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Take Me to the River
A Living Archive

Take Me to the River
Take Me to the River | Illustration (detail): © Goethe-Institut e.V. 2021

In the online exhibition Take Me to the River by the Goethe-Institut and Prince Claus Fund, artists explore the consequences of climate change for indigenous peoples. The curator Maya El Khalil and her assistant Danielle Makhoul spoke about the interface of art and sustainability and the importance of indigenous perspectives in art.

By Natascha Holstein

Ms Khalil, Ms Makhoul, what role do you believe art plays in the climate and sustainability debate? 

Curator Maya el Khalil Curator Maya el Khalil | Photo (detail): © Tim Bowditch Maya El Khalil: Art has a number of functions. It opens an additional space that complements the conventional narrative. In challenging times like these, the role of art goes beyond sensitisation: It’s about interruption, involvement, but also about imagination and hope. Art maintains a sense of connectedness despite the fragmentation of our modern world. For me, art isn’t a luxury, but a necessity.

Architect and curator Danielle Makhoul Architect and curator Danielle Makhoul | Photo (detail): © Abdullah AlMeslemani Danielle Makhoul: In a debate like this, art has the ability to open up new perspectives through artistic expression and an empathic approach. Many of the portraits of nature by individual projects for the Take Me to the River exhibition have striking, melancholy beauty. But art can also evoke emotions like fear. Fear that nature is actually putting us in the dock and retaliating after our longstanding abuse.
Marta Andreu, the founder of Residencias Walden, a residency programme for documentary filmmakers in Latin America, said something in one of our conversations that Maya and I never forgot: “If you understand that a tree is a living being and not an object that is available to you at will, then you also understand that you should not abuse it, but should respect it.” That’s what this project is about: Viewers should be moved at the emotional level to perceive a landscape as a subject and not an object. And that’s exactly what art can do. 

  • Arko Datto, “Where Do We Go When The Final Wave Hits”, 2017 Photo: Goethe-Institut - Take Me to the River © Arko Datto 2017
    Arko Datto, “Where Do We Go When The Final Wave Hits”, 2017
  • Arko Datto, „Where Do We Go When The Final Wave Hits”, 2018 Photo: Goethe-Institut - Take Me to the River © Arko Datto 2018
    Arko Datto, „Where Do We Go When The Final Wave Hits”, 2018
  • an evening sky bathed in blue and purple with palm trees and plants in the foreground, these are black with lighter accents that make them appear like shadows Photo: Goethe-Institut - Take Me to the River © Misha Vallejo 2015
  • Misha Vallejo, of series “Secret Sarayaku”, 2019 Photo: Goethe-Institut - Take Me to the River © Misha Vallejo 2019
    Misha Vallejo, of series “Secret Sarayaku”, 2019
  • Mohamed Mahdy, “Moon Dust”, 2020 Photo: Goethe-Institut - Take Me to the River © Mohamed Mahdy 2020
    Mohamed Mahdy, “Moon Dust”, 2020
The two of you are curating the online exhibition Take Me to the River. What’s unique about it and what opportunities are associated with the online presentation? 

Maya El Khalil: We tried to bring together new concepts, new ways to quantify the climate crisis and inspire action. The projects in the exhibition are not only conceived collectively, they create worldviews that go beyond rigid individualism. Each project presents a new perspective from which we need to reformulate our relationship to the climate emergency. Each project draws on the perspectives of communities severely affected by climate change. These communities are suffering, but they also have an intimate and irreplaceable knowledge of their environment.
I’d say this exhibition is an exercise in listening: to other voices, to diversity, to the planet. The online presentation allows us to reach a larger audience worldwide and it lasts longer than a physical exhibition.  

Danielle Makhoul: The transition from a physical to a digital exhibition was certainly not easy for us at first. However, as we took a closer look at the works, we realised that many of these projects are about communities that live extremely withdrawn from the rest of the world. And with the ongoing pandemic, the distance to them has increased even further and their regions are even harder to reach than before. Yet today we’re networked – digitally – better than ever. And as Maya said, an online exhibit like Take Me to the River works like a living archive that can be accessed by far more people who are even further apart. 
How can the debate benefit from indigenous perspectives and why is art so well suited to expressing these perspectives? 

Maya El Khalil: We can learn a lot from indigenous communities and one thing in particular: Nature has rights. This has since been recognised in some court rulings: Rivers have the right to flow, forests have the right to breathe. The Kichwa people, for example, whom Misha Vallejo portrayed in his project, believe in a “living forest”: a living forest that reacts to everything. The forest is a living being with a consciousness, it is a store of knowledge that is passed on by the elders to the new generations. When this chain is broken, the knowledge is lost. The natural balance of the universe, the harmony of life, the existence of living beings depends on this knowledge, on a relationship of respect and balance between all beings. Believing in such a symbiosis is my most important learning experience. Art has created a “space” in which alternative worldviews are brought together in order to understand the climate catastrophe – spaces beyond the boundaries of science and politics.