Artist Nyugen Smith creates work that explores world cultures around the Caribbean and Africa, but he was born here in Jersey City. In fact, throughout his career whenever he gets described as a “New York artist,” he quickly sets the record straight. “I think sometimes when people hear New Jersey they automatically want to lump you into being from New York, but I think it’s important to specify,” Smith says. “This is my hometown, and I’m proud of it.”
Smith’s interest in art started in college. “It really began when I was an undergrad student,” Smith recalls. He was at Seton Hall studying political science when he took a painting and sculpture class. He soon felt more passionate about art than any of his other classes. “I changed my major the semester before I graduated.”
“After finishing up college I was trying to show my work anywhere I could,” Smith says. This included local cafes and one-day shows. “One of the first places that I showed in Jersey City was LITM when they first opened up. It was a great meeting place for artists at that time.”
Soon Smith’s work shifted from focusing on aesthetics to including concepts like natural disasters, war, and genocide. “I began to think about places where people were forced to flee their homes,” Smith says. In 2005, he began a project called Bundlehouse. “Literally the translation is bundling materials together to make a home.” The work that he created did just that in various art forms.
“When I started making the Bundlehouse work I was looking at the continent of Africa, specifically Uganda,” Smith says. “I started to ask the question, ‘How did this whole situation get started?’ That’s where my political science background began to inform my art practice.”
Political Science meets Painting
Smith delved into research about Colonialism and European countries claiming Africa’s natural resources.
A few years into the project, his work became more personal as he studied Africa. “I began thinking, ‘What was going on in the Caribbean at that time?’” Smith says. His mother is from Trinidad, where he spent some of his childhood. His father is from Haiti.
As the concepts that Smith was researching grew, so did his Bundlehouse work. He continues the project today. His works include freestanding structures that are big enough for two people to dwell in. These are created on site out of found materials. He also makes smaller Bundlehouse sculptures, drawings, and paintings. His work includes video, photographs, and performance art as well.
“Art, to me, is a language. Sometimes I need to resort to a different language to say what I need to say,” Smith says of switching back and forth among mediums.
On the Ground
Smith went on to graduate school where he received his MFA in 2016 from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. It was there that he was awarded his first grant after being nominated by the school. “I received the Leonor Annenberg Performing and Visual Arts Fund,” Smith says. “They ask what are your plans, and my proposal was that I would travel to different parts of the Caribbean and Africa to do research.” Visiting places that his work was focused on helped him as an artist. “There’s nothing like being on the ground,” he says. “It really had a huge impact on my practice.”
In 2018, Smith was awarded two more prestigious grants, the Franklin Furnace Fund and the Joan Mitchell Foundation Grant. He plans to use the money to travel to show his work.
Smith’s Bundlehouse project continues to grow and evolve, but his intention remains the same as it was from the beginning. “I want my art to raise awareness of conditions of black people in the world,” Smith says. “I want my work to pay homage to those who came before me who have endured the things that are inspiring the work. I want my work to be a tool of empowerment for those who are trying to find ways to articulate their thoughts and feelings about their existence in this space and time, and I’m specifically speaking of younger people of color.”
He has some advice for young artists as well. “Remain true to yourself,” Smith says. “It’s essential to read, to travel, to just find a tribe. Find likeminded individuals you can confer with and confide with.” – JCM
Nyugen Smith’s works will be on view at The Other Side of Now: Foresight in Contemporary Caribbean Art from July 18, 2019 to June 7, 2020 at the Pérez Art Museum Miami. For more information, visit pamm.org.