Fostering Maine’s African Diasporic Community in the Arts: Indigo Arts Alliance


Indigo Arts Alliance was founded in 2018, launched in 2019, inspired from years of conversation between artist Daniel Minter and creative director, curator and business specialist Marcia Minter. The Minters, long-time residents of Maine, sought a way to deepen and expand their connection to the state’s art world, to offer mentorship to early career artists of African descent and at the same time enrich the surrounding community of African diasporic peoples in Maine. With this goal of combining community building and engagement with artistic application and development, Daniel and Marcia Minter launched Indigo Arts Alliance at 60 Cove Street, in Portland. As deputy director Jordia Benjamin points out, the neighborhood anchoring Indigo Arts Alliance is not incidental to but essential in the alliance’s goal of creating a space where artists of African descent are supported in developing their art in an urban neighborhood context. At Indigo Arts Alliance, the artists in residence provide an example for African diasporic youth in the surrounding neighborhood, and in turn the artists are inspired by seeing a vibrant neighborhood around them. In the heart of Portland, the East Bayside area of Kennedy Park and Portland Housing Authority housing hosts a large immigrant community. Benjamin notes that this mutual support of artists of African descent modeling a career in the arts so that their presence is visible to the youth of the area, and the strength of an African diasporic community contextualizing artists of African descent, is crucial to Indigo Arts Alliance’s mission. The goal is to foster and support artists of African descent and also to bring this richness of the arts directly to the African diasporic community of Portland.

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Carl Joe Williams, Image a World without Prisons, installation view of the exhibition Visions for our Future; Echoes of our Past: Dianne Smith, Nyugen E. Smith, and Carl Joe Williams, Institute of Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art & Design in collaboration with Indigo Arts Alliance (photo: Coco McCraken).

The unique model of Indigo Arts Alliance is based on mentorship. This mentorship model entails bringing together professional, mid-career and emerging artists who act as mentors for one-month and two-month long residencies of the selected artists. During these residencies, artists are able to foster community and connection, thus having mutual support of African diasporic artists in the Americas. Mentors not only offer advice but also, Benjamin explains, the artists are helped with career strategies regarding understanding curatorial processes at museums and galleries and navigating the complicated terrain of the 21st century art world. Indigo Arts Alliance emphasizes not only development of artwork but also advises curatorial support in partnership with museums and cultural institutions. Just this year, Indigo Arts Alliance has already exhibited with the Institute of Contemporary Art at the Maine College of Art & Design in Portland, Visions for our Future; Echoes of our Past: Dianne Smith, Nyugen E. Smith, and Carl Joe Williams that featured works from three Indigo alumni artists who presented work that was inspired and informed during their time in residence. In October, Indigo is partnering with the Center for Contemporary Art in Rockland to exhibit Through This to That featuring the works of co-founder and artist director, Daniel Minter and Eneida Sanchez, IAA’s inaugural Artist in Residence (2019).

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Indigo Arts Alliance artist-in-residence Eneida Sanchez preparing for the upcoming exhibition Through This to That (photograph courtesy of Indigo Arts Alliance).

The range of arts represented by Indigo Arts Alliance fellows and residents is breathtaking. It includes sculpture, multimedia, installation, jewelry, metal, dance, performance art, music, design, photography, film, fiber, written word, and painting. Benjamin describes that at times artists from different disciplines whose residencies co-occur join together to create collaborative works, crossing between artistic genres and creating new ways of engaging community and activism through art.

Set in Portland, Indigo Arts Alliance has a global reach, drawing resident artists from the United States, the Caribbean, Africa, India, and Brazil. As Benjamin states, the goal of Indigo Arts Alliance is to foster and provide “perspective to create multidisciplinary art to inspire a multiracial democracy.” Individual artists are nominated to apply for residencies based on their work’s overall excellence and their work’s engagement with political activism toward achieving multiracial democracy. Activist art is at the core of Indigo Arts Alliance mission, which is not surprising given that Daniel Minter, long a creator of subtly beautiful evocative paintings, sculptures, and assemblage works that combine paint and sculpture celebrating African diasporic people and culture, is a co-founder of Indigo Arts Alliance.

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Indigo Arts Alliance David C. Driskell fellow Rachel Gloria Adams at the IAA’s Black Seed Studio during her residency (photo: Darren Setlow).

