Decolonizing Nature brings together diverse voices to the conversation on geopolitical power structures, coloniality, and their severe impact on ecology and indigenous communities. Together the artists reveal the complexity, as well as the interconnected relationships between ecological and social injustices. Looking at the work of Allora & Calzadilla, addressing the military occupation and ensuing environmental and social injustices in Vieques, Puerto Rico, or the installation Return of a Lake by Brazilian artist Maria Thereza Alves, points to the continuous reproduction of hierarchical power structures. Return of a Lake represents both the artist’s research practice as well as her deep collaboration with the community of Xico in the Valley of Mexico, examining the impact coloniality (the continuation of the logics that made colonization possible) has had and still has on that community and its agricultural practices.
The relationships between many of the works reveal a broad concern with documenting, practicing, and revitalizing indigenous agricultural methods and ways of relating to our environment as an act of resistance. The work of New Mexico-based artist and activist Basia Irland meditates upon the historical, cultural, and environmental significance of various rivers that have been subject to industrial and political exploitation, destroying not only natural habitats, but also the communities who depend upon these rivers. Likewise, Guatemalan artist Sandra Monterroso recovers and restores both her own heritage as a Maya artist, as well as larger cultural practices, relating the tradition and process of dying textiles to the incremental but serious destruction of the land and water. Reconsidering these histories counters the systemic erasure of Maya existence and history in Guatemala. Similarly, the work of Carlos Maravilla Santos and Ehecatl Morales Valdelamar, a collective based in Mexico City, studies and collaborates with Xochimilco, a region which still reflects the canals, chinampas, and waterways that comprised the original structure of the city before colonization. Their community-based practice involves workshops, performances, and many collaborations with local advocacy groups to maintain these traditional and sustainable agricultural practices, reinforcing their importance and making them present within the larger urban environment of Mexico City. The importance of art and visual imagery as elements of social movements is abundantly apparent through the prints of Dylan AT Miner, which helped galvanize awareness and support for the opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016, and point to the economic interests continuing colonial structures of power, and the consequences this has for land, water, and communities. The poetic photographs of Michael P. Berman allude to the physical displacement and fragmented identities caused by the implicit and actual violence of the borderlands, and the historical and continuing enforcement of hierarchies of power through structures such as race, religion, and capitalism.
The artworks included, with their potential to raise questions and provoke critical thought, show us a way in which we can begin to question the historical narratives and assumed knowledges that continue to dictate the conversations surrounding social, economic, ecological and political injustices. As such, Virginia Colwell’s installation destabilizes the parameters of predominant narratives of knowledge through its critical understanding of how museums, academies, and other institutions have systematically reified these histories, provoking a reconsideration of hegemonic thought and knowledge systems as well as which cultural practices are considered valid—or not.
In their various connections to specific communities and struggles of decolonizing histories, landscapes, and nature, these artists make the broad concepts of resistance, resilience, and revitalization tangible. The ways in which the works de-link from official narratives and recover memories, both individual and collective, remind us that art offers a powerful space from which to speak, and from which to decolonize.
We are incredibly grateful to the participating artists for sharing their work, which we strongly believe asks us to question hegemonic ways of understanding the world we live in, and pushes us as individuals to seek new ways of thinking, resisting, and connecting to the environment and each other.
The exhibition Decolonizing Nature at 516 ARTS was in conjunction the environmental justice conference Decolonizing Nature: Resistance, Resilience, Revitalization, organized by Subhankar Banerjee, Lannan Chair, Land Arts of the American West / Art & Ecology Program, UNM College of Fine Arts.