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'Juneteenth is every day for me': Maine artist uses drawings, music to recognize Black beauty

Hi Tiger, an artist and DJ based in Portland, leads art installation in Biddeford to put Black beauty front and center.

BIDDEFORD, Maine — The Black Lives Matter movement across the country, and here in Maine, makes this year's Juneteenth, a day to commemorate the abolishment of slavery in the United States, even more significant, according to Portland-based installation artist Hi Tiger.

“We are all sort of clamoring. We are rushing to understand what this moment means, but it’s not just a moment, it’s a movement and it’s something that has been brewing for peoples’ whole lives," Hi Tiger said. "Juneteenth is every day for me. I do exhibitions all the time. I’m engaged on the cultural frontlines every day. While today may be just another day for me, the fact that there is this broad awareness happening makes it special."

Hi Tiger is the founder of the Maine Center for Electronic Music (MCEM), an organization using the power of dance music to bring people together. Hi Tiger and the MCEM debuted a new exhibition on Friday called The Slave Liberation Project. It's on Main Street in Biddeford, putting Black beauty on display through large-scale drawings on cardboard.

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"Mostly women, transwomen, and feminine gay men because when we talk about beauty we are typically talking about femininity, so I am using cardboard as a metaphor as something called the paper bag test," Hi Tiger said.

The show is an opportunity to introduce people to the history and the legacy of his family's deep roots in slavery in the United States. Hi Tiger says his great great grandfather, Harrison Barrett, was a freed slave who settled in Houston, Texas. 

"I grew up as a kid celebrating Juneteenth with my family," Hi Tiger said. "And doing this show here in Maine is really an opportunity to introduce people to that history and that legacy.”

As part of Biddeford's Art Walk, the space located at 163 Main Street was is visible from the sidewalk, which is a design in keeping with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The building housing the temporary exhibition has a history involving slavery, which is a detail Hi Tiger and other organizers only recently knew about prior to opening.

The Pepperell Trust Company building, one of many buildings in Biddeford emblazoned with the Pepperell name, comes from wealthy merchant Sir William Pepperell of Kittery. The Maine Historical Society calls Pepperell the 'most famous slave owner in Maine.'

"I put up a sign over his name talking about Juneteenth," Hi Tiger. "It's not about wiping out his history, it’s about the recognition that history is broader sometimes than we’ve been made aware of."

The Slave Liberation Project will be available through July, and it's recommended to visit at night.

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