Unfamiliar with the Indigo Arts Alliance? Then run – don’t walk – to the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) at Maine College of Art & Design. The vitality this organization brings to our community and to the Maine arts scene is vibrantly on display in the exhibition “Visions of Our Future; Echoes of Our Past: Dianne Smith, Nyugen E. Smith, and Carl Joe Williams” (through May 6).

Indigo supports the “development and amplification of Black and Brown thought-leadership, artistic vision and practice.” Its core program, artist residencies, brought these multimedia artists to Portland and, now, to the ICA, which is presenting the work of these prodigious talents. The show is co-curated by Jordia Benjamin, Indigo’s deputy director, and Ashley Page (MECA&D class of ’20), an artist and the nonprofit’s studio and program coordinator.

Though Indigo’s focus is the expression of Black and Brown artists, it’s immediately clear that the themes Dianne Smith, Nyugen E. Smith and Carl Joe Williams are tackling – migration, environmental disaster, political discord, war, as well as community and identity – transcend narrow categorizations. The universality of the messages in “Visions/Echoes” urgently begs all of us to consider their implications.

Nyugen E. Smith’s Bundle House sculptures and two-dimensional mixed-media drawings and collages occupy the first gallery. Their theme is mass migration, and they are essentially all makeshift shelters on stilts slapped together from the detritus of human existence: blue tarps, corrugated cardboard, wire mesh, a soap dish, netting, inner tubes, baskets, hair, fabric, a glove, rope … the list of what we could grimly refer to as “building materials” is endless.

The Bundle Houses remind us of squatter settlements all around our planet, whether Mumbai’s shanty towns, Sao Paulo’s favelas or Berkeley, California’s homeless encampments. One wall-sized piece, a world map where every continent teems with such structures, raises the possibility that this will be a necessary and widespread architectural typology in the future.

According to The U.N. Refugee Agency’s migration report, in 2021, a record 84 million people were forcibly displaced from their homes because of war, famine, environmental disasters and other causes. The 2.5 million Ukrainian refugees currently in Poland reminds us that this situation not only persists, but also affects all classes and cultures. Poverty certainly also drives these migrations. In 2021, the World Data Lab’s Poverty Clock recorded 750 million people living below the extreme poverty line (set by the International Monetary Fund at $1.90 a day). Soon, this map implies, this will be our dominant global condition.


Unexpectedly, however, there is also a sense of human resilience in the Bundle Houses. They are products of an indomitable survival instinct. One, “Bundlehouse (Fourteen x Eleven No. 5),” even appears hopeful. Outfitted with pontoon-like appendages, it seems to be moored off an idyllic palm-studded island. The unseen owner has hung out a shop sign on one side and a lantern on the other, as though the structure, equipped for the nomadic life, travels among displaced communities offering services to anyone who’ll buy. Life goes on in the midst of the eternal population shuffle.

A wall installation in the corridor leading to two other galleries is both more local and more focused on the African American experience. During his Indigo residency, Nyugen E. Smith encountered Portland’s Freedom Trail. For this piece, he created relationships between specific landmarks on the trail and his ALGO-RIDDIM music project for which he wrote, filmed and produced songs for a limited-edition album (550 total). He calls ALGO-RIDDIM a “sonic reflection” on Caribbean and African rhythms “situated” within hip-hop.

The Eastman House at the corner of Mountfort and Newbury streets, for instance, was home to Charlies Frederick Eastman, his wife and her father, who were “conductors” on the Underground Railroad. Smith juxtaposes it with a song called “So Sorry I Left You” whose lyrics, in part, intone “I am one messenger sent to remind you. I was told the soul was ground zero. Who of you got what it takes to be a hero?” It is rich with content, including a fascinating lecture by Amalia Mallard on the use of laughter in African American music as a mechanism for coping and surviving as well as revolution and protest.

Carl Joe Williams, “Imagine a World Without Prisons,” installation, 2022.

Across from this is Williams’s installation “Imagine a World Without Prisons.” During his June residency, he collaborated with Maine Youth Justice and Maine Inside Out, two activist groups advocating for change in the juvenile criminal justice system – particularly around calls to close the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland.

The work explores “ideas of using art as activism to restructure community for justice and equity,” reads a wall plaque. But it also deals with the ways community comes together, gathering through various kinds of shared human experience: race, incarceration, age group, passion. Around the room are several monitors projecting conversations Williams had with members of the two groups dealing with the negative impacts of mass incarceration.

We view the monitors against the backdrop of large colorful quilt-like paintings that incorporate imagery of the American flag. Williams questions what “American” values could possibly support the systemic imprisonment of children. On the walls are questions these youths discuss in the videos, such as: “Why have security resource officers been a primary focus to usher children to jail versus resolution at the school?” or “Why is there a lack of utilization of the tools for emotional self-regulation in school settings for children?”


Teens interviewed talk about friends living homeless on the streets; the lack of resources to address mental health needs of kids; how, rather than use funds to improve the system, youth is merely pipelined into lockup, where confinement only exacerbates their behavioral issues. These young people have a lot to say and a lot we should hear. Unfortunately, the volume is low and their commentary is further muddled not only by other nearby monitors, but also by Dianne Smith’s recitations from the adjacent gallery. This happened with a sound art exhibition in 2020 too. Earphones, or even a thick curtain over the entry, would have enhanced this experience considerably.

Dianne Smith, “Uptown Parade,” photographic panels, 30 x 96 in., each 2020.

There’s a lot going on in the final gallery. “Uptown Parade” is a photo essay commemorating the variegated beauty of Dianne Smith’s adopted Harlem community (she is from Belize). There is a video called “Phenomenal Black Womanist,” with snippets of fashion shows featuring Black models that present the manifold forms of beauty embodied by Black and Brown women, as well as attire they wear as forms of style, individual expression and rebellion.

On the opposite wall, another video called “Black is Beautiful” is an homage to Black educator and impressive orator Mary McLeod Bethune that also marked the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder. It scrolls through images of great African American historical figures. These are words I heard from down the hall at Williams’s installation, narrated by Smith. They are from Bethune’s 1955 Last Will and Testament to her people.

Dianne Smith, “Black is Beautiful,” installation, 2022.

There are busts made of wood and West African textiles, and other heads that use found objects more abstractly (and interestingly) that recall the rubber headdresses of Chakaia Booker. But most evocative for me was “Sacred Ground,” which appears like rope rugs made of butcher paper. They connect back to traditions of hair braiding and basketmaking, but their corporality also feels immediate, both texturally sensual and powerfully ritualistic. They are also woven, a perfect metaphor for the themes of community woven throughout the show.

Bethune’s words, too, seem to unify the exhibit by reminding us of the importance of love, hope, education, faith and so on. This passage still rings in my ears:

“I leave you love. Love builds. It is positive and helpful. It is more beneficial than hate. Injuries quickly forgotten quickly pass away. Personally and racially, our enemies must be forgiven. Our aim must be to create a world of fellowship and justice, where no man’s skin, color or religion, is held against him. ‘Love thy neighbor’ is a precept which could transform the world … it connotes brotherhood and, to me, brotherhood of man is the noblest concept in all human relations. Loving your neighbor means being interracial, inter religious and international.” Mic drop.

Jorge S. Arango has written about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: jorge@jsarango.com 

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