From the Archives: Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro


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.


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.



Guest Voices: Working with the Earth – Artist Margaret Boozer in Our Own Backyard

Today’s guest post comes to us from Anthony Stellaccio, the Project Manager for Earth Matters, who worked on the exhibit through its early research stages all the way to making the show a reality. Through this process, he met and worked with other artists to learn more about how the earth informs their work – read on to learn about one of these artists, Margaret Boozer. 

I am a ceramic artist, I work with clay. Better still, I might make the claim that I work with the earth. Let us consider that part of what qualified me for my job as project manager for the exhibition Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa.

While working on the Earth Matters exhibition, steeped in research on mining, the environment, and all the other themes that the Earth Matters touches upon, I had the good fortune to be introduced to another ceramic artist, Margaret Boozer. Boozer is the founder of Red Dirt Studio, a collective of ceramic and multi-media artists just six miles from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, where Earth Matters is currently on view.

Originally from Alabama, Margaret Boozer grew up surrounded by red dirt. When Boozer reminisces about her southern home, she recalls that red dirt with enough fondness to ensure that anybody listening will make an unmistakable connection between it and her identity.  Hardly surprising, then, that as an artist, Boozer has taken an interest in the raw and colorful clays that surround her wherever she goes. In fact, Boozer has made “the earth” her primary medium, often working with clays, minerals, and soils that come straight out of the ground and go straight into her art.

 Burst cotton bolls in a field in Auburn, Alabama

How does one work directly with the earth?

In some cases, Boozer “draws” with the earth. By creating compositions from the multi-colored materials that she extracts from the earth, Boozer creates what she calls “dirt drawings.” Despite being called “drawings,” these works of art are more like sculptural installations since what she draws on is not paper but the gallery floor. Boozer begins these installations by hauling buckets of different clays, minerals, and soils into the gallery. She then responds to the unique features of each space that she is asked to work in by creating a different work for each place. When the show is over she hauls the buckets of earth out and the pieces disappear. From then on the work she created will exist only in photographs.

Dirt Drawings by Margaret Boozer

Margaret Boozer also paints with the earth. Working with the same diversity of materials, Boozer creates rectangular compositions much the same way she creates her “dirt drawings.” Only with her “paintings,” instead of just brushing them away, she makes them permanent by building frames and backings, and then embedding the earthen material into them. Boozer refers to these as “rammed-earth paintings,” and they are paintings in the sense that they exist in frames and can be hung on walls.

Paintings from the Rammed Earth Series by Margaret Boozer

Last but not least, Margaret Boozer is also a ceramic artist. By saying ceramics, of course, I mean that Margaret also uses the clays and minerals that she finds to create two- and three-dimensional objects that she then transforms by heating them to high temperatures in a kiln. Once fired, the materials that Boozer works with have become something rather different than what they were when she first dug them out of the earth, and their new forms are far more permanent. Looking at all the different ways that Margaret Boozer works with clay, I find myself asking not only “how does earth matter,” but also “what can earth be?”

Ceramic Sculpture by Margaret Boozer

Be sure to check out more works from Margaret Boozer here, and stop by Earth Matters to see ways that other artists work with earth as a material and an inspiration. 

Earth Matters Around the Web

800px-Dallol-2001(photo via Wikimedia Commons)

How do you interact with the earth? What do you picture it as? How does the earth affect you – and how do you affect it? All of these themes are addressed in Earth Matters. This week, around the web, many of the same themes  in the exhibit showed up in news around the world.

  • First up, find about a bit more about the exhibit’s five themes by checking out what WETA had to say about Earth Matters and the issues it addresses.
  • Earth Matters explores the ways in which African artists have connected to the endless world underground throughout the ages, often through rituals and rites honoring the dead in “Imagining the Underground.” Watch how Paa Joe, the Ghanian master coffin-maker is bringing his own art of honoring the dead to the attention of Great Britain here.
  • Through “Material Earth,” the exhibit asks the question: what is earth? How is the definition the same – or different – from person to person? Salt is one answer – get firsthand look at the unique landscape created by salt in these spectacular photos of the salt trade in Ethiopia.
  • Artists’ active responses to climate change  make up a central theme in Earth Matterslearn more about how the members of the Maasai culture are responding to similar changes while trying to maintain their traditional culture.

<p><a href=”″>For Many Maasai, Climate Change May Mean the End of Traditional Ways</a> from <a href=””>PRI's The World</a> on <a href=””>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Watch the full story above.

Guest Voices: An Unparalleled Record of Earth from Above

Our guest post today comes to us from Jeannie Allen, the Senior Technical Specialist for Sigma Space Corporation at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Marking a huge moment, just this past week, NASA has officially handed over the recently launched Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM) satellite to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), making the satellite officially Landsat 8.

The transfer marks a major achievement for the historic Landsat program.  Landsat 8 will send back images more useful, detailed, and clear than ever before!

LandsatEarthDay2012_77Visitors to the Smithsonian Mall explore a Landsat scene of Washington DC on Earth Day 2012 (photo credit – Jeannette Allen)

Speeding around the Earth at 16,800 mph (27,000 kph), two Landsat satellites are quietly, faithfully monitoring our dynamic lands from space. Landsat 7 and Landsat 8 are now in orbit about 400 miles above us. Their predecessors began recording specialized digital images of Earth in 1972, creating a treasure trove of information for everyone around the world.

Landsat satellites show us our own landscapes in new ways. With super-human detectors, they see different wavelengths of visible and infrared light reflected and emitted from Earth’s surface. They give us this view at a resolution of 30 m, about the size of a baseball diamond. You can’t see yourself in a Landsat scene, but you can see your neighborhood:  the larger streets, shopping centers, and open spaces.

Mike & Peter_FieldPeople work in the field to confirm the information they get from satellites. (photo credit – Jeannette Allen)

LDCM_still_Gulf_Coast_side_viewJointly managed by NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey, Landsat offers the longest continuous global record of the Earth’s surface as observed from space.  All Landsat data are available at no cost for anyone in the world to download and use. (photo credit – NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center)

What do these satellite scenes tell us about our relationship with the Earth? They tell us we are changing it. Slowly, surely, one piece of ground at a time, we are altering the surface of our planet. You can see these changes in pairs or series of Landsat scenes. People make cities bigger; farmers plant crops, irrigate, and harvest them; forests burn and sprout up again. Glaciers are shrinking in response to a warming climate. The space-based perspective on the changes we’ve made can be surprising!

Picture 2Yellowstone National Park before (1987), during (1988) and after (2011) a huge fire. White puffy clouds appear in some parts of the 1987 image, and gray-blue smoke appears in 1988. Red in the 1988 image indicates areas that are burning or have just burned, detected by Landsat’s sensitivity to infrared light. Pinkish colors in the 2011 image show areas recovering from the fire.

Many scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and their support staff feel strongly about the Landsat satellites. Landsat data provide the backbone for research and practical uses of remote sensing data around the world. Furthermore the data are free. Anyone on the internet can access the data, download it, and explore your own landscape of interest, from USGS GloVIS website.

We can find art as well as science in Landsat scenes. Some people at USGS made a collection of images just for their special qualities of color, composition and form. Earth as Art images are available for download here.


Lena River Delta


Malaspina Glacier

FI_EvergladesFlorida Everglades

 To learn more about Landsat, go to:

Earth Matters Around the Web

2010 Mocambique and MalawiAn aerial photograph of Malawi, recently named one of the countries leading the charge on tackling hunger and undernourishment (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Our earth gives us water, food, minerals –  but how do we respect the earth and its resources while also striving for economic development and prosperity for all? Earth Matters strives to show these issues we all face, through the lens of Africa. Recently, stories of innovation and governmental commitment to answering these questions successfully have been front and center:

Maasai_TribeMasaai peoples gather in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Guest Voices: Earth Works at the Smithsonian

Happy Memorial Day! We at the Smithsonian hope you are enjoying a happy and relaxing day with family and friends.

Our guest post today features Jonathan Kavalier, a supervisory horticulturist with Smithsonian Gardens, who was integral in making the Earth Works happen in conjunction with the Earth Matters exhibit. This partnership marks a first for the Smithsonian – never before has land art been installed on the National Mall. Learn about the process of making this amazing feat happen – with 30 million visitors to the nation’s capital looking on. 

merwe 1Strijdom van der Merwe’s piece, Land Reform, on Independence Ave. in Washington, DC – photo courtesy Jