From the Archives: Graters of Cassava

Cassava

Cultivated plot, near Jos, Nigeria.
Photograph by Edwin R. and Emily Dean, 1966.
EEPA 2002-120042
Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives
National Museum of African Art
Smithsonian Institution

  

The Earth Matters exhibition features, for the first time, three earth works installed in the Smithsonian Gardens (SG) on the National Mall. This monumental undertaking was detailed in an earlier post by SG supervisory horticulturist Jonathan Kavalier, but the works began in conception long before they ever materialized in physical form. The artists, Ghada Amer of Egypt, Strijdom van der Merwe of South Africa, and El Anatsui of Ghana and Nigeria (and Ledelle Moe, whose outdoor sculpture has also been installed outside of the National Museum of African Art), each came to visit walked the gardens before they even began the process of creating, getting a feel for the unique spaces of the garden and beginning the thought process about what shape and material form their earth works would take.

El Anatsui, for instance, looked to challenge conceptions of what an earth work might be made of in his work, Ala, named for the Igbo earth goddess. The pyramid of mirrors and rusted metal that ultimately emerged seems deceptively industrial when first viewed.  But Anatsui says that he “settled for something that just rests [on the ground], something which is light but has allusions to the earth—because the material I am going to work with is rusted metals. Metal is from the earth, as are the reflective sheets. Glass is silica, which is soil, so I am still using the earth. …” (personal communication with curator Dr. Karen E. Milbourne, Sept. 10, 2012).

But for Anatsui, in this and past works, each metal sheet references a very specific usage of earth. In a standing arrangement with manufacturers from his home base in Nsukka, Nigeria, Anatsui asks that used cassava graters be given to him.  He leaves them in his studio yard for months or years so that they rust and take on different patinas. Made from discarded galvanized iron oil drums and punctured with nails to create a surface upon which tough cassava root can be grated, these graters signal, for Anatsui, the intersection between nature and human intervention in the form of agriculture and food cultivation. Anatsui’s earth work shows us the common ground shared by nature and industry.  

Cassava (Manihot esculenta) is a staple crop in western Africa, particularly in Nigeria where Anatsui continues to live and work today. High in carbohydrates, this common plant is cultivated throughout the world in sub-tropical or tropical climates due to its high resistance to drought. In this photo from 1966 by Edwin R. and Emily Dean, taken in Nigeria, a cultivated plot of cassava can be seen in neat tidy rows. Here, we can see the crop as it looks when growing, although the true value of cassava is not in view – the tough roots are where the nutritional value is, necessitating the use of the tough galvanized-iron-and-metal graters that Anatsui utilizes.

Today, Nigeria is the world’s largest producer of cassava, and farms tend to look different today than they do in this photo from over forty years ago. Though the neat rows remain, farms tend to be much larger and the crop is useful in that it can serve as a cash crop during good harvests, but can also feed its producers as a hardy, nutrient-rich subsistence crop during leaner times. Where does agriculture fit into your conception of the earth? Do you consider it “natural,” or does your definition of earth differ?

Earth Matters Around the Web

When people talk about business and the environment they are usually saying that: 1) Business and industry are the causes of our problems with the environment or 2) new ideas in business and industry can help save the environment. With that in mind I decided to investigate businesses that have instituted environment-friendly operations or offer environment-friendly services – I started by looking at businesses that share the name Earth Matters with the exhibition here at the National Museum of African Art. Below are a few that I found, and you can probably find more Earth Matters and Environment related businesses and business ideas on the web, take a look, see what you find, and tell us what is going on!

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First up is a law firm based in both America and Australia called Earth Matters Law http://www.earthmatterslaw.org/index.html

Their mission statement reads:

We believe that it is vital to understand that the integrity of our world, and indeed our survival, depends on understanding linkages between all life on earth and the natural resources necessary for life on earth. This includes the conservation of natural resources and species, the maintenance and preservation of the health, integrity and harmony of cultures and communities, in addition to the promotion and development of innovative solutions to pollution, and energy issues, including the replacement of fossil and hydrocarbon based fuels.

Check out how artists in the Earth Matters exhibition are also fighting for the environment http://africa.si.edu/exhibits/earthmatters/environmental.html.

Second is Earth Matters Incorporated http://www.earthmattersinc.com/, a subcontract-drilling firm that provides Geotechnical and Environmental drilling services to private, corporate and government agencies.

Although they are not digging for gold or diamonds, a theme that runs through section III of the Earth Matters exhibition, they are going into the underground!

Not surprisingly, Earth Matters is also the name of an organic grocery store http://www.earthmatters.com/index.php. Indeed, the only surprise here is that the store is on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York City!  In the 1990s, the Lower East Side was a gritty place known for its bargain clothing, bodegas and illegal drugs. Isaac Tapiero, a dancer and real estate investor from Israel, wanted a change, he wanted to open a place where people could detoxify from a harsh environment by eating healthy foods and relaxing in a spiritual environment. He wanted to promote a conscious lifestyle that is kind towards people and the environment.