Benjamin notes that artist and professor of art David C. Driskell, before his passing, a close friend of the Minter’s, was influential in the inspiration for Indigo Arts Alliance. Hence, the David C. Driskell fellows are an essential part of Indigo Arts Alliance, honoring the great artist whose retrospective Icons of Nature and History was exhibited at the Portland Museum of Art in partnership with Indigo Arts Alliance in the summer of 2021. The David C. Driskell fellows of Indigo Arts Alliance continue Driskell’s legacy of supporting the work of artists of color. Unlike the mentor/mentee resident artists of Indigo Arts Alliance who are nominated, fellows are selected through an application and housed in the Black Seed Studio. They are chosen exclusively from the state of Maine. As Mainers of African descent, artists named David C. Driskell fellows enrich and enlarge Maine’s vibrant art scene.

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Indigo Arts Alliance artist-in-residence Nyugen E. Smith at the exhibition Visions for our Future; Echoes of our Past: Dianne Smith, Nyugen E. Smith, and Carl Joe Williams (photo: Coco McCraken).

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Indigo Arts Alliance artist-in-residence Viva (photograph courtesy of Indigo Arts Alliance).

Former fellows and artists in residence attest to the importance of Indigo Arts Alliance in their development as artists. Artist in residence Nyugen E. Smith describes his interdisciplinary work as using multiple “languages” of art, different media including music, painting, sculpture, mixed-media drawings, and video to work through and engage the burden of colonialism that people of the African diaspora have borne and continue to bear. Fostering “meaningful relationships in a virtual space” is a part of Smith’s practice, and his brilliant Bundle House project comments on how those on the margins of capitalism bundle disparate materials together to create homes despite adversity. Lines from Smith’s poetic art “Creativity from my nativity,” and “If sky’s the limit, I’m headed to the horizon line,” express the spirit of Indigo Arts Alliance. Musical artist in residence Viva describes the sense of hope for the future that being in the space of Indigo Arts confers. At Indigo Arts, Viva has been able to “focus on all of the things I want to learn right now, in the present . . . this moment of peace when I can work on getting ready for the future.” She is especially grateful for the way that the Indigo Arts Alliance has that “generosity . . . where here’s a space that you’re not too loud.” As she puts it: “Because Indigo is a space for Black and Brown artists, it means that as soon as I walk in the door, I’m immediately a person. And I’m a person who is worth respect. I’m wanted here.” Artist-in-residence Séan Alonzo Harris, fine art photographer, echoes that sentiment, stating “the importance of Indigo for Brown and Black artists is tremendous.”

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Ashley Bryan (photograph courtesy of Indigo Arts Alliance).

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Indigo Arts Alliance Deputy Director Jordia Benjamin with featured books from the Second Annual Beautiful Blackbird Children’s Book Festival (photo: Coco McCraken).

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Nylah (photo: Séan Alonzo Harris).

Just as Indigo Arts Alliance honors David C. Driskell, it also honors the late Ashley Bryan, whose work is the subject of an exhibit now at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland. Bryan’s gorgeous children’s book Beautiful Blackbird lends its name to a community program sponsored and organized by Indigo Arts Alliance, the Beautiful Blackbird Children’s Book Festival, in which children’s books that feature work by Black and Brown artists are given away free of charge to Maine children. This year the Festival will occur on the weekend of 17 and 18 September with events co-occurring in Portland, Rockland, and Lewiston. As Benjamin notes, Indigo Arts Alliance chooses models of community engagement and artistic development that are shown by data to be effective in supporting the flourishing of artists from communities of African descent. Likewise, the data are clear on the benefits of reading books to children that feature positive representation of people of African descent. Ashley Bryan’s books exemplify this spirit of the Black artist creating visual worlds in which children can treasure their heritage. The Festival, founded in partnership with I’m Your Neighbor Books and Diverse BookFinder, gave 6,000 + books to the community in its first two years, 2020–21, and this year alone is on track to give 4,500 books to Maine children. Here, the full-circle commitment to community and the arts exemplified by Indigo Arts Alliance shines through. The alliance brings art to the very youngest members of Maine’s African diasporic community, some of whom will grow up to be Maine’s future artists. And when those new artists emerge, Indigo Arts Alliance will be there to support them and their art.


Image at top: Indigo Arts Alliance Co-Founder and Artist Director, Daniel Minter with David C. Driskell (photo: Séan Alonzo Harris).