How did the Bundlehouse series begin?
Bundlehouse started in 2005. I went to London to visit my girlfriend at the time — we're now married — and one of her friends out there, photographer Chenoa Maxwell, was sharing some photographs from one of her recent trips to Uganda with us. They visited villages and refugee camps of people internally displaced by genocide and conflict, and many of the structures that the people had built — whether it was for a home, or whether it was to set up some sort of shop — resonated with me as sculpture.
At that time I had been working primarily with natural materials, and these structures I saw in the photos really made me think about ways to expand into plastics and other synthetic materials. What was clear to me was the fact that they were using everything that's available. They didn't make a distinction between natural and artificial. Most likely, these artificial materials were the ones that were going to survive the longest. They’re the ones that are going to keep the water out. They're the ones that they can put wire in to tie it, pull it tight, to defend against the wind or the rain.
So, 1) thinking about necessity. And 2) I was working really with a very limited color palette at the time — earth tones, browns, ochres, deep reds, crimsons — so these brilliant colors that these materials often come in helped me bring back other colors into my work.
That was the start of Bundlehouse. I started thinking about these structures, and then on my flight back, I just started to draw them. The first drawing of Bundlehouse was on a barf bag.
Do you still have that barf bag?
[Laughs.] Yeah, I still have that. Bundlehouse drawing number one.
In the Nyugen Smith retrospective that’ll be the first thing. To jump forward in time, I want to ask about a couple of the titles of the pieces in the show. Where does the title like oil + water come from?
A lot of times the works on paper are made from remnants of other works in the studio. I went to Tanzania for a holiday one year, and ever-present on the landscape were those plastic yellow jerry cans — people pile them on their bicycles and carry oil in them, carry water in them. So when I came back, the jerry can showed up in the work.
It’s thinking about resources and access to resources — in some places where the jerry can is commonly used, people often have to travel far distances in order to get water. And then thinking about how they say oil and water don't mix, but the jerry can is a symbol of both. Which brings in this idea of conflict: thinking about Bundlehouse being born out of conflict, and the resistance between these two elements, oil and water.
And High Tide S.O.S.?
So with Bundlehouse, climate change is one of the main topics that I explore. Thinking about how climate change is affecting us globally, as well as how it's affecting parts of the world where Black and brown people are the majority of the population in ways that it’s not affecting us here in the United States. And so High Tide is just really thinking about the severe flooding that is plaguing many parts of the world because of sea level rise.
How are you thinking about migration in particular in the Bundlehouse series, then?
So thinking about climate change, war, genocide, famine — all of these are directly linked to the legacy of colonialism. Places have been colonized because of resources that the colonizer wanted/wants to take advantage of. And as a result, there is indelible harm inflicted on the landscape and on its people in order to take the natural resource. So when we have severe flooding, it impacts these types of environments in a way that perhaps would not be as devastating had there not been decades and decades of mining, for example. So people have to leave those regions, and as they leave, they move into a new space, and then moving into those new spaces brings further complications — perhaps ethnic conflicts, the spreading of disease, the proliferation of famine for example.
Speaking of the legacy of colonialism, there's another piece you have in the show, Untitled (scrubbing: an exercise in erasure), where you're “scrubbing the remains of a sugar mill in St. George's parish in Barbados as an act of cleansing, remembering, and reckoning with the history of the structure and the land where it still lives.” Can you say a little bit more about the process behind making that video and about that particular sugar mill?
That work was made during my time at a residency program in Barbados called Fresh Milk International Artist Platform. I was traveling to different Caribbean islands on a fellowship, and Barbados was one of those locations that I wanted to visit for research, to think about their history — especially thinking about sugar plantations. In the late 1600s, about half the island was occupied by sugar cane. This residency is situated on a former sugar plantation, so it has the carcass, I call it, of a sugar mill there.
I spent a lot of time at the mill, looking at it, thinking about it, making actions and reading about the area, contemplating the fact that sugar mills during that time were sites of tragic accidents, contemplating the brutality of slavery itself which would have happened on those grounds, and also thinking about the act of erasure — as in how the ruling class, the colonizers, the slavers record history, and things that get erased. I imagined different kinds of processes of cleansing the space, within the context of spiritual systems in the Black diaspora. So I literally began to scrub, scrub, scrub, scrub — and then I realized that it’s crumbling. Many of the islands in the Caribbean were formed by volcanoes, but Barbados is actually formed from coral. So during the construction of the sugar mills, this same coral was used to create the building blocks, so when I'm scrubbing it, particles of it are coming apart.
So as I scrubbed, I thought that, in theory, I could literally erase it by scrubbing the thing. But you could never really erase it. Because even if you got rid of all these monuments, if you got rid of all of the technologies associated with the plantation system that existed during that period of time, it's still in the body. That DNA memory is still transferred from generation to generation. You may not see it physically on the surface, but it's there, and it always will be there. These things that exist within a landscape remind us of the past, tell us about ourselves in the present, and also continue to reveal themselves and be present in the future.
