‘Decolonizing Nature’: Toward Resilience, Resistance
by Samantha Anne Carrillo
In this quasi-dystopian era, the clockwork regularity of vanishing species and evaporating icebergs rightly induces a heightened sense of dread and anxiety. That’s where the three R’s come in: resistance, revitalization, and the nurturance of our individual and collective capacities for resilience. Preceding Earth Day, the University of New Mexico hosted an interdisciplinary environmental justice public forum, “Decolonizing Nature,” at the National Hispanic Cultural Center last week.
“Decolonizing Nature: Resistance, Resilience, Revitalization” assembled a diverse collective of presentations and panels to assess ecological sustainability under capitalism and the essential nature of cultivating resilience, establishing resistance and inspiring revitalization, especially in response to manmade environmental crises. Art historian and critic T.J. Demos, a headlining conference speaker, focuses on contemporary art and visual culture and their intersections with globalization, politics, migration, and ecology. But how exactly does one decolonize nature?
In Duke University-affiliated journal Social Text, Demos explained that: “to decolonize nature would suggest the cancellation of this subject-object relation between humans and the environment, the removal of the conditions of mastery and appropriation that determine the connection between the two, and the absolution of the multiple levels of violence that mediate the relation of human power over the natural world.” (And with that, John Locke rolls over in his grave.)
The conference brought together 33 presenters, respectively fluent in art, architecture, humanities, religion, science, and grassroots activism. The gathering fostered discussion of “integrating knowledge across disciplines, practices across cultures and social – environmental movements across geographies.” Over the past decade, academics across the humanities have intensified their incorporation of ecological knowledge bases into their respective courses, even birthing new degree track environmental humanities.
Along the same timeline—okay, it’s been hand-over-fist since Trump’s election—environmental activism among individual and collaborative artists, critics, historians, and indigenous activists (think: the water protectors of Standing Rock) and their allies has redoubled … and then some. Beyond what this gathering together accomplished, “Decolonizing Nature” also succeeds by forging connections between those academics, artists, activists, historians, and critics interested in progressive environmental policy. In today’s politically charged climate debate, those connections ought apply to us all.
A “Decolonizing Nature”-adjacent pop-up art exhibition remains on view at 516 ARTS (516 Central SW) through April 29, 2017. 516 ARTS is open from noon to 5pm, Tuesday through Saturday. The exhibit features New Mexican artwork by National Geographic-affiliated interdisciplinary artist and UNM professor emeritus Basia Irland (“What the River Knows,” 2017) and Silver City-based photographer Michael P. Berman (“The Pope on TV, Pueblo Nuevo, TX,” 2013) alongside that of Wiisaakodewinini (Métis) artist, activist, and scholar Dylan A.T. Miner (“No Pipelines on Indigenous Land,” et al., 2016).
Exhibit co-curators Lara Esther Goldmann and Chloë Courtney note that Basia Irland’s “What the River Knows” “meditates upon the historical, cultural, and environmental significance of various rivers that have been subject to industrial and political exploitation.” Puerto Rican collaborative duo Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla aka Allora & Calzadilla address the military occupation of and ensuing environmental and social injustices in Vieques, Puerto Rico (“Returning A Sound,” 2004, “Under Discussion,” 2005).
Mexican artists Carlos Maravilla Santos (“Semilla y sembrador,” 2016) and Ehecatl Morales-Valdelamar (“Embarcaderos,” 2015) contribute their own works referencing ecology and agriculture plus a collaboration with Maleny Cedillo Inclán (“Haciendo Chinampa,” 2015). Brazilian artist and Maria Thereza Alves points out the continuous reproduction of hierarchical power structures with her installation “The Return of the Lake,” 2012, “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.”
In Alves’ own words: “‘The Return of the Lake’ questions the fashionable notion of ‘post-colonization’ with an investigation of how colonial practices such as the ongoing appropriation of native people’s lands, culture and livelihood continue in place as a quotidian reality for indigenous communities and obstruct the possibility of a viable and ecologically sustainable future for all members of Mexican society.” The fact that the art community is addressing these vital issues points to the potential for a sea change in the way that humankind views our relationship with nature.
“Decolonizing Nature” resources being made available for free to all interested parties include a comprehensive video archive of the conference; podcast interviews with four conference speakers; and a compendium of related, upcoming events of partner organizations.
To learn more, visit decolonizingnature.unm.edu.
Feature photo credit: Maria Thereza Alves’ “The Return of the Lake,” 2012
Samantha Anne Carrillo is: a Burqueña; a freelance writer & editor; a social media consultant & brand strategist; and a fourth-wave feminist & devout situationist. Connect with her at facebook.com/samanthaannenm & samanthaannecarrillo.blogspot.com.