Third Text 151/152 Vol:32 No.2/3 March/May 2018

The Wretched Earth

ISBN13/Barcode: 9781138342064

Special issue, guest edited by Ros Gray and Shela Sheikh


'The Wretched of the Earth: Botanical Conflict and Artistic Interventions', 



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The Wretched Earth: Introduction 163–175

Ros Gray and Shela Sheikh

This special issue presents new research on, and in some cases generated through, contemporary art practices that both explore and intervene in the cultures, politics and systems of representation, as well as their attendant desires and violences, generated through human interaction with the soil. Our proposition is that, in order to do full justice to Fanon’s diagnosis of ‘the wretched of the earth’, we must understand more deeply the extent to which this is due to the fact that the earth itself is wretched, and that part of this condition has been the destruction of ‘ecological’ relations with the earth. The phrase ‘the wretched earth’ signals our ongoing engagement with anti-colonial and anti-imperialist writers such as Fanon, but also the need to go beyond their reconfigured humanism to think about the multiple human and nonhuman cohabitations that constitute the soil and, more broadly, our more-than-human commons.

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The Poetics of Entanglement in Zina Saro-Wiwa’s Food Interventions 176–199

Nomusa Makhubu

Through an analysis of Zina Saro-Wiwa’s food interventions, this essay revisits the idea of entanglement (Hofmeyr 2004; Kiewiet 1957; Mbembe 2001; Wenzel 2009; Nuttall 2009). This concept, I argue, is embedded in Saro-Wiwa’s work, reflecting neocolonial circuits of trade, resource extraction and labour exploitation. Its poetic and political potency engages with food and people and their intricate relations to land, particularly in the Niger Delta. Zina Saro-Wiwa’s art resonates with the poetry of her father, the writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. Her work points to her father’s significant role in the continued struggles of the Ogoni against the historical devastation caused by oil industries. Drawing from discourses about food and capitalist predation in the African continent, I argue that entanglement in Zina Saro-Wiwa’s work presents a paradox between an intended emancipatory aesthetic and neo-colonial entrapments in the art-oil economy. Food, in this work, is symbolic of interlaced systems of production, reproduction and artistic creation, which are offered by the artist as possibilities of redeeming sometimes inconsonant new ‘senses of being’.

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‘Planting Seeds/The Fires of War’: The Geopolitics of Seed Saving in Jumana Manna’s ‘Wild Relatives’ 200–229

Shela Sheikh

Through a reading of Jumana Manna’s feature-length film, 'Wild Relatives' (2018), this article explores the geopolitics of seed saving, reading global efforts to preserve genetic biodiversity in the face of climate change through the logic of the pharmakon (i.e. as both poison and cure). The film follows the journey of seeds between the Global Seed Vault at Svalbard (Norway) and the Bekaa Valley (Lebanon), where seeds from Syria are being cultivated due to the ongoing civil war, probing the relationship between the preservation and (re)patriation of seeds on the one hand, and global conflict and humanitarianism on the other, and considering local cultivation practices vis-à-vis the lasting legacies of the developmentalist, geopolitical agendas of the US-sponsored Green Revolution. The article situates the film within Manna’s broader oeuvre, problematising the epistemological and temporal logic of heritage practices that seek to preserve both cultural and natural diversity. As such, the article demonstrates the neo-orientalist and neo-colonial logic of cryopreservation as a form of ‘imperialist nostalgia’ or techno-capitalist wizardry. Adapting anthropologist Michael Taussig’s notion of ‘agribusiness writing’ to the institutionalised, globalised images and narratives of productivity, bio-conservation and peacemaking, 'Wild Relatives' is interpreted as a form of ‘apotropaic’ (‘countermagical’) film-making that warns against the appropriative, ‘green banking’ and ‘green washing’ logic of techno-scientific sorcery and celebrates the reciprocal, co-evolutionary plant–human relations of which the seed itself is an archive.

