Nature as Communities

Curated and written by Jen Yakamovich, with the support of the Dalhousie Art Gallery staff. Exhibited at the Dalhousie Art Gallery from May 3-July 14 2019, Nature as Communities was a group show which developed out of Jen Yakamovich's Master's research. A review for the exhibition may be found here. A news article about the exhibition may be found here.

Who or what is nature? What ideas and stories have informed our notions of nature and the natural environment in Canada? Who and what may appear in our designations of “Nature”; who and what is left out? How may we access silenced or unsung stories of environmental knowledge? What might we learn when we tune in to some of the many rhythms of such stories?

In her essay “Earth as Ethic”, environmental philosopher Freya Mathews writes:

"…in this very hour of our greatest moral need, a new story is coming into view, a story made visible by the environmental crisis itself. This is the story of the earth, of the biosphere. It is a story of stories, a larger story made up of a vast intersection of little stories."

Environmental anthropologist Anna Tsing thinks about the intersections of these little stories or earthly utterances as polyphonies, where many voices, human, non-human and atmospheric, intertwine and guide us to hear “how all kinds of social landscapes, whether in cities, forests, or global institutions emerge.” As a polyphonic composition, Nature as Communities presents some of the ways that artists, through creative place-making practices, are helping to re-story notions of what “nature” means. By offering glimpses into variously lived, felt, heard, observed, and embodied experiences of nature, each of these stories brings us into contact with the possibility of more sustainable and livable futures for the multiple biotic communities living on the planet.

In her writing on the confluence of environment and social justice, environmental justice theorist Giovanna Di Chiro proposes that building sustainability requires us to challenge colonial constructs of nature and environmentalism by drawing connections between natural and cultural histories.

"Ideas of nature, for environmental justice groups, are tied closely to ideas to community, history, ethnic identity, and cultural survival, which include relationships to the land that express particular ways of life."

What Di Chiro describes as a “revisioning of environmental history” involves both “reinventing nature through community action” and representing nature as community. These are, at once, important acts of care and political gestures; they demand new ways of interacting with each other and with every other element on earth. Such critical, interventionist, and decolonizing practices also characterize the work by the artists featured in this exhibition.

Towards Something New and Beautiful + Future Snowmachines in Kinngait is an installation initiated by the Toronto-based artist duo PA System (Alexa Hatanaka and Patrick Thompson) as a collaboration with Kinngait youth involved in the Cape Dorset-based “Embassy of Imagination” (Christine Adamie, Lachaolasie Akesuk, Moe Kelly, David Pudlat, and Nathan Adla). This ongoing project is a locus for community engagement as well as a fundraiser for the school district’s Land Program, both of which will better allow the Kinngait youth to access their land, culture, and knowledge shared by their Elders. The multi-layered installation includes four “dream snowmachines” that were cast from aluminum salvaged from the burned remains of the community’s Peter Pitseolak School, and based on homemade flour-and-water playdough models that the youth had fashioned during workshops with PA System. The sale of these sculptures will enable the youth to purchase actual snowmachines; the project is not considered “complete” until the youth are out on the land being pulled in qamutiit (sleds) by the new snowmobiles. Towards Something New and Beautiful underscores the need for ongoing dialogues around the colonial legacies that continue to sever ties between community and land, while highlighting how “sitting with your own creativity can create change for yourself and your community; how through your art-making, your own hands can allow you to imagine a different future for you and your peers.”

Re-imagining futures in her fragile cut-paper drawing series That Sinking Feeling, Indonesian-born, Vancouver-based Diyan Achjadi incorporates speculative fiction and cross-cultural narrative to examine what it means to live and make art in environmental uncertainty. These works weave patterns emblematic of Javanese mythologies and cultural histories together with imagery suggested by the “inundating” news headlines about the global climate crisis. As “networks of connections that are larger than oneself”, they draw attention to the irony that, like many locations around the world, Jakarta is both running out of and being drowned by water as a result of rising sea levels.

