Performing the Flag: A flag for a new Caribbean/A new flag for the Caribbean (with Dominique Duroseau) at the Brooklyn Museum, 2017
Photo: Pascal Bernier
I met Nyugen back in my early days in Jersey City at the infamous 58 Gallery, where we both had the opportunity to show work. From some of his early sculpture work with Bundle House to his current performance-based art, I have always been fascinated with his succinct message. After he recently modeled for our new website, I wanted to learn more about his art and where it comes from.
Kirk Bray: Tell us a little bit about yourself and how your upbringing has sent you down this creative path?
Nyugen Smith: I am a Caribbean-American interdisciplinary artist and educator who lives and works in Jersey City, NJ. My practice consists of sculpture, installation, writing, video and performance, influenced by the conflation of African cultural practices and the remnants of European colonial rule in the Caribbean region. I received an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and in 2016 I received Leonore Annenberg Arts Fellowship. Currently, I’m back and forth conducting practice-based research in the Caribbean.
Bundlehouse Bordelines No.3 (Isle de Tribamartica) Pen and ink, acrylic, watercolor, graphite, lace, Zambian soil and thread on paper, 2017
KB: I know you’re primarily known as a multi-media artist, when did performance start to factor heavily into your work?
NS: Performance became a significant part of my practice in 2011. I had a solo show at Solo(s) Project House in Newark and was asked by the then founding director to consider making a performance during the opening. I gave it some thought and realized that through performance, I would be able to not only embody the work I had made for the show, fill in some of the gaps, but also add another dimension to my practice. It was a wonderful experience and I began to receive invitations to make more performances since. It’s interesting that now, four years later some people only know my performance work and are surprised to learn that I have had a longer history with object-making than performance art.
KB: You’ve done quite a few residencies over the years, how have these helped and kept you motivated in the growth of your art?
NS: I’m glad that there is a perception that I’ve done many residencies, when in fact, I’ve only ever done two. The first one was a teaching-artist residency that I co-designed and took place at my former high-school, the Milton Hershey School, in Hershey, PA. During the day, I taught a 3-D design class and after the class was over, I had access to all of the amazing facilities and materials to make my own work. I worked like a madman and created a good amount of work there. I returned twice after that. So I guess I have to count those too, huh? The next residency I did was at Fresh Milk International Residency in Saint George, Barbados this past June.
As Seen (rainy season)
KB: As an artist how do you quiet your inner voice and have the confidence to continue on any particular piece at any given time? Or is this not something you struggle with?
NS: Quieting the inner voice will perhaps cause me to feel like there is no urgency to make work. For me, it’s the active inner voice that brings me to the work. It’s a guide, it’s both a protagonist and the antagonist, it’s a cheerleader and a critic.
KB: I know your West Indian heritage and the struggles of that nation factor into a lot of your performances, can you elaborate on this?
NS: My West Indian/Caribbean heritage informs my performance work, however, for me it’s my African ancestry, the struggles, triumphs, history, and contemporary urgent issues of the diaspora that inform my work. For example, my performance work has been informed by police brutality in communities of color in the United States and worldwide, informed by the multi-layered Carnival tradition in Trinidad and Tobago, and informed by religious syncretism in the African diaspora. While my work is absolutely about the black experience, it can no doubt be theorized, discussed and historicized in wider contexts.
KB: Dance, movement and theatrical ornamentation factor heavily in a lot of your work, where does that emanate from?
NS: I grew up going to all kinds of performances that involved movement and have always been interested in the way people train and move their bodies. Having been an athlete through high school and for a short time in university where I also studied and acted in a number of theater productions, and practiced martial arts in my adult life, all of these experiences have taught me so much and I draw from these experiences in my work.
Untitled (scrubbing: an exercise in erasure)
KB: I’m sure you are aware of Chris Burden’s performances. Much of his work verged on danger and physical pain. Your work seems to be becoming more bold and fearless while containing a great deal of weight and emotional pain. Do you feel a connection to Burden’s work?
NS: I am familiar with Burden’s performance work and agree that they contain all that you attributed to it. I can only say that I feel a psychological and bodily connection to the work when I engage documentation of it, but there are other artists whose work I actively think about and have had an impact on my current performance practice. Some of these artists are, Ian DeLeon and Tif Robinette, Ayana Evans, Preach R Sun, Geraldo Mercado and Sandrine Schaeffer to name a few.
Ibeji returns and will protect me here, 2017
KB: Who are your mentors?
NS: Two of my mentors are accomplished inter-disciplinary artist and educators in their own right, D. Denenge Akpem and Gregg Bordowitz.
KB: What would you be doing if you weren’t making art and do you have any advice for someone just beginning their art career?
NS: I always say that in another life I would be a chef or an architect. Most likely a chef. I spend a lot of time in the kitchen when I’m procrastinating, when I’m upset, when I’ problem solving, when I’m happy, and when I’m hungry. Ha ha!
My advice would be to stick with it. It is about the long term. Believe in yourself. Have other artists and non-artists with whom you can share and collaborate. READ! Teach a class or two once in awhile and not necessarily an art class. TRAVEL!
Sophisticating the Negro (still)
KB: You’ve recently done some modeling for us, is this something you ever thought of pursuing as a career instead of the art field?
NS: I actually pursued a modeling and acting career when I was in university. It was short-lived, but I have fond memories of that time. Working with your team was a lot of fun and something I would do again.
Nyugen for Billykirk Spring/Summer 2017
Nyugen is currently exhibiting work at MOLAA in Long Beach, California. For more information, click here.
He will also be speaking at The Betsy Hotel in Miami Beach, Florida. Artist Talk Universal Belonging: Transcending Borders through Visual Arts Practice is Thursday, Oct. 19th at 10:30am to12:00pm. Click here to RSVP and for more details.