Art Seen


A Conversation with Artist NYUGEN SMITH

By Lori Zimmer

June 2012

Nyugen Smith is an artist’s artist–one of those creative souls that uses every fiber of his being to express his digestion of history, politics, Colonialism, modern life, New York City, Jersey City, sense of self, and of course, art. To Smith, painting is the same as performance is the same as sculpture, each is simply a means of expression, rather than a genre or medium. He excels at each, yet each medium fits with the next, creating a continuous flow that is dependent upon the other (although his pieces work independently, together they fall in place and “make sense”).

We first met up with Nyugen Smith last year for the Hot Half Dozen in PMc Mag’s aptly named Hot Issue. Sure, the Jersey City based artist was easy on the eyes, but he was also tearing it up with his incredible Bundle Houses–conglomerations of found objects that address survival, tragedy and crises. The make-shift shelter-sculptures evoke at once dystopian futures, present day refugees, and recent Katrina victims, seamlessly meshing these messages into impeccable and relevant sculpture.

Smith has recently paired up with curator Gabriel Fortoul, and has christened the brand new Chelsea space, 40Owls. Smith continues his artist-of-all-trades approach, incorporating drawings, paintings and sculpture along with his epic performance piece, only this time he is enlisting the public to join in. Ever weaving his personal upbringing in Trinidad with history of colonialism and all of its counterparts, his new work continues the fusion of the personal and written, translated both visually and emotionally through his performances.

In a world of superficial visual art, Smith’s work remains aesthetically pleasing while bringing something more than meets the eye. Each piece is backed with historical facts combined with Smith’s personal interpretation, each piece feels a piece of his own self. The artists’ artist is one that helps us feel close to art.

40Owls opens Saturday June 16th to the public.

Lori Zimmer: Your next show is part of a triple-threat of solo shows to inaugurate the new 40Owls gallery in Chelsea. How did you become involved with this new space?

Nyugen Smith: Triple-threat of solo shows…that’s it right there. I met Gabriel Fortoul in 2008 at a gallery where I was exhibiting. I didn’t know he was a curator at the time when he purchased two of my pieces. I then learned that he was a curator and began to check out the projects that he was associated with. So when he contacted me last year, explained the concept of bringing together three artists, me being one of them, along with two others whose work I had seen before and respected as artists, I was sold on the idea immediately. Gabriel and the management of 40Owls knew that the space required would need to be in the heart of the New York art world and be able to be divided and “house” three solo shows. Once they acquired the space for the exhibition, I went to check it out and it made it all the more real to me that this was going to happen soon!

LZ: Your new series centers around “The General’s Army. “ What inspired this character and theme?

NS: The new series does not center around “The General’s Army.” The work is an investigation of the implications of colonialism in the African diaspora and subsequent sociopolitical constructs with a special focus on the Caribbean. The General is part of a “Trinity” of factions that are ever-present in my work, primarily in my performance pieces. They are 1) Common Man: Africans and African descendants who are living under colonial/post-colonial rule,  2) The General: represents the military arm of the colonizers (he is the embodiment of both European military present in colonized territories and the military comprised of high ranking black military officials and soldiers who enforce colonial laws), 3) The Elite: he wears a colonial-style wig and formal European-style fashion. He represents the Africans and African descendants who have been favored by the colonial establishment and is afforded the “finest” things in life. He is a symbol of overindulgence, wealth, political power, and isolation.

The inspiration for this aspect of my work derived from research on atrocities, achievements, and failures on both sides of the “lines.”

LZ: For the preview performance, you’ll be asking 50 volunteers to join you. Have you worked with others in your performances before? (And are you nervous about that?)

NS: Yes, I have worked with others in my performances before, but not in this way. In the past, I’ve invited viewers to join me during a performance. This “random” selection and inclusion of viewers adds an unpredictable dynamic to the creation of the work. Only once have I created a performance work and rehearsed aspects of it with someone other than myself. That was a break-through piece for me. It was a work I created for Low Lives: Occupy! a one-night-only program of live performance art, happenings, and public actions, simulcast to presenting host venues around the world

Low Lives partnered with Occupy with Art and The Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics and was curated by Jorge Rojas. I performed this work with Kit Vogalsang, a professional actor who had never done performance art. The General having an Army is something that has always been in my mind and this was a great opportunity to make it a reality.  I’m not nervous about the performance, but I was nervous about being able to organize volunteers and logistics in addition to making work for the show, so I enlisted the help of Jade Lien to assist in the production of the performance. She has been great to work with and has relieved me of many of the responsibilities that come with organizing this performance. I am, however, preparing myself to be open to all kinds of unforeseen events that may shift the tide. We are still looking for more recruits. Those interested can contact Jade directly for more information at: jade.ariella@gmail.com.

LZ: You’ve also created works on paper, installation and sculpture, in addition to your performance. Most artists I know just focus on one medium. Have you always expressed your visions with different facets of art media?

NS: Lori, to me art is a conversation between the artist and viewer (also between the artist and him/her self), and for me, in order to effectively convey my ideas within the conversation, it is necessary to change inflections, gestures, and sometimes speak another language. One medium would render me unable to fully have this conversations. Besides all of that, it is just so much more fun working with so many options.

LZ: Your Bundle Houses (which I love) address a future fashioned out of what we were left with, how does your new series address our impending future?

NS: Bundle Houses also address a past and present constructed with the “products and byproducts” of systems committed to benefit through the oppression of particular groups of people. Bundle House is a part of this series I’m currently working on in that this style of building a house existed and will continue to exist in territories during colonial/post-colonial periods. Just as we have seen the oppressed come together to fight against subjugation and liberate themselves in the past, we are seeing this happen around the world now, thus having a direct impact on our impending future.

LZ: Aside from blessing the new 40Owls space, what’s next in the world of Nyugen Smith?

NS: I have a solo show in January, 2013 at the New Jersey City University Lemmerman Gallery. I’m sure I’ll be creating more performance art as opportunities arise. People can keep up with new developments on my website.

Nyugen Smith is a multi-disciplinary, Jersey City based artist.


Nyugen Smith


Nguyen Smith interviewed by Lori Zimmer

Written by Lori Zimmer

Photography Courtesy of Nyugen Smith

Design by Marie Havens


Photography & Art © Nyugen Smith

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