Art as an Additional Space “Nature Has Rights”

Night shot of palm trees
In the exhibition “Take Me to the River”, the artists address the consequences of climate change for the indigenous population. | Photo (detail): Misha Vallejo 2015 © Take Me to the River

What contribution can art do in the discourse about sustainability and how can Indigenous perspectives be included? At the online exhibition “Take Me to the River” different artists from Africa, Asia, Central and South America, the Caribbean and Eastern Europe present their artworks as a chorus of voices against resource depletion, environmental abuse and the violation of the rights of Indigenous communities. Curator of the exhibition Maya El Khalil and assistant curator Danielle Makhoul review in the interview about their biggest learnings in terms of this exhibition. 

Ms. Khalil and Ms. Makhoul, as curators, what would you say is the role of art in the climate and sustainability discourse? 

Maya El Khalil: Art has many functions. It creates an additional space to conceive alternative narratives. In these challenging times, art has a role beyond sensitising. It is about disrupting, implicating but also about imagination and hope. Art heightens and sustains a sense of connection despite the fragmentation of our modern world. For me, art is not a luxury, it’s a necessity. 

Danielle Makhoul: The power of art in this sort of discourse is that it has a capacity to tell a different kind of story, through expression, and through empathy. There is a striking and sad beauty in many of the environmental portraits painted by some of the Take Me to the River projects. But there is also a power to elicit emotions such as fear; fear of the fact that nature truly is prosecuting us and fighting back as a consequence of our longstanding abuse. During one of our conversations with Marta Andreu, founder of Residencias Walden, a residency programme for documentary filmmakers in Latin America, she said something that stayed with me and Maya: “If you understand that a tree is a being and not an object there for your convenience, then you can understand that you should not mistreat, but respect it.” That’s what this project is about: making viewers conscious of the existence of landscape as a subject rather than an object, through emotion. And that is what art does. 

Both of you are curating the online exhibition Take Me to the River. What is special about it and what is the chance of doing it online? 

Maya El Khalil: We tried to bring together new conceptions, new ways to quantify the climate crisis and inspire action. The projects in the exhibition are not just collaborative, they connect with worldviews beyond the narrow individualism we operate within. Each shows a new perspective from where we might reformulate our relationship to the climate emergency. Each project relies upon the perspectives of communities living the harshest realities of the climate emergency. These communities suffer, yet they also possess intimate and irreplaceable knowledge of abused environments.  

I would say, this exhibition is an exercise in listening: to other voices, to multiplicity, to the planet. What the online presentation allowed us to do is reach a wider segment of the population as now it can be visited from all over the world. And it also will exist for a longer period of time.  

“Take Me to the River” acts as a living archive.

Danielle Makhoul

Danielle Makhoul: I can definitely say that it wasn’t easy for us to move from a physical to a digital exhibition at first, but as we explored the work, we came to realise that many of the projects portray extremely secluded societies. And with the ongoing pandemic, distance has become even greater and these territories more inaccessible than ever. We are however now more connected than ever – digitally. And as Maya said, an online endeavour such as Take Me to the River acts as a living archive that can be accessed by so many more, who are even further apart.  

What surprised you the most in working with the artists and learning about their contributions? 

Maya El Khalil: The sense of allyship that prevailed. And I am stressing on the word allyship, rather than empathy. The artists’ work reflect their deep commitment to make the voices of the communities they are working with heard. It is not an exercise in interpretation. We dug deep into subjects we had no idea of. Personally, I didn’t know about the essential role the Coca leaf holds within the Indigenous communities of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, in the Colombian Amazon.  Diana Rico, who contributed the project Coca File, describes it as a technological tool for the Indigenous people to access ancient archival knowledge amongst other usage. In public, Coca is often identified as Cocaine, while there is a clear difference from the drug for the Indigenous community. So when the government makes it illegal to grow the plant, it is eradicating a whole way of life. 

Danielle Makhoul: For me, what was most impressive was discovering that there are people out there dedicating most of their time to making the threats to these communities visible. Most of these works are ongoing works, some of which have been in progress for far more than just a year - up to over a decade in some cases! I think there is always this misperception of the art world as being purely commercial.  We associate art with galleries, museums and exhibitions, when you have so many artists working so closely with communities to make the forgotten, the abused and the overlooked visible. And this digital platform allows the world to connect to them.  

Maya El Khalil: Basically it reinforces the idea that art cannot exist in a bubble, it is ultimately involved in society. Most of the projects are not only multidisciplinary, they are interdisciplinary, meaning they depend on each other. 

How do you think art could actively support sustainability? 

Maya El Khalil: By imagining alternative ways, by finding creative ways of making visible certain discourses and narratives. For instance, Gilberto Esparza worked for his project Kora-llysis very closely with scientists to develop a technical device to accelerate the repair of coral reefs. Another example is the gorgeous photographs of Arko Datto: the aesthetic component is important, but at the same time you realise you’re looking at a catastrophe, it is about pain and changing ways of life. 

The works are beautiful and impactful, but they are tragic at the same time.

Maya El Khalil

Danielle Makhoul: We forget that art is not just about the final product; it’s also about the process. A lot of these projects don’t even have a final product, but instead focus on long-term impact through education, technology and transfer of tools. Such collectives have chosen to carry out workshops and competitions to reconnect people to their city or educate younger generations of remote districts about specific environmental threats to their territory. In one project, the artists led video workshops to equip a local Indigenous community with the technical knowledge to create their own film, through which they could then tell their story to the world. This is also art, in the less traditional sense of the term. The end product is less tangible, but just as impactful, rooted in action, solutions and change. 

Maya El Khalil: It’s also important to look at these relationships. If you come to these communities and want to make a film about them, they know exactly what they want in return, for example, to make their case public. It’s not a question of one giving and one taking, it’s rather reciprocal, based on equal needs and benefits. 

How can the discourse profit from Indigenous perspectives and why is art a great way to express it? 

Maya El Khalil: We have a lot to learn from the Indigenous communities, most evident: Nature has rights. It has now been recognised in some court cases as well: Rivers have the right to flow, forests have the right to breathe. The Kichwa people in Sarayaku, amongst whom Misha Vallejo lived and worked, talk about the living forest, Kawsak Sacha: The forest is a living being with consciousness, it is a repository of knowledge that is transmitted to the elders who transmit it to the new generations. If this chain is disrupted, knowledge is lost. The natural balance of the universe, the harmony of life, the existence of living beings depend on this knowledge, on a relationship of respect and balance between all beings. Art has created a ‘space’ where alternative worldviews are brought together to conceive the climate catastrophe – spaces beyond the confines of science and policy. 

The interview was conducted by Natascha Holstein, online editor of the Zeitgeister magazine.