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‘Defoliating the World’: Ecocide, Visual Evidence and ‘Earthly Memory’ 230–253

Hannah Meszaros Martin

This article poses the US-led War on Drugs as an ecocidal force, whereby certain species and ecosystems are extinguished in the name of the ‘greater good’. In this never-ending war, environmental violence is intertwined with political violence; when non-human lives, including those of plants, become subject to eradication, a co-criminalisation occurs as natural ecosystems and human life cannot be separated. I examine how these forms of violence are depicted and the implications for visual evidence, forensics and legal forums in the context of the aerial fumigation of the coca plant in Colombia. The text traverses a series of frames of representation, each operating through different media and at different scales, in order to unfold the complex relationship between violence, law and the visible. What would it mean to broaden our terms of violence to include nonhuman subjects, and actions such as defoliation? I argue for new forms of evidentiary truth that might facilitate a reorientation of political and juridical forums to include ‘earthly memory’.

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Meteorisations: Reading Amílcar Cabral’s Agronomy of Liberation 254–272

Filipa César

This article reads Amílcar Cabral’s much under-studied early soil science as a body of work not dissociable from his project of liberation struggle against Portuguese colonialism in Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde. Drawing on research situated within an artistic practice, the article explores the definitions of soil and erosion that Cabral developed as an agronomist, as well as his reports on colonial land exploitation and analysis of the trade economy, to unearth his double agency as a state soil scientist and as a ‘seeder’ of African liberation. Cabral understood agronomy not merely as a discipline combining geology, soil science, agriculture, biology and economics but as a means to gain materialist and situated knowledge about peoples’ lived conditions under colonialism. The scientific data he generated during his work as an agronomist were critical to his theoretical arguments in which he denounced the injustices perpetrated on colonised land, and it later informed his warfare strategies. Cabral used his role as an agronomist for the Portuguese colonial government subversively to further anti-colonial struggle. I argue that the results of Cabral’s agronomic work – his care for the soil and attention to its processes and transformations – not only informed the organisation of the liberation struggle, but were crucial to the process of decolonisation, understood as a project of reclamation and national reconstruction in the postcolony.

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Borderless Histories: The Botanical Art of Maria Thereza Alves 273–289

Richard William Hill

Since the late 1990s, Maria Thereza Alves has been using botanical research as an integral component of her art practice, blending the methods of the natural sciences, documentary art, historical revision and social/political critique. Her work often charts the intertwined processes of the global migration of human beings and flora as natural and discursive histories simultaneously. This movement across disciplinary boundaries and traditional Western dichotomies of nature and culture raise questions that are now often associated with the theoretical movement new materialism. These include exploration of the agential character of non-human beings and things as well as efforts to discuss the material and social dimensions of phenomenon in network, rather than as discrete elements. This essay attempts to position Alves’s art in this theoretical context, while attending to the particularities of her investigation and its sense of political urgency.

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NonWest by North: Marianne North and William Colenso’s Responses to Plant Life and the Classification of Economic Botany 290–310

Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll

What is at stake in traditional botany and how has it historically swept aside even the most eminent of botanical artists such as Marianne North (1830–1890)? In three sections, this article explores themes of plant sexuality, colonisation and the relationships between botany at the metropolitan centre and at the empire’s peripheries. Marianne North and Julia Margaret Cameron’s amateur science and experimentation are the subject of the first section. Charles Darwin (1809–1882) and North’s views of relationality rather than Malthusian conflict are addressed in the second. Finally, as two amateur botanists and important plant specimen collectors for Kew, William Colenso (1811–1899) together with Marianne North provide case studies for the complexities of colonial classification. To what has been written about contemporary ‘botanical conflicts’, this article adds an analysis of the historical legacies of colonial science’s systems of control, against which indigenous and feminist botanical painters, as well as those interested in plant sentience and other forms of radical environmental art, continue to struggle. It is an anachronistic reinterpretation of Marianne North’s interest in Charles Darwin’s theories of conflict in relationships between species in 'On the Origin of Species' (1895) that reassesses the relationships of power, contest and sexualities with reference to the ‘plant turn’ in philosophy and critical theory (as theorised by Natasha Myers, Carla Hustak, Michael Marder, Michael Pollan, et al), as well as contemporary art. This article is about the conflict between central patriarchies and peripheral establishments of natural science, between Indigenous and colonial botany and its artistic representations.

