Part One – Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò on Nyugen E. Smith’s Le Virgen of Seven Buoys

If the Sky Were Orange: Art in the Time of Climate Change

Part One – Forced Migration: Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò on Nyugen E. Smith’s Le Virgin of Seven Buoys  

What’s it like to look at Le Virgin of Seven Buoys? If you scan it from top to bottom, you’re confronted with a mass of contradictions. The top of the artwork tells the standard, heart​-​wrenching tale of displacement​,​ all too familiar in a world of climate crisis and a thousand crises besides: seven life preservers (as the title promised), stained with the soil of the lands left behind by those who brave​d​ the waters. 

But the middle of the piece tells a slightly different story. At center, a mouth opens wide with an inviting smile. Le Virgin is decorated by necklaces and other jewelry, rather than humbled by sackcloth. The soils that color the life preservers come from many somewheres: Jersey City, Benin, Togo—places she probably left behind in the course of making her outfit, or perhaps herself, or both. But these soils give color and vibrancy to the life preservers. And these life preservers, like the jewelry, adorn Le Virgin. To sit with Le Virgin: the grimace of the past it gestures towards, and the smile of the present it embodies, feels a little bit like being torn apart from the center. As much as one can feel such things by looking, anyway.  

But then: what else could it feel like to have to leave home? To stretch your arm​s​ out in a final wave of goodbye to those you love onshore, as you drift into the ocean? And, having landed on the other side, to find some choice earth, set down roots, and stay?

Nyugen E. Smith, Le Virgin of Seven Buoys, 2022, Assemblage (Found wood, acrylic, yarn beads, beer caps, cork, wire, fabric, diaspora soil, antique sled, plastic, metal, twine, oil pastel, lace, canvas, and gesso), 82 x 23 x 23 in., Courtesy of the artist (Photo: Ed Fausty)

About Nyugen E. Smith

Nyugen E. Smith is a Caribbean American interdisciplinary artist based in Jersey City, New Jersey. Smith’s series Bundlehouse includes sculptures assembled from found objects that recall hastily gathered belongings or the ad-hoc shelters constructed by migrants. Smith’s work evokes both the contemporary specter of precarity and displacement due to climate change and the history of forced movement in the Black diaspora. Learn more about the artist at nyugensmith.com.

About Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò

Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University. 

His groundbreaking work exploring the intersections of climate justice and colonialism has been published in ​The New Yorker, The Nation, and Foreign Policy, among others. Táiwò’s book Reconsidering Reparations (Oxford University Press, 2022) argues that reparations for slavery and colonialism should use distributive justice to create a better social order, which in turn requires tackling the issue of climate change head on. 

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