it’s being given a new life. The object is now being repositioned and given this new sense of purpose.

I started using found materials in the very beginning because of economics. I couldn't always afford to buy new materials, so finding objects objects was a way to skirt around what I could or could not afford at that time. But then it started to have so much more meaning to it.

So this process of bringing these locations themselves into the work — do you feel like that’s always operant? I'm thinking about making work in Wassaic or in and around Luther Barn. Are you always using found materials from the place you're in? Or are you mostly using materials and ideas from places that you’ve visited, and then taking the time to think about them and use them in settings like this?

A little of both. In residencies or my own travel research, I actually bring materials with me to work with. These materials are usually a mixture of objects and materials that I've been finding over the years. They may just be pieces of those things, because they get chopped up as I'm working; I have a box in my studio at home that has bits of these larger pieces of material, and I dig my hand in that box, stuff them in a bag, and bring that with me.

But then I also find other materials and objects in the location where I'm working to bring all those things together, whether it's in a permanent piece, or a temporary installation, or creating a temporary space for performance or video or photos.

And what have you been working on in particular in Wassaic?

I've been working primarily on video. There’s some sort of narrative, but I’m thinking loosely about travel — travel through the spirit, traveling of the spirit, what spiritual conditions that exist in the African diaspora can afford one in terms of travel. Being able to escape the body as a coping mechanism during times of slavery, enslavement, to be able to tap into these other realms in order to escape what the physical body is going through.

In Wassaic, a lot of the work was done in the body of water that runs by the mill and inside of Luther Barn. The structures here, the history of the walls, the aging of the paint, the little crevices and duct spaces that are dimly lit — they lend themselves to tales. I’ve also been collaborating with Amanda Edwards in the video work. As a choreographer and dancer, when we have the conversation about what it is that I'm trying to get at with the shooting, she’s thinking about how she can embody that in a way that works with the space but also with the topics and subjects that we're dealing with.

Are collaborations like that usually a part of your process? Or is working with dancers and other residents to produce your own work something new?

Fairly new. Collaborating with artists to make work probably started about five years ago. It's not very often, but when the opportunity and the time is right I do enjoy that act of collaboration. And when I make performances I often involve people who are witnesses to the performance, which is a form of collaboration as well.

I prefer to use materials that already have some sort of lived history. Materials that have had life, have been damaged, beat up, or soiled.
— Nyugen Smith

Photos by Walker Esner