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Journal — Friends of Billykirk

Friends of Billykirk: Nyugen Smith

Friends of Billykirk: Nyugen Smith

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.


Nyugen Smith Ibeji

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.

Friends of Billykirk: The Container Globe Project

Friends of Billykirk: The Container Globe Project

Rendering of the Container Globe at Brooklyn Bridge Park


"Shakespeare, in his day, was punk rock," said Angus Vail at a 2016 TEDx Talk about his Container Globe project, a traveling theater inspired by Shakespeare’s Globe in London, but made using repurposed shipping containers. Vail’s dream is to create a theater that can be torn down, moved, and set up again in a new city—a way to bring the excitement of live theater, concerts, and other performing arts to a wider audience. “Back then, The audience was so close to the actors that they’d often climb up on the stage and join in on the sword fighting. It was a total mosh pit."

Indeed, throughout history, one of the Globe Theatre’s defining traits has been its up-close-and-personal nature. Unlike traditional “black box” theaters, the Globe’s cheapest tickets are the ones closest to the stage. Show-goers who opt for standing room tickets, often called “groundlings,” get to experience shows in a unique and exciting way where everybody gets to be a part of the action. Back in Shakespeare’s day, groundlings could get into the theater for a penny. Angus wants to continue this legacy by selling groundling tickets at Container Globe for less than the price of a movie ticket. Now if that isn’t punk rock, I don’t know what is.

I've had the pleasure of knowing Angus for about a decade, and for a good chunk of that time I’ve been listening to his unrelenting desire to make this Container Globe a reality.  If there's anyone to see this through, it's Angus...bloody...Vail!  I recently caught up with him at his home in Jersey City, NJ, to discuss this endeavor.


Angus Vail outside of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, London


Chris Bray: First off, please tell our readers a bit about your fascination with Shakespeare, the Globe Theater, and how it led to this massive undertaking involving 36 shipping containers.

Angus Vail: I first got bit by the Shakespeare bug after seeing Anthony Hopkins in King Lear in London in the 80s. It was so raw, so terrible, but even though it was so sad, I walked out of that theatre just blown away thinking “that was Shakespeare?” And so it was the start of an incurable Shakespeare obsession.

It was very different than what a typical Shakespearean audience is like now. In some ways, it was more alive, more crazy, and often it meant the plays unfolded in unpredictable ways, depending on how the audience reacted on the day. It’s that element of chance, the interaction of the crowd, and sometimes even the way the weather unfolds during a performance. You might get a real storm in the middle of the storm scene in King Lear.  

I also love the fact that there were crowd-pleasing special effects at Shakespeare’s Globe. In fact, in 1612, the wadding from a cannon that was shot off during a play lodged in the thatch roof and the Globe burned down very fast. No one died and one person got mild burns when his pants caught fire, but people around him threw their beers on him to put the flames out!

The more history you read about the Globe in Shakespeare’s time, the more interesting it becomes. I could bore you for hours!


Rendering of the Container Globe in Tokyo


CB: Did you have to get the “royal blessing” from the Globe Theatre in London before you went down this road?

AV: No, but out of courtesy, I did want to let them know what I was doing, and because I love the Globe! I was lucky enough to be invited to speak at a Shakespeare theater conference, and was on a panel there with Patrick Spottiswoode, one of the top people at the London Globe, and he was very gracious and supportive. So a few months later I met with their management team and they’ve continued to be big boosters for the Container Globe. They’ve taped video endorsements and even sent me a wooden baluster from their Globe, just so I could have a little piece of theirs in mine. It was really touching. They want me to build it so they can use it too!

Angus Vail's Container Globe TEDx talk


CB: I haven’t met many people as passionate about an idea as you are with your Container Globe project. How long has this dream been percolating and tell us about your current crowdfunding initiative?

AV: The dream has been going for about five years now. It’s really helped that I’ve had amazing architects, engineers, designers, and other professionals who have joined the team and added their drive, enthusiasm, and talent to the mission. It’s independently validated that the Container Globe is practical, possible, and a damn good idea. And having people with fresh eyes and fresh ideas really helps the project develop. Nowadays, I realize that in most meetings, I’m the least smart person in the room. I have a lot of super-bright and talented people working on this, and I let them get on with it!

We’re running a crowdfunding because we want to both raise some funds to help build a prototype of the Globe, but also to show that we have a bunch of hardcore supporters that are willing to part with their money to help push the project along. Crowdfunding is hard, it’s a slog, but when we’re successful it shows potential future partners that we’re organized, dedicated, and can get the job done—and that we have enthusiastic supporters who want to see it happen.

Rendering of the Container Globes stage


CB: Tell us about your first container project, ArtBloc, and how you got interested in repurposing shipping containers for public use?

AV: We wanted to start a gallery in Jersey City, but soon realized that it was too expensive. So we saw container structures around and thought we’d be able to do something that’s cheaper than a brick-and-mortar gallery, something moveable and multifunctional.

In a way, the ArtBloc gave us our first experience of fabricating shipping containers into an art space—knowing how to move them around and getting a feel for their advantages and limitations. All of this has helped in our current endeavor.

ArtBloc is now part of the greater Container Globe project currently being built in Detroit.

CB: Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to see your TEDx Talk on the Container Globe in early 2016. Brilliant job by the way. Besides the crowdfunding efforts are there any new developments you would like to share?

AV: Thanks, the TEDx Talk was fun. I could talk about Shakespeare and punk rock all day. Don’t get me started.

The most important development is that we have a site for the Globe in Highland Park, Michigan, that’s within the greater Detroit area, where the ArtBloc is. We’re starting work on the fabrication of the containers for the prototype of the Globe. We want to work out some practicalities and make the inevitable mistakes with the prototype first. Plus, we want to show people that we’re building something real. The nice thing about using containers is that we can just keep adding containers like a big LEGO project.


Anne Percoco's ArtBloc installed in Jersey City


CB: At first glance, this seems like a damn big undertaking. But then I'm reminded of all the massive traveling circuses, amusement parks, and rock ‘n’ roll stages that go up in a week. How different is this compared to those events?

AV: It is a little different. With rock ‘n’ roll stages, they use scaffolding and truss sections that all fit together and can be erected and dismantled in a few hours.

The Container Globe is a full-scale venue that can be erected in one place for a minimum of, say, 6 months, and then moved to a new location. And the fact that it’s made of containers that are designed to be easily transportable makes the moving process easier. But we’ll still need cranes and lots of trucks to move it.

I’ve been a business manager for some big-name rock bands for more than 30 years, starting from INXS to KISS, and so I’m familiar with touring large sets of stage equipment around the world. So the first thing I did when putting this idea together was run it by our road crew production manager, who is a hard-core veteran of moving stages everywhere, and he immediately gave it two thumbs up. So it was nice to get his nod!  

Construction animation of the Container Globe


CB: Well, I really hope I am there when the first Container Globe is unveiled and you take the stage. What will that moment mean to you and when can we expect to see one officially standing in all its glory?

AV: Thanks! You better be there! And I know there will be better-looking and better-qualified Shakespeare actors that’ll be taking the stage before me. I can’t even think about what it’ll feel like on opening night because we have such a long list of things to do before then.

The biggest thing with this and any passion project is the execution taking all the steps, getting past all the setbacks, and just grinding forward. Always forward. I have a little saying taped to my desk: “Vision without execution is hallucination.” That says it all. It’s just about bloody well doing it.

To support the Container Globe project, you may contribute here.

To learn more about the project, please visit