Titi de Baccarat likes to say he doesn’t practice politics, he practices art. Through his art, he expresses himself as an immigrant to America and as a citizen of the world.
By nature of the subject, his art is sometimes political.
“When I came to the United States, because I was not able to speak English, the only way to express myself was through my artwork,” said de Baccarat, who came to America from Gabon four years ago. “My art is about my country and all the African continent, and some pieces are about my experience in the United States.”
De Baccarat came to America from Gabon late in 2014. Other than a few miserable weeks in New York right after he arrived, when he felt scared and alone, and three more-agreeable months in Rhode Island, de Baccarat has lived in Maine nearly that whole time, arriving early in 2015. Once he settled in, he began making and showing his art immediately and has become one of Portland most active visual artists.
This winter and spring, he his showing his work in a solo exhibition at Berwick Academy, “True Me in My Community,” on view in the school’s Jackson Library Gallery through April 12. De Baccarat served as artist-in-residence at the school in South Berwick in January, and artwork created by students with his assistance is part of the exhibition.
For de Baccarat, making art was integral to his introduction to Portland and to Maine. It’s important when one comes to a new place to make friends and try to become part of that community so as to not feel alone and isolated, he said. Being alone in a new place, unable to communicate and uncertain if you will be accepted, is terrifying, he said. By making and showing his art, he became part of the Portland art scene and the larger community. He speaks English well now, but it was his artwork that created the platform for his successful immersion, he said.
His art involves design, painting, sculpture and jewelry-making. All his work stems from his belief that art brings people together regardless of language and culture, and his art also is about emotions and interrogation. He is showing a variety of work in South Berwick, including some three-dimensional wall-hanging pieces and several stand-alone sculptures. All of it relates to his African culture and his experiences in the United States.
One piece, called “Black Lives Matter,” explores the conflict he felt when he arrived in America. Right away, he sensed tension between African-Americans and white people. As a person of color, he felt caught in the middle. “I’m from Africa, but because of the color of my skin, I am between the conflict,” he said. His material is burlap, painted mostly black with streaks of violent red. On the burlap, he affixes a pair of shoes, shotgun casings and handcuffs.
Another piece, “Thanks America,” features a bark cutout in the shape of the United States, framed by a circle of wood, which in turn is ringed by a rolled-up American flag. That piece expresses his appreciation for the life he found in the United States and how he was welcomed by people from Maine. When he arrived in Portland with limited English skills, a fellow artist who became his friend paid studio rent so he could make art, despite having nothing. De Baccarat was living in a homeless shelter at the time and rode a bike from downtown to his studio, which then was at Thompson’s Point. He made art with found objects that he picked up during his daily bike rides.
For the South Berwick exhibition, he also is showing a series of small statues, in human form. His figures often are child-size, and that’s in part because it’s more efficient to make and easier to store and transport smaller pieces, and also because he believes that art should be accessible to young people. By making art on their level, kids can relate more easily, he said.
With these figures, he wants parents and their children to think about values and ideals. One of the figures is clothed with a shirt adorned with a button that says “Freedom,” a peace sign hanging from the collar and a pocket stuffed with money. The sculpture asks viewers to think about those values and rank the importance of money versus freedom and money versus peace and what those choices mean to each individual.
De Baccarat faced similar choices when he left Gabon. He didn’t feel safe in his country because he made art critical of Gabon’s ruling party. He valued his freedom of expression most of all and came to America to express it.
WHERE: Jackson Library Gallery, Berwick Academy, 31 Academy St., South Berwick
WHEN: On view through April 12