I was reading this review yesterday of a book about the history of land acquisition, and there was this quote from the book saying that the earth “forgives and forgets whatever humans do to it over time.” And the reviewer pointed out that that's a particularly American way of thinking: that the earth and the landscape just forgets and wipes its hands clean of things. There's a different sense of memory operant within colonial mindsets and the people that they're colonizing.
I don't know what the question is there, but you've got me thinking about that again.
Well, also, in relation to that, they have a center for research for sugarcane there. So I was really excited to go and learn more. As an artist, I identified relationships between the work of this industry and the institution of slavery — so in my blog post for the residency, I wrote about that, they read it, and were really upset about it. It became a point of contention during my time as an artist-in-residence there.
So they objected just to the suggestion that there was some sort of thematic connection between the sugarcane industry and —
[Laughs.] That's deep repression.
Yeah. So going back once again to the remnants within the landscape — that was one way that I personally experienced that legacy of colonialism. It’s fascinating.
I want to return to something that you said a while back. You mentioned how the Bundlehouse series sparked this decision to move from only using natural materials to using a mixture of natural and artificial materials. And one of the pieces in the show, Bundlehouse Landscape (Four Flags), includes mixed media collage, and then also “diaspora soil.” How did you start using soil in your work?
I started to think about pigments when I started making these maps. I went to Florence as an undergraduate student to take a painting class, and one of the things I was so fascinated with was that their art supply stores still had these really vast selections of natural pigments that you would mix to make your own paints. I remember always wanting to go in there just to look at them and touch them.
And so when I began these maps, I was thinking about ways to include not only the materials that I'm picking up from the landscape, but now the literal land. You're not legally allowed to bring in the soil from a place, but I did. I began to use it as a pigment for the ground specifically, and then I started to expand that by asking others to send soil.
The first map with soil used just Zambian soil. But if I'm mixing soils together, then I call it “diaspora soil.” So Four Flags has a mixture of soil from different locations as a way of telling the story of Bundlehouses happening worldwide, in multiple spaces.
I also want to ask about one of the recurring visual motifs in the Bundlehouse series. In two of the pieces in the show, there’s this concentric circle under the Bundlehouse. Can you say a little bit about that in particular?
I started that when I started making the maps, too. I love seeing different kinds of conceptual maps, historical maps, and one of the things that I'm often interested in is the cartographic symbols that people come up with. I remember seeing this one symbol to identify capitals that looked like a target. And then thinking of the function of targets — you know, think of a bow and arrow, a gun, something violently striking. So I adopted that symbol as a way to identify locations within my map, thinking about the violence of what happens within a particular location coming from an outside source. Then I started to place them underneath the Bundlehouses, almost as landing pads — so they become the locators, but also these spaces of grounding. And then visually, too, when I looked at them, they give a sense of constant motion within the piece — like an energy of vibration.
You were talking about this earlier with the video piece, but can you talk about the role of research in your practice more broadly?
My research goes in waves. So for a period of time I actually stopped making Bundlehouses and began doing a whole series called SELF Series that was all self-portraiture. That research was related to my interest in the continent of Africa and the history of colonialism there, and I worked from that for quite a long time. Then when I went to grad school in 2014, and that spawned a whole ‘nother level of research — two, three, four years researching very particular things about African-based spiritual practices throughout the diaspora. Then I started to become interested in these different histories and legacies of performances within the Black diaspora, and was able to go to the Caribbean to do the research in these places.
It's like that’s gas that I put in my tank. That research has carried me for a little while, but I’m at a point now where I need to refill again, so now I’m starting to think about what’s next for the work. What am I interested in? How am I bringing in these other things in service of this Bundlehouse work?
How long did you set aside the Bundlehouse series while you were working on self portraits?
About two, two-and-a-half years.
It's interesting that, at a certain point, you felt like it was time to set aside the Bundlehouse series when you were running out of gas, but now you’re at a point where you know that Bundlehouse will remain constant regardless of where the research takes you.
Yeah, because within Bundlehouse there's still a broad range. I am Bundlehouse. Bundlehouse is language. Bundlehouse is flags. Bundlehouse is video. It’s about the thematic core of Bundlehouse, it’s not always the structure — and I feel like I am understanding more of what Bundlehouse is over time. There's so much possibility, and I'm still at the tip of the iceberg in exploring this. I don't ever see how this can get boring to me.
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?
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.
Nyugen E. Smith is a Caribbean-American interdisciplinary artist based in Jersey City, NJ. Through performance, found object sculpture, mixed media drawing, painting, video, photo and writing, Nyugen deepens his knowledge of historical and present-day conditions of Black African descendants in the diaspora. Trauma, spiritual practices, language, violence, memory, architecture, landscape and climate change are primary concerns in his practice.
Nyugen holds a BA, Fine Art from Seton Hall University and an MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His work has been presented at the Museum of Latin American Art, Peréz Art Museum, Museum of Cultural History, Norway, Nordic Black Theater, Norway, Newark Museum, and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, among others. Nyugen is the recipient of the Creative Capital award, Leonore Annenberg Performing and Visual Arts Fund, Franklin Furnace Fund, Dr. Doris Derby Award, New Jersey State Council on the Arts grant, and Joan Mitchell Foundation Painters and Sculptors Grant.
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!