Inevitably, watery connections flow across the oceans and into other communities, such as the Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw Peoples in the Broughton Archipelago, British Columbia, whose livelihoods have relied on wild salmon for millennia. Field Guides for Listeners is an ongoing multidisciplinary research project based on fieldwork conducted by visual/performance artist Jay White (Nex̱wlélex̱m / Bowen Island) and sound artist Jenni Schine (Lewungen territory, Victoria, BC) at a residency at the Salmon Coast Field Station on Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw territory. Part graphic novel and part sound series, Schine and White describe their work as a “guide for listeners as it helps to identify salmon culture in its natural and unnatural environments.” The soundscape compositions and interviews in Schine’s Streamwalkers flow in and around White’s excerpts from the graphic novel, creating an entangled world of salmon scientists, local knowledge holders, sea lice, pathogens, the sea, the land, and the salmon themselves.

The blending of art and science is re-composed (and de-composed) in Toronto-based Natasha Myers and Ayelen Liberona’s Becoming Sensor. The multimedia project explores the evolutions of the 10,000-year-old black oak savannah in Toronto’s High Park which, despite forestry management policies, is “struggling to survive… precisely because the Indigenous peoples who gave this land its contours and significance were removed and their fires suppressed.” Through video projections and sound-works based on the duo’s on-site kinesthetic and synesthetic processes of “becoming sensor”, Myers and Liberona “decolonize our sensorium” by paying attention to the ways in which the trees were sculpted by glaciers, wind, water, animals, and plants as well as by the Wendat, the Anishinaabe, the Haudenosaunee, and the Mississaugas of the Credit River, who used fire to keep the savannah alive and open for hunting, farming, and dwelling.

Photographer and filmmaker Sandra Semchuk also invites us to attune ourselves to the songs and stories of human and wider-than-human communities, and to explore various ways of knowing through both observation and reverie. The Trapper takes us to present-day Prince Albert National Park, while also transporting us into Semchuk’s dream about a trapper. We are asked to consider the ways in which Canada’s colonial history has continued to shape and re-shape the land and its people. Fishing and Tentpointing, two in a series of photographs created in conversation with her late husband and long-time collaborator, Cree artist, writer, and orator James Nicholas, exist as ‘conciliations’: dialogues within and between generations, cultures, and species.

These conversations take us into a landscape of language and the sensuous life-world of Dartmouth-based artist Ayoka Junaid’s “Love Letters to Myself”. Exploring the nature of language through plant-based inquiry and experimentation, and a process of growing, harvesting, and gleaning dyestuff, Junaid slowly transforms paper and repurposed silks into chronicles of a sustainable practice. Her plant-gathering principles are evocative of botanist and indigenous teacher Robin Kimmerer’s “honourable harvest”, in which the earth’s provisions are honoured as gifts. Junaid sees the plants themselves as a community of teachers, much like her foremothers in whose traditions her practice is firmly rooted. From growing indigo in her dye-garden as an ancestral homage, to collecting her deceased neighbour’s hawthorn leaves; from gathering oak leaves at the Gibson Woods Baptist Church, to exploring the “colonizing” acts of bacterial symbionts, Junaid is imprinting ecological and emotional geographies through acts of embellishment, re-translation, and transformation.

The tales these artists tell are all counter-rhythms: new narratives that challenge colonial ideologies that continue to separate humans from nature. To frame nature as “communities” is thus an effort to repair the conceptual split and broken ties between nature and culture. Artists, as cultural workers, play a role in shaping these reparations as they re-write, re-envision, and re-sound our understandings of nature into those that are more relational, reciprocal, and polyphonic.

The curator would like to thank the following individuals for their mentorship: Michele Gallant & Wes Johnston (Dalhousie Art Gallery), Karin Cope (NSCAD University), and Dr. Tarah Wright (Dalhousie University Education for Sustainability Research Group).

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