Earth Matters Around the Web

Earlier this month a boat carrying 500 Eritrean men, women, and children caught fire and capsized off the coast of Lampedusa, an Italian island famous as a destination for asylum seekers and for its beautiful beaches. Only 155 people survived and the scale of the incident, along with the difficult attempt to recover bodies from the wreck, shocked people across the world. The Lampedusa disaster highlights the desperation and vulnerability of asylum seekers, many of whom flee their home countries in crowded and ill-equipped boats to try and find a better life in Europe. Furthermore, it has brought attention to Europe’s struggle and in many cases, reluctance to deal with immigrants, many of whom have legitimate claims to asylum. According to the UNHCR, so far this year more than 13,000 people, mainly from Eritrea, Somalia, and Syria have attempted the perilous journey to arrive at Lampedusa from Northern Africa. Lampedusa which has a population of only 6,000, is ill-equipped to deal with and aid those fleeing war, persecution, and poverty.

Berni Searle’s haunting video Seeking Refuge addresses the experience of asylum seekers and immigrants. Seeking Refuge asks what it means for someone to leave their home for a new land and a different life. The short video films her moving across the dramatic landscape of Lanzarote Island, another historically important destination for immigrants . She explores what it means to survive a dangerous journey and wander, aimlessly in a new land. Her video, focusing on the distant horizon, the ocean, her feet on the pebbly, volcanic beach… is filled with stunning, yet bleak landscape that leads one to ask what one loses and what one gains from the process of migration and how this affects ones identity.


Berni Searle
b. 1964, South Africa
Seeking Refuge
Streaming video (5 min. 51 sec)
Edition of 5 + 2 artist’s proofs
Courtesy Michael Stevenson Gallery

Guest Voices: Peter Wheeler

Today’s guest post comes from Peter Wheeler of the Nature Conservancy. Taking leave of this planet, to gain a new perspective on our planet, Wheeler gives us a moment of pause to reflect on the iconic Earth-rise photo that was taken during the Apollo 8 mission in 1968. While filing through the many issues that concern us here on earth, this legendary photo altered are perception of the planet by showing us what it looked like from afar. Here is an apt moment to reconsider this image, our planet, our role upon it, and how Earth Matters from an entirely different vantage point.

The Dark Side of the Moon

“In 1968 Apollo 8 went to the moon…”

What more exciting first line of a story could there be for any earth dweller? To boldly go… three men aboard, among our billions, setting off on the ultimate adventure. Only 11 years after the first man ever, Yuri Gagarin, escaped the earth’s gravitational field briefly to orbit the earth, just once.

Think of that. What were you doing in April 2002, just 11 years ago? Imagine the progress!  On the day they went, a HP12-C pocket calculator cost more than $500 which in real terms (today’s money) would  be almost $3,500.  The total computing power on board the Command Module was less than what you have today in your smart phone. At number 3 in the UK music charts was I’m an Urban Spaceman by the Bonzo Dog Doo-dah band. Earlier in that year, 1968, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. Richard Nixon had just defeated Hubert Humphrey in the presidential election, but Lyndon Johnson still occupied the White House; the War in Vietnam was in full swing, as was the resistance movement, boiling over into the Summer of Love.

And yet these three were going to travel over a quarter of a million miles to circumnavigate the moon, just to show that it could be done. And to prepare the way for the ultimate Giant Step For Mankind, taken by Buzz Aldrin three missions and just nineteen months later on July 20th 1969 . Three years after that, Pink Floyd would release their best-selling album, The Dark Side of the Moon, opening propitiously with the ringing of cash registers over a jumpy bass guitar line, ‘Money…’

Then this happened: after circumnavigating the moon, being the first men to see for themselves the dark side of the moon, that cold desolate monochrome place, those same three men saw something quite remarkable, more remarkable even than the lunar landscape they were flying over. They saw earth, rising above the stark atmosphere-less horizon, not a full earth but a waxing earth, half in light, half in shadow, but beautiful, blue green and white. Our planet. Earth-Rise.




Wiliam Anders took this photograph on December 24th, 1968.

The film made of this event is stunning. The impact of the image seen for the first time comes across in the joyous outburst by the crew. Even at mission control in Houston, engineers gazed amazed at their monitors.

Back in 1948, the British astrophysicist Sir Fred Hoyle predicted that when spaceflight enabled us to see the whole Earth from space, the view would change us forever. He was right.

