“This bench is intended to be a space for strangers and friends alike to deepen their understanding of one another, and is designed to evoke an alternative future where happiness is a collective project.”
So reads the plaque hanging beside the newly unveiled art installation bench project envisioned and brought into existence through a collaborative process led by artist Titi de Baccarat and Allagash Brewing founder Rob Tod. The project was first imagined early in the pandemic, when de Baccarat started working on his Kneeling Art Photography Project in response to the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement. Allagash Brewing provided the materials and tools for building the bench installation, as well as space for welding and a team of willing Allagash employees to help with the work. Amjambo Africa’s Jean Hakuzimana sat with de Baccarat and Tod on May 11 to talk about the project and what it meant to them.
JH:. I’m so glad to be here with both of you today. Welcome to Amjambo Africa. Both of you believe deeply in community and social justice. And that’s what brought you together, I believe. Let’s start with you, Titi. Please give us some background about the genesis of this project.
Titi de Baccarat: I was commissioned to create this wonderful bench, where everyone – without exclusion – is invited to take a seat and relax. The bench can seat more than one person, so it’s a space where people have a chance to meet a new person. We need this type of project in Maine. As we know, in the state of Maine, month after month, we are getting more people from Africa and also from other places. People who have decided to make Maine home. Rod and I both want to welcome them and build friendships. The opportunity Allagash gave me is meant to show people who are from abroad that they have a place in the state of Maine, in society here. That’s so amazing. I’m so glad to have this partnership with Rob Tod and Allagash Brewing.
JH: Rob, could you tell us how you got the idea of commissioning Titi to create a piece of art for Allagash?
Rob Tod: It’s a story that goes back a few years and involves Amjambo Africa. We’ve been working with them for quite a few years, supporting the work that they do. During the Black Lives Matter movement, we took out an advertisement in Amjambo Africa, a more concise version of a [DEIJ] statement that we have on our website and on social media. Titi saw that statement printed in a copy of Amjambo and went all over Portland trying to get as many copies as he could. He cut out that advertisement and included it as part of an art installation that he had done on Congress Street. … We were very inspired and moved that the statement had resonated so much with someone in the community here in Portland. So, we got introduced … I remember like it was yesterday when we first met. It was at Local 188, right across the street from the installation, and we had some beers and talked about doing an art installation here at the brewery, since we get about 150,000 people a year visiting from all over the country. We were really interested in an installation that spoke to our core values. Our purpose here is to brew with integrity. We all come to work every day to brew wonderful, thoughtful, unique beers. But not only is our purpose to brew with integrity, it’s also to build community. And that’s something that’s very, very important to all 150 employees here. And we really looked at this installation as an opportunity to make some progress on the building community front here at the brewery.
JH: Titi, you obviously feel passionately about this project, and about working with Allagash on it. I know you worked with people here. Can you talk some more about the process?
TdB: We collaborated on the level of mutual respect. We exchanged knowledge, we exchanged skills, and it has been so amazing. This finished product is a collective project, a collaborative project. If you looked at the first sketches of the bench, you’ll see it has changed, developed. It is so different now. I learned a lot from the workers here at Allagash, and I hope they learned from me, too. Amazing. It’s an example of how people from abroad bring something to the state of Maine, and also learn a lot from American culture. It is a beautiful exchange. This is what makes this project so exciting. We should always learn and listen and act – for me the question is “how can we build together?” How can we, each of us, bring what skills and knowledge we have, put them together with others, and build something good for society, good for the community? How can we bring our energy, our love to create, and make something that will be beneficial for everyone? Together, always together.
RT: I’d like to go back to the word “together.” It’s always been important to me since day one [of Allagash]. So, for almost 30 years now, I’ve wanted for everyone to feel welcomed to this brand, whether it’s a welcome for someone who’s working here, or someone who’s visiting here to enjoy beer at the brewery. And one of the wonderful things about beer is it brings people together to talk. Talk about things, learn, and listen … I want everyone, regardless of what they look like, regardless of where they’re from, to feel welcome. … And that really is what this bench symbolizes – it is just welcoming people to sit together, to learn about each other, to listen.
JH: Could you describe what’s on this bench?
RT: Sure. On the back of the bench, you will see a huge collage. It holds a lot of memories for me, this bench. … [Titi and I]went over to our warehouse where we had boxes and boxes and boxes of stuff that I hadn’t seen in a long time, from way back in the ’90s, the early 2000s. And we included things going all the way back to the beginning [of Allagash]. So it’s fun for me to look at – it progresses from left to right with the history of the brewery. You can even see the tap handles from our first beer, Allagash White. It’s kind of a chronological journey.
JH: Tell me, we are living in a politically charged environment. How do you reconcile that as a businessman?
RT: I avoid politics, but it’s very important to us to take a stand on issues. If someone wants to politicize an issue, that’s up to them. And unfortunately, these days a lot of issues are politicized. But we are pretty bold in taking a stand on things that align with our culture. It goes back to one of the things I first mentioned – building community.
JH: This project is now completed. Do you have thoughts you’d like to share?
TdB: I’d like to say thank you to the team that helped me and to the company, because for me it has been a great opportunity. And yes, the project is done, but in my heart I’ll keep a lot of good memories … from the ice cream, to the people, and all the interactions that I had with everyone. It was so amazing. I’m not feeling like they took from me, you know? I learned from them. And I’m not talking just about the materialistic part, but the human. I felt valued. I felt people would give me time and try to understand me, and my process, and what I tried to accomplish on completion.
My wish is that the company will continue to give opportunities to those who are from other communities. That’s so important because there are a lot of people who are not seen or heard, but have a story to tell. And they have skills, they have dreams, and are just looking for an opportunity to also bring something to Maine. We are not just in Maine to take from Maine, and not just in America to take from America. We want also to contribute with our skills, our life, our love, our respect.
JH: You talk about building community, and clearly the bench creates a communal space. But how else did this project build community?
RT: Well, this wasn’t just a project where Titi came in and built it on his own. We involved a lot of employees. A lot of our employees did some of the welding. I actually did some of the welding on this project. So there were a lot of hands involved in making this. Obviously Titi was the one with the creativity that imagined this, but we really feel like it was a team effort, and we’re real proud of it. We have a lot of employees here that are excited about it. It took us a while to finish the bench because when we first committed to this, it was right in the middle of covid. And then, you know, everyone thought COVID would end quickly – and it didn’t. But we finally were able to get to work on it when the restrictions relaxed a little bit. And yeah – it came out great. I think a lot of people are going to want to come and visit here and sit on the bench. And I’m sure they’ll have their friends and family take pictures of them on the bench. It’s a great addition to our tasting room.