GORHAM, Maine — Near the entrance to OTHERED: Displaced from Malaga at the University of Southern Maine Gallery, in Gorham, is a drone photograph of Malaga Island in Phippsburg, Maine, taken earlier this year. It shows the north end of the 42-acre island, where an interracial community of fishermen and laborers lived around the turn of the 19th century. Names of families — Griffin, McKinney, Marks, Murphy, Eason, Johnson — are printed on the photo, pinpointing where they resided at the time of their forced removal in 1912.
That removal remains among the most shameful acts in the history of Maine’s state government. The 47 men, women, and children who survived by fishing, taking in laundry from the mainland, and other such work were evicted from their island home; eight of them were committed to the Maine School for the Feeble-Minded, which had opened in 1908. The removal was total: Even the dead were exhumed and relocated.
“I think the best plan would be to burn down the shacks with all of their filth,” then-Maine Governor Frederick Plaisted told a reporter. “Certainly the conditions there are not credible to our state. We ought not to have such things near our front door” — the “front door” being Casco Bay, with its popular island retreats.
After purchasing the island for $473, the state sold it to Everard A. Wilson, a friend and business partner of Dr. Gustavus Kilgore of Belfast, chair of Governor Plaisted’s executive council; Kilgore had signed the commitment orders for the islanders. A planned resort was never built and the island remained more or less deserted. Today, Maine Coast Heritage Trust, a conservation organization, manages it.
In 2010, Maine Governor John Baldacci began trying to right this wrong by apologizing to the descendants at a gathering on the island. Earlier in the year the Maine Legislature had passed a resolution expressing its “profound regret” for the “tragic displacement of the Malaga islanders in 1912.” In 2015 a scholarship was established to support the descendants of the evicted.
For the past 10 years, Portland-based painter, children’s book author, and illustrator Daniel Minter has raised awareness of what happened on Malaga. He took part in archaeological digs and designed an information kiosk for people visiting the island. For his seven-week residency with the Department of Art at the University of Southern Maine this past fall, Minter created a series of 11 acrylic paintings, each one measuring 60 by 20 inches, that further his exploration of Malaga.
Two of the paintings, “Method One” and “Method Two,” feature the sinister calipers used by advocates of eugenics, referencing the well-documented racism that played a role in the state’s decision to remove the islanders and institutionalize several of them. “PROPERTY OF THE MAINE SCHOOL FOR THE FEEBLE MINDED” is inscribed in the crude metal tongs.
In “Method One,” the calipers hang over the skull of an African-American woman seen in silhouette, her head a mottled blue mass that appears to be dissolving at the top. The upper half of the painting depicts a distant island above the hull of a rowboat pointed toward the viewer. For “Method Two” Minter has removed the head and rearranged the other elements: the boat and calipers now hover above the island, interrupting, as it were, a classic Maine landscape.
“A Removal of All Visible Presence for 100 Years — One” is a bust profile of an African-American woman, her head rendered in an ornate design of swirling fish and shell shapes. On the woman’s neck is a fiery red opening, like a gaping wound, while her collar is decorated with a motif of fetuses in circular enclosures. Buttons spread across her front are a reference to the many buttons retrieved by archaeologists. Hanging below her is a sack-like net filled with what appear to be small bones.
The other paintings in the series introduce variations on the same format of a proud head in profile above the figure’s neck and decorative garb, and the net hanging below, often holding buttons. Each of the male and female countenances displays a different emotion: anger, suspicion, disgust, sadness. In “Nyanen’s Song—One,” the figure’s thin and delicate hands form an open circle as if holding some invisible object or trying to catch the buttons that fall from her belly.
In a manner akin to Ashley Bryan’s book Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams (2016), Minter resurrects the dead, giving them features and clothing. His approach is archetypal — these figures and their adornments stand in for the lost and forgotten — yet they were inspired by individual Malaga islanders, including women named Christina and Nyanen and members of the Trip family.
At the center of the gallery, Minter has set up a small structure representing the humble quarters of the islanders. Along its outside walls and inside it are artifacts from the archaeological digs conducted by Nathan Hamilton and Rob Sanford during their 2006-2007 summer excavations on the island: fishhooks, buttons, tincture bottles, clay pipes, pottery shards. Black-and-white photographs of some of the islanders contradict the vision the state encouraged of wretched poverty and backwardness. They are well-dressed and attentive, posing for the camera. By placing their images within the structure, Minter in effect brings them home, allowing them to live again.
The exhibition reflects Minter’s overall body of work, which often deals with themes of displacement and diaspora, as well as spirituality in the African-American world and the meaning of home. As founding director of Maine Freedom Trails, he has helped highlight the history of the Underground Railroad and the abolitionist movement through the Portland Freedom Trail. He also has sought to revive the Abyssinian Meeting House, organizing an exhibition of artists of color in what is the third-oldest African-American meeting house in the United States. His contribution to the show, the installation “A Distant Holla,” was featured in the Portland Museum of Art’s 2018 Biennial.
The exhibition at the USM Art Gallery includes, in its own room, a video documenting a “performative dinner” held on Malaga Island on July 12, 2018. Curated by Myron Beasley, a professor of American and African-American cultural studies at Bates College, the event, titled “Re:past: Remembering Malaga,” commemorated the islanders who lost their island home more than a century ago. Seated at two tables in a field of ferns, guests were served chowder and other food the original residents would have eaten. Gospel songs were sung (“Ain’t no grave gonna hold my body down”) and poetry read; the removal of a temporary structure symbolized the eviction. Minter served as creative consultant.
The video begins with a quote from William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even the past.” At the aforementioned apology event on the island in 2010, historian Herb Adams, who had written the resolution expressing regret for the state’s actions, offered a benediction: “Peace, at last to Malaga. May scientists explore its secrets. May students study its histories. May Mother Nature reclaim her own. And may the old ghosts find peace at last.” With Minter’s ongoing contributions to the Malaga story, those ghosts, one feels, may be resting easier.
OTHERED: Displaced from Malaga continues at University of Southern Maine Art Gallery (5 University Way, Gotham, Maine) though December 9.