I saw this film first, projected onto a huge screen erected in the Rajasthan desert, on September 23rd 2013. With around 100 others, I saw it beneath the stars and, yes, the moon. In the 45 years since that amazing moment, many of us were experiencing it for the first time. No man has trodden on the moon since 1971, so we can safely assume that going there is of no great import. What clearly was of great import was seeing Earth this way for the first time.

Four years before the Apollo 8 mission, Adlai Stevenson addressing the UN had used these words,

“We travel together, passengers on a little space ship, dependent on its vulnerable reserves of air and soil; all committed for our safety to its security and peace; preserved from annihilation only by the care, the work, and, I will say, the love we give our fragile craft. We cannot maintain it half fortunate, half miserable, half confident, half despairing, half slave—to the ancient enemies of man—half free in a liberation of resources undreamed of until this day. No craft, no crew can travel safely with such vast contradictions. On their resolution depends the survival of us all…”

Now ‘Spaceship Earth’ really meant something.

The second time I saw this film, I was sitting in the ballroom at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill in DC among 240 trustees of The Nature Conservancy, and the film was introduced by Colonel Ron Garan, a retired US Airforce Pilot and NASA Astronaut, who had participated along with two Russian Cosmonauts on the 50th anniversary mission on a Soyuz TMA-21 launch vehicle spending 13 months on the International Space Station.

When Anders took his famous Earth Rise photograph, Garan was 7 years old.



Earth Matters Around the Web : Mining

In an article posted just a few hours before this post was written it was announced that “Trees sewn with particles of gold excite Australia’s mining industry“. On a first read of this title one might suppose that there is going to be a rush to start mining trees for gold, and that, despite our environmental concerns about deforestation, there will be yet another incentive for cutting down of trees en-masse. The article states. however, that the amount of gold contained in trees is so minute that it would take hundreds of trees to produce enough gold for a wedding ring. Instead of being a source of gold, the trees’ only potential is as an indicator of where gold deposits might be found beneath the surface. On the one hand, this news might grant us a sigh of relief, with hundred’s of trees now spared by the mining industry.

One should not forget, however, that mining of any kind has enormous environmental impacts. In a 2010 article the Washington Post reported on the severe impacts of gold mining in particular. For example, while it would take several hundred trees to produce enough gold for a wedding ring, mining the earth for the same amount of gold could produce as much as 20 tons of ore and waste rock. This is because, as the article states, “a ‘rich’ (gold) mine might contain just a few tenths of an ounce of gold per ton of ore; a ‘poor’ one would have a few hundredths of an ounce per ton.”

While the scale of the impact of gold mining is probably difficult to imagine and unknown by most people, one of the artists in the Earth Matters exhibition is all too familiar with it. Here I am referring to Gabonese artist Nathalie Mba Bikoro, whose performance “The Uncomfortable Truth” was featured in the exhibition and on the Earth Matters website ( In this unnerving performance, Bikoro lays bare the suffering endured by so many Africans, and so many people close to her, that was inflicted by the mining industry’s hunger for land and profit. You can also hear Bikoro talk about her work in a recent interview on


Nathalie Mba Bikoro’s performance of “The Uncomfortable Truth”

National Museum of African Art, April 22, 2013

Photograph by Franko Khoury

Guest Voices: Chelsea Ellsworth

Today’s guest post comes from former NMAfA intern Chelsea Ellsworth. Having joined the NMAfA team at one of the busiest and most crucial times – during the install of the show – Ellsworth got a first hand view of all the work it took to execute this ambitious exhibition. One of the most ambitious pieces, perhaps, was Moroccan artist Hassan Echair’s site specific installation Ascension. Not only was it one of the most ambitious pieces, it was also the first artwork at NMAfA installed via skype, with the artists supervising the installation in DC all the way from Morocco. Below, Ellsworth gives us an account of some of her experiences with this work and with Earth Matters.

My name is Chelsea Ellsworth and I worked as an exhibits intern at the National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C.  I helped the exhibits team to install the show Earth Matters from January to April and had the opportunity to work specifically with one artist in particular, Hassan Echair.  Hassan Echair created a piece entitled Ascension that was to be reproduced for this exhibition at NMAfA but, as he was located in Morocco, we had to prepare his piece for him remotely.

