By: Ben Theriault, Staff Writer
Starting on October 4 and lasting until December 9, the USM art gallery on the Gorham campus will be showcasing an exhibit from artist in residence, Daniel Minter. The exhibit is a beautiful hybrid of history and art, melding perfectly together to create a powerful retelling of Maine’s Malaga Island community.
Admittance is free to the gallery and can be accessed on Wednesdays and Thursdays from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. While the gallery holds his work, students have a unique opportunity to talk with Minter during studio drop-in hours, Wednesdays from 12:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. in the Artist-in-Residence Studio in the Academy Building.
His display tells the seldomly told story of the residences at Maine’s Malaga Island, a post-Civil War interracial community. The Island in the Casco Bay, off the coast of Phippsburg and Harpswell, was home to 42 people. The community was self-sufficient as a fishing village and had amenities like a school.
Malaga Island went unnoticed until an article was published about the colony in the 1890s, which condemned the inhabitants as inferior and degenerative. This mindset was strongly supported by a history of racism, along with the growing popularity of race pseudo-science and eugenics.
The community was deemed a disgrace by the state of Maine. To protect the state’s reputation, governor Fredrick W. Plaisted decided to evict all of the residences in 1912. The community was given the option to either flee and take their houses with them or to stay and be kidnapped with all of their possessions burned.
When officials arrived at the island weeks after the notice, everyone and their houses were gone—it is believed that they floated away with their houses. Some of the residences died during the cruel diaspora while others were abducted and placed into the Maine School for the Feeble-Minded. To ensure no one returned, the state even dug up graves and relocated corpses.
Minter’s exhibit consists of acrylic canvas paintings, artifacts, historical information and maps. He says he took inspiration directly from the people that lived there. The people he depicts are proud and dressed in extravagant garb adorned with beautiful buttons. He was directly inspired by descendants who lived there named Kristina and Nyanen, as well as the Trip family.
Minter stated that he first learned about the subject in Gerald Talbot’s book Maine’s Visible Black History: The First Chronicle of Its People. He uses intense imagery to create a distinct unification of beauty and tragedy. He seeks to display direct correlations between the past and modernity by applying broad concepts to specialized subjects.
In his pieces Method 1 and Method 2, he stacks imagery to produce a powerful and grim portrait of slavery, eugenics and discrimination. Both paintings display the front of a ship, almost as if it is traveling directly towards the viewer. Below the ship is a caliper around a woman’s head, which represented the way intelligence was measured in the past and its relationship to eugenics. Above the boat are mountains which could signify traveling from Africa, leaving Malaga Island, or a broader concept of leaving any foreign land. This tells the direct story of Malaga Island while also addressing slavery.
When I asked Minter about the piece’s significance he explained to me that the piece also depicts contemporary society—The United States is always trying to divide immigrants and distinguish those worthy and unworthy. Therefore the “methods” of the past are still extremely prevalent in our society.
These pieces were paired with artifacts provided by Nathan Hamilton and Rob Sanford during their 2006-2007 summer excavations of Malaga Island. These artifacts included nails, shells, bone buttons, fishing tools, pipes and flasks. Old pictures of unidentified children, buildings and families were displayed alongside the artifacts.
The juxtaposition of the historical, scientific and artistic interpretations of the events that transpired on Malaga Island allowed for a unique and powerful retelling. Through these lenses, the viewer gets a well rounded understanding of the story comprised of emotion and logic. Overall, the exhibit offers a thought-provoking meditation on Maine’s history and the importance of rehumanizing experiences of the past.