“Witness I” by Susan Smith, on view through Friday at the UMVA Gallery in Portland. Photo by Dave Wade

The Union of Maine Visual Artists offers perspective on immigration in back-to-back exhibitions at the UMVA Gallery at the Portland Media Center.

Susan Smith is showing “Witness Art at the Border” through Friday, and Titi de Baccarat opens “Who Is It?” on Feb. 7. Smith, who who grew up in Texas and teaches art at the University of Maine, is showing work based on her experiences along the border of Texas and Mexico, where she has gone many times to protest, witness and help alleviate the humanitarian concerns among people trying to enter the United States.

De Baccarat is a Portland artist, by way of Gabon. His work explores his acclimation to Maine and the United States, and he uses his art to express himself and as a way to explore his African roots and his contemporary life in Maine. By scheduling the exhibitions to run consecutively, the Union of Maine Visual Artists is creating space for extended dialogue around the issue of immigration from different perspectives.

Smith looks at the issue from the perspective of a lifelong citizen of the United States who grew so alarmed at the treatment of refugees at the border that she began making art about the situation. In time, her art practice shifted to one that involved bearing witness – “to be in the place, to feel it, to smell it, to feel the fear in the air that is Juarez,” she said.

Canteens and fragments of clothes, collected at the border by Susan Smith. Photo by Dave Wade

In November, she went as a humanitarian worker, helping to feed and clothe refugees, and brought loads of hats made by people in Maine. “My art had taken a turn,” she said. “It needed to be sewing hats, not painting canvas at that point.”

On view in Portland is a record of what she saw and collected – photos from her journey, children’s drawings retrieved the trash, makeshift canteens, fragments of clothing. The power of her work is its cumulative weight. “You just show up,” Smith said. “As an art educator, I often talk about letting the process unfold, of not going into the work with a predetermined outcome. I collect what comes to me.”

Soil becomes a pigment. Discarded headphones become sculptural element. Losing lottery tickets become a statement of hope and the loss of hope. Together, they tell a broad story about about migration, human suffering and contemporary American life.

De Baccarat will take a different look at immigration in “Who Is It?” opening with the First Friday Art Walk on Feb. 7. De Baccarat fled Gabon as a political refugee, speaking out against repression through his art. Through his story and his work, he challenges what he sees as the authoritarian direction of the United States. With “Who Is It?” he will ask visitors to reflect on themselves, drawing on their own personal experiences, hopes and dreams.

Portland artist Titi de Baccarat, originally from Gabon, has been making art in response to the asylum seekers arriving in Portland. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

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