At the start of my internship, I was asked to source and purchase materials for Hassan to make this piece here at our museum.  As time went on, I was assigned additional projects in the preparation of this piece.  As I worked on these projects, I had many questions for Hassan that I sent via email.  Some of these were translated using an online translator but others were so complex that I sent them to some friends who spoke French so that they could translate them more accurately.  Despite the language gap and the physical distance, Hassan and I were able to communicate in order to prepare his piece for the exhibition.  Eventually, Hassan notified us that he would not be able to come and install the piece, leaving its completion to us.  As a result, I had the exciting opportunity to create and oversee this piece while working with the Exhibits installation team.

As the rest of the team was busy working on other aspects of this exhibition, I took responsibility for this piece and got to work preparing all of the components for assembly.  My supervisor, Kevin Etherton, and I worked together each day to assemble this piece and to prepare it to show to Hassan.


Kevin Etherton and Chelseal Ellsworth installing Ascension


We continued to communicate via email with Hassan but we got to a point where photos and emails were no longer enough to get this piece completed.  We then scheduled a day when we could have a French translator and a Skype connection with Hassan in Morocco.


Artist Hassan Echair supervises the installation of his work via skype


That day was very interesting as I was able to communicate with Hassan directly for the first time and see his reaction to what we had done with his design.  I was anxious to hear his feedback and worried that he would find something terribly wrong, but I was glad to hear that he loved the work we had done and was pleased with how his piece had turned out.  He gave us some minor alterations here and there and then sat down with me on Skype and demonstrated how to properly tie his bamboo poles together, something that would have been very difficult to figure out through email.


Hassan Echair (b. 1964, Morocco)

Ascension, 2006, Bamboo, quartz, cord, paint


I loved working on this piece and I am glad to say that we completed Hassan’s piece and he was pleased with the results.  I loved having the opportunity to speak with Hassan and to see his reaction to our weeks of hard work and I am glad that we were able to create this fantastic work of art together.

Earth Matters Around the Web: E-Waste and (r)E-cycling

Most of the people who have seen the Earth Matters exhibition or read the posts on our blog know that one of the pressing environmental questions of our day is the disposal and recycling of electronic waste, better known as “e-waste”. This has been a particularly important question for the Earth Matters’ folks because so much of the world’s e-wase ends up in Africa.

It was just last July that two e-waste recycling company executives in the US were handed prison sentences for claiming to recycle e-waste when they were, in reality, just exporting the waste to developing countries and dumping it (click here to see the article). At least two of the photographers in our show, Nyaba Leon Ouedraogo and Mikael Subotzky, have documented the e-waste dumps in Africa, particularly the Agbogbloshie dump near Accra in Ghana. From this site come horrific images of the young people who scavenge the waste dumps and burn away the carcasses of old computer to salvage the little bits of metal that are actually recyclable.

Of course, there are many more photographers documenting these environmental and human atrocities, and there are many more charlatan recyclers making big bucks exporting our e-waste. But what about legitimate e-waste recycling? In an article from the Science Daily that was published a couple of weeks ago, one finds this leading caption “One of the first analyses of laws banning disposal of electronic waste (e-waste) in municipal landfills has found that state e-waste recycling bans have been mostly ineffective.” The article did offer a small glimmer of hope saying that California’s cell-phone recycling program has had an impact. But otherwise, e-waste recycling has moved terrible slow in comparison to America’s consumption of e-waste.

In my home state of Maryland, e-waste recycling laws were passed in 2007 and 2005 which charge fees to in-house manufacturers of televisions and computers that, in theory, provide funding to research groups and municipalities to help implement recycling of e-waste. But how effective are they? At present, many of the landfill facilities do accept e-waste.  Just a tidbit of what I found on the web for Maryland “ecycling” is below. But determining how effective they are would take the kind of investigation that was undertaken by the Basel Action Network (BAN),  a non-governmental charitable organization working to combat the export of toxic waste, toxic technology and toxic products from industrialized societies to developing countries, who helped convict the recycling executives mentioned above. We can all be glad that BAN is working to answer questions that we cannot, but a good start for our readers would be looking into their local ecycling programs and making sure to properly dispose of their e-wast, which is toxic to our world when not controlled.

Recycling Resources for Residents of Maryland

Sections “Community eCycling Collection Events“, “Permanent Collection Sites for Residents“, “Electronics Take Back and Recycling Programs“, and “Additional Resources for Residents and Businesses” contain resources availalbe for residents to recycle their old electronic equipment.  If needed, please contact your County or MDE for additional help.


Nyaba Leon Ouedraogo (b. 1978, Burkina Faso)

Untitled (from the series The Hell of Copper), 2008

Chromogenic print, 100 x 70 cm

Guest Voices: Ledelle Moe

Today’s guest post comes from South African artist Ledelle Moe. Although born in South Africa, Moe’s heritage is geographically diverse, as are the many places she has lived. Often dealing with place and identity in her work, Moe created a stunning outdoor sculpture for the Earth Matters exhibition. Below are her reflections on the meaning of this work and her creative process.



Ledelle Moe (b. 1971, South Africa)

Land/Displacements, 2012–13

Concrete, iron, Collection of the artist


In preparing to write for this blog, I have reflected on journeys travelled. Outside of the everyday of “being” in a place, the conscious trips I have taken feel like important pilgrimages. The ones I will site touch base with the beauty and history of South Africa.

On the 6th of October, I travelled with a friend to Robben Island for the day. During this trip an ex-political prisoner guided the tour through the cells. Nelson Mandela’s autobiography-“Long Walk to Freedom” came to life as my feet walked through the place that he has written about in so much detail. The book itself is a history lesson and an adventure story. It follows a man whose bravery and convictions, trials and triumphs are explained in a way that makes you feel as though he is writing you alone. Image

I re-“read” the book as an audiotape while driving across the country last year in preparation for making the work at the African Museum. His story and my journey from Cape Town to Durban had overlapping points such as Mthatha and I felt awe at being able to access this amazing country to revisit it and acknowledge its richness no matter how complex and difficult the history.

The trip to Robben Island left me with a heavy weight of the history of the prison and South Africa and as a result I felt compelled to try and understand the people that were victims of horrific injustices. In each cell there is now an image of the prisoner and a paragraph in their own words of the time spent there. Since then I have been drawing small pen and ink cameos of each person. This helps me to slow down and remember and walk through this history.

Both the visit to Robben Island and the trip across country reminded me of the thoughts Carol Becker articulates in her book “Thinking In Place” In this book she speaks about the impulse to travel to a place that holds a personal and political history, her reflections being, that through the act of making a pilgrimage to a place a possible reconciliation with the past and history of that place is possible.

During my cross-country trip last year I stopped in a town called Elliot, not far from Mthatha. It was this landscape that I used as inspiration for the work at the African Museum. The land itself makes up the base of the Drakensberg Mountains and has a unique place in the evolution of colonial South African territorial history and land claim. It marks one of many junctures of land ownership issues that are pervasive throughout South Africa.


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The small figures that are attached to the larger form of the sculpture were made from an accumulation of soil that I gathered along the trip. In taking the soil, I acknowledge the place I am in, while also removing a small part of that place and displacing it. In doing this, I felt it was a small gesture of “land claim”- of taking what is not mine and acknowledging that act. This investigation was a reflection of the migrations of my own family.

The articulation of the work itself, I hope speaks to a connection and disconnection, and of collective and individual grouping of peoples as they move transiently through and from the land.

As I sit here on table mountain writing this, I can reflect on this geography, explore this history and yet its with this distance that I begin to understand the place I have called home in the States in more focus. Similarly, when in the States the distance allows me the perspective to understand South Africa. It is with this paradox and duality that I feel very grateful to be able to participate in the show “Earth Matters” – that asks us to consider the earth under our feet and acknowledge it.






Guest Voices: Georgia Papageorge

Today’s guest post comes from South African artist Georgia Papageorge.  Both an artist and an environmental activist, Papageorge’s 2-channel video installation Kilimanjaro/Coldfire, was a centerpiece of the Earth Matters exhibition. Having observed and studied the receding glacier of Kilimanjaro and linked it inextricably to the illegal charcoal trade in Africa, Papageorge here offers us some of her personal meditations on art and the environment.                                       


The artist’s relationship to the Earth we stand on and which is based on where we live in Africa, mutates to the broader picture of planet Earth which is in trouble.

Forty artists, 24 different countries, the ideas of people who engage in diverse ways of commenting on issues that affect not only the way we live but how we will live in the future.  Many of the works in the EARTH MATTERS Exhibition expressed a common human anxiety about circumstances the artists themselves had no control of.  I was no different to my fellow exhibiting artists, all who sought to shed light upon a given situation in order to bring about awareness and change.

This brings us to the role of the artist today. I believe that the artist’s role is to tell the truth and to try and bring about change through a unique approach that can employ a wide range of sources, not the least of these involving ritual, religion and magic.  The artist is often greatly restricted where funds/money is concerned but he/she is free to explore extraordinary ranges of the imagination in the creation of any given artwork.

On your own, unless your work is seen, nothing can happen.  But if you form part of a diverse body of work on an exhibition like EARTH MATTERS your voice should be heard by individuals or groups with a responsible docent helping them to understand what they are looking at.  The question is –  do artists merely document a given situation or can they actually bring about change?  I believe, that when correctly displayed and understood, an artwork can drive its message home.  And that can create change.

My Kilimanjaro/ColdFire  video deals with Kilimanjaro’s  rapidly melting glaciers, indicative of a global phenomenon and that is alleged to be  caused by increasing quantities of greenhouse gasses being released into the atmosphere, all of which contribute to climate change.  The video imparts a Dante-esque vision of Heaven and Hell, projected through the elements of Fire and Ice.  The Fire half of this twin sided video deals with deforestation at tropical zones and the illegal charcoal trade in Central Africa that destroys countless rain forest trees and hardwood acacias.  Destruction of rain forests at tropical zones accounts for approximately one-fifth of recent human-produced CO2 emissions.

What will we be left within a relatively short space of time as pristine environments on the surface of the Earth fall to an economic scythe manipulated through greed and graft?  When we destroy the natural wonders of our Earth, from  the loss of the remaining rain forests on earth to depriving 2 million animals of their need to migrate over great  open grasslands in Central Africa,  we ultimately destroy ourselves.  Yet, if enough people have the courage to fight for the wonders that still exist on planet Earth there may still be a heritage for those that follow us.

Georgia Papageorge.  August 2013


Georgia Papageorge (b. 1941, South Africa)

Kilimanjaro Souther Glaciers, 2010

Mixed Media, 238cm x 148 cm

NMAfA_EM_Papageorge_04      NMAfA_EM_Papageorge_03

Georgia Papageorge (b. 1941, South Africa)

Kilimanjaro/Cold Fire, 2010

Two channel video and sound projection (11 min.)

Earth Matters Around the Web: The Conflict in Syria

One of the biggest topics in the news today is the conflict in Syria. For years now,  public attention has been focused on the civil war, which has gotten renewed attention in the wake of evidence of chemical weapons being used there. Interestingly, the conflict in Syria raises two issues that have only managed to be a media subtext, if not ignored almost completely. The first issue, which has received some media attention is the millions of people that this conflict has displaced. Recent estimates put the number of internally displaced people at five million and the number of emigrant refugees at two million, which collectively represents nearly a third of Syria’s total population.

The African continent is, of course, no stranger to conflict and displacement. Consequently, in the exhibition Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa, there are artworks, like Dawit Petro’s A Total Instance of Reflexivity, which broach the topic of forced emigration due to conflict. In Petros’ case, it was the protracted Eritrean-Ethiopian conflict which forced he and his family to emigrate. In writing about his work on this subject Petros states,  “Living between geographical locations; Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, Canada and the United States, has required the navigation of myriad terrains. This process has provided a set of expansive relationships; an awareness of the necessity of simultaneity; and recognition of the contradictory ties that bind the dispersed to physical and psychic places.”

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Petros_Landscape_Kenya0          Petros_Portaits_Black_Glass_Kenya0

Dawit L. Petros (b. 1972, Eritrea)

A Total Instance of Reflexivity, Sigeneity, Eritrea/Naivasha, Kenya  2008

Chromogenic prints, painted plywood, and black Plexiglas

Collection of the artist

There is no doubt that much of what Petros has articulated in his statement and in his artworks is being experienced by so many Syrians at this very moment. The traumas of being forced from one’s home, that one parcel of land on earth that we feel belongs to us because of the connections we have formed with it, are, for those who have not experienced it, are unfathomable.

Of course, the issue of displacement due to conflict is deeply intertwined with the environmental devastation of Syria, much as it is with conflicts on other nations. The media will most often quantify the ravages of war in estimates of material losses. For example, this many homes, businesses, industries, etc., all find their way onto the tally of economic casualties of war. Rarely in the media, however, do we hear tallies of the environmental damage that war causes. The destruction of forests, agricultural land, and ecosystems, the loss of ability to manage waste and increased, war-borne pollution – all of these factors and others create environmental impacts that are seldom topics of discussion in popular media. Indeed, the land and the people are both victims of conflict. For more on the environmental impact of war make sure to read Monday’s post by Marc Lallanilla.