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The Order of Potatoes: On Purity and Variation in Plant Breeding 311–329

Åsa Sonjasdotter

This article addresses questions of memory, matter, temporality and narrative as they emerge in stable plant variation throughout processes of cultivation and breeding. I have come to investigate these topics through the art project 'The Order of the Potatoes', which combines potato breeding and artistic research. I present two different but entangled narratives on potatoes and breeding. Both these stories begin at the time of early colonialism and capitalism at the end of the sixteenth century. 'On Linearity and Purity' tells of an attempt to produce purity and linearity in plant matter. I describe how the principle of purity was invented as a category within breeding and how it benefitted both commercial and politico-ideological interests. 'On SpaceTime and Hybridity' presents stories of some of the genetically rich and flexible potato varieties that were discarded in the pursuit of genetic purity, and that subsequently became forbidden for commercial cultivation within the EU. I present the two narratives alongside each other as a way to make visible how they not only represent different perspectives on the same historical spacetime, but also how they involve different narrative formats. The story of purity progresses along a linear, future-directed time scale. By contrast, and drawing on the theory of memory and temporality developed by Karen Barad, the story of hybridity obtains form by the temporal multi-directionality that the manifold matters and memories the potato varieties compose and continuously re-compose.

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Cultivating Colour: Making Mayan Blue from Woad 330–349

Sigrid Holmwood

This article brings together the figure of the European peasant and the indigenous Amerindian through the materials of painting, by following the trajectories of certain dye-plants uncovered through my practice-based research into the construction of a pigment garden in Almería, Spain. It follows the colonial routes of woad (Isatis tinctoria) and indigo (xiuquílitl, Indigofera suffruticosa) in order to elucidate the exploitative relationship towards plant and human life developed through bio-colonialism and the plantation system, which reduced non-Europeans to abstract labour, and plant life to standing resources. In contrast, I will attempt to retrieve the indigenous Mesoamerican pigment-making technology for making Mayan blue, that was ‘lost’ in the wake of colonialism, and show how it reveals alternative genres of the human and plant-human relationships. As I share my hybrid recipe for making Mayan blue from European woad, I will examine re-enactment (as a form of anthropofagia), and commoning, as decolonial strategies within my practice.

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Sensing Lichens: From Ecological Microcosms to Environmental Subjects 350–367

Jennifer Gabrys

Bioindication is a process whereby organisms signal environmental events such as air pollution, and that occurs across multiple organisms as they are affected by, sense and even transform their environments. Lichens are particularly sensitive bioindicator organisms that sense and accumulate environmental pollution. Also used to detect air pollution levels, lichens can be used to monitor environments in ways that are more indicative or qualitative in comparison to technical instruments. Bioindication could then be considered to be expressive not just of other ways of doing environmental sensing, but also as productive of other engagements with environmental politics that attend to the lived effects of pollution as experienced by nonhuman organisms. In this register of reworking environmental conflict and environmental sensing through pollution, I ask how lichens, as fungal-vegetal vectors for sensing environments, might go beyond representational modes of politics to generate more ecological and speculative encounters with environmental politics and worlds in the making. Using a speculative bioindicator garden as one method for encountering environments from a lichen point of view, I develop propositional ecological relations that might, through sensing environments in other registers, also realise more expansive environmental political engagements with conflicts such as pollution.

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Additional Information

Author N/A
Binding Magazine
Pages 120
Report Date N/A
Date Published 18 Oct 2018
Frequency No
ISBN13/Barcode 9781138342064
ISBN10 1138342068
Publisher Third Text

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