In 2001, Isaac recruited his nephew, Marco Megira, to renovate the ground floor space at 177 Ludlow St., which used to house a bodega. With the help of local construction workers, Tapiero’s nephew, Marco Megira, built a three-level store with an Internet café on the mezzanine and a garden lounge on the top level.

You can check out the Smithsonian’s own gardens and outdoor sculpture in the Earth Matters exhibition at http://africa.si.edu/exhibits/earthmatters/earthworks.html or come see it in person!

You can also check more discussions about environment-friendly businesses at the following links;

http://www.treehugger.com/corporate-responsibility/harvard-business-review-discusses-leadership-and-the-environment.html

http://www.greenbiz.com/

http://www.dummies.com/how-to/content/how-businesses-affect-the-environment.html

Rabi Forest Monitoring Plot and U.S. Gabon Tree-Banding

Today’s guest post comes to us from Hervé R. Memiaghe, a forest ecologist working in the Gabonese Republic, a coastal, equatorial country in Africa. The Gabonese Republic was the major sponsor of the Smithsonian, National Museum of African Art’s exhibition, Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa. As you will read, the Earth Matters partnership between the Smithsonian and Gabon is one of many productive collaborations. In August, the author of this post will participate in a 3-month professional internship at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and return to the Gabonese Republic with expertise in the measurement of tree growth in reponse to climate change. For more information on tree-banding, take a look at the blog post below!

Gabon is a country whose territory is covered almost 80% by tropical rainforest, rich in biodiversity. Lack of knowledge on such topics as botanical science and forest ecology in Gabon as well as the rest of the Congo Basin prompted the Smithsonian Institution to conduct studies to provide a better understanding of forestry dynamics in Gabon. A pillar of this forestry research program was established in 2010, when the Smithsonian set up a 25-hectare permanent forest monitoring plot as part of the Smithsonian Institution Global Earth Observatories’ (SIGEO) world-wide network of forest plots. The purpose of this plot is to enhance knowledge of botany, climate change, forestry carbon stock, forest dynamics and ecology. The plot in Gabon is located in Rabi, an area where both oil and logging companies are operating.

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Gabonese Biodiversity

Clockwise from top-left: White Net Mushroom, Elephant family on the loose in the Shell residential village, Gorilla Footprint; Rhamnophis aethiopissa (Large-eyed Green Treesnake, Splendid Dagger-tooth Tree snake) 

 

For its part, the Government of Gabon has committed itself to a better understanding of the rich biodiversity of its forests and how they are impacted by climate change in order to implement an efficient forest conservation and sustainable forest management policy together with economic development. Therefore, Gabonese research institutions have been collaborating with international research institutions like the Smithsonian to achieve the goal of combining forestry conservation (Green Gabon/Gabon Vert) and sustainable economic development (Industrial Gabon/Gabon Industriel). Additionally, the development of these types of partnerships could also help Gabon to increase capacity building of many government agencies in the development of many other projects.

Thus, the SIGEO forest monitoring plot in Rabi is one of the fields in Gabon where we have opportunities to improve our capacity to better identify trees, understand forest dynamics and ecology, forestry carbon stock and climate change impact with the involvement of Gabonese technicians and researchers.

The U.S-Gabon tree-banding Project is another opportunity to learn a method to gather more information on tree growth rates, climate change and its impact on Gabon’s tropical rainforest. The involvement of primary schools in this project will be a useful tool to encourage the next generation of young Gabonese and create a better awareness amongst the public of the importance of forest conservation and the theme of climate change. Students will play a key role in carrying the lessons they learn in class of Gabon’s forests from school to home, teaching their families to become more involved in the challenges that the government of Gabon and the entire world are facing today to ensure a better life for future generations.

The tree-banding project will also serve to show teachers how to develop and implement this type of project at school and engage more children and parents to enhance their understanding of our environment and climate change. Use of the tree-banding project at the SIGEO forest monitoring plot in Rabi will also help to add more data on tree growth rate, climate change and forestry carbon stock. And once launched in a few locations, the tree-banding project could be introduced to many communities throughout the country of Gabon. You can learn more about tree-banding at https://treebanding.si.edu/ and by watching the video below.

 

 

 

Earth Matters Around the Web

About a week ago, we started hearing news that there had been talk amongst government officials in Egypt about a potential war with Ethiopia. The conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia is about water. Ethiopia is completing a dam that generate hydroelectricity by harnessing the powers of the great Nile river. The dam, however, will temporarily divert the Nile and Egypt’s concern is that this diversion of the river will threaten it’s water supply, to which it feels it is geographically and historically entitled to.

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photo by Fir0002/Flagstaffotos

The conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia, while it is about a dam, highlights the predictions that have been made for some time now, that wars in the future will be more and more often about resources such as drinking water. A recent article on water scarcity that was posted on the website of news agency Al Jazeera references a report by US Intelligence that “water demand is set to outstrip sustainable current supplies by 40 per cent by 2030”.

One of the themes that was woven into the Earth Matters exhibition was the connection between the environment and security, a topic which you can read more about on the web, starting with the following links:

Guest Voices: Strijdom van der Merwe, Earth Works

Today’s guest post comes to us from Strijdom van der Merwe, Africa’s only dedicated land artist and one of three artists who were selected to create earth works in the Smithsonian Gardens as part of the exhibition, Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa. A contemplative artist, van der Merwe gives us a peek into the thoughts behind his work.

The British artist Richard Long once made the statement when he said “the ground is the beginning and the end of existence, whether in terms of clay, canvas or the fabric of the mind. The place you start from, where you make your first mark, there is always a starting point which effects the outcome of your undertaking.”  As a land artist myself I believe that the land must always have greater impact on you than you on the landscape. When following the disciplines and rules of the cycles of nature and observing its beauty and fragility you became aware of how and where you fit into this natural world. No work in the landscape can begin without a proper meditation process and understanding of that space, the reason for its existence and where it is going and were it is coming from. Once this knowledge has been obtained, only then can you start to sculpt the land according to what the site allows you to do or the message that you want to bring across. But first was the land, always the land.

ImageRichard Long (b. 1945), Small White Pebble Circles, 1987, Tate Modern (photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen)

As an artist that predominantly does work in Africa you are aware that Africa is a multiplex of cultural marks that have been left behind by generations. First was the San people that trekked through the landscape leaving drawings and engravings on the rocks, then came the tribes from north Africa who built stone walls and dwellings, then came the settlers from Europe and they build telephone poles and roads. All of these leave marks and imprints on the landscape as explanation of different needs and purposes. As a land artist, whenever I touch and work the land all of these become part of my thinking process. How much does history and culture influence my work, how deep a mark do I want to leave behind or do I only want to leave behind a reminder of an individual that has altered and changed the natural material into geometric forms in order to create an art work, an art work that is only for the moment and will disappear again within the cycles of nature.

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IMG_6528Earth Works by Strijdom van der Merwe

From the Archives: Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro

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Most people are aware that Mount Kilimanjaro is the tallest mountain in Africa, but fewer are aware of its other unique ecological distinctions: at over 19,000 feet high, it is the tallest freestanding volcanic mountain in the world, as well as a truly one-of-kind self-contained ecosystem that contains every known ecological zone on earth: arid plains, savannah, mountain rainforest and heath, alpine desert, and glacial snow and ice. This is evident in these truly fantastic photographs taken by Eliot Elisofon on his way up the mountain, taken in 1966, of his Tanzanian guides.

fffThese photos reveal just how diverse the ecosystem of Kilimanjaro really is. In one photo, the guides carry heavy packs through what appears to be a tropical forest, complete with palms and carpet of green. Then the group moves through what appears to be a moon-like desert landscape, bundled up as a cold fog moves in.  In another, a pair of guides sit smiling on a steep, rocky incline, again free of vegetation. In the background, a snow-covered summit can be spotted. The journey to the top of Kilimanjaro is not just one of skill and endurance.  It also illuminates earth’s extraordinary diversity, bounty, and delicate ecological balance.

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South African mixed-media artist Georgia Papageorge (b. 1941, South Africa) has found inspiration in this mountain, at the same time that she uses her work to draw attention to the forces that endanger it.  She sees in Kilimanjaro a reflection of one of today’s most pressing issues. Because of the distinct ecosystem of the mountain, it seemed to Papageorge a place from which to track and fully comprehend climate change. After first visiting in 1996, Papageorge has repeatedly returned to the mountain, and since 2005 it has been a focus of her artistic work and activism.

The product of Papageorge’s diligent and prodigious work and research on the mountain is seen in her work in Earth Matters, Kilimanjaro/Cold Fire (2010), a dual projection video that documents dramatically Kilimanjaro’s melting glacier and central Africa’s extensive charcoal trade that if continued in an unsustainable manner will lead to the deforestation of vast tracks of Africa’s landscape. Her work begs the question: how much longer will the ecosystems Elisofon documented remain? How soon before this awe-inspiring diversity of nature disappears? And what will we be left with when it is gone? Share your thoughts below.

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Earth Matters Around the Web

800px-Venezia_veduta_aereaVenezia, view from air (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

This week, news of the 55th Venice Biennale has dominated the art world. And African nations have been front and center in the coverage of the biannual art festival, celebrating the newest and most dynamic artists and ideas from around the world.

  • “It’s viva Africa,” declared Zimbabwean curator Raphael Chikukwa, as Angola took home the prestigious Golden Lion for best national participation with its first ever showing at the Biennale – learn more about the frenzy surrounding the Angolan pavilion, among others hailing from Africa, here.
  • Learn about some of the best offerings to be found this past week in Venice, according to the Huffington Post, which heavily featured African nations including those from Kenya and South Africa.
  • See Ireland’s contribution to the Biennale, featuring Richard Mosse’s photographs of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and learn more about the unique infrared process Mosse uses to make these arresting, colorful images.

What have you heard about this year’s Venice Biennale? What pavilions and artists did you think put forward the best showing? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Get a look inside the Angolan pavilion above, and hear from its curators Paula Nascimento and Stefano Rabolli Pansera – and don’t miss more videos from the 2013 Biennale’s excellent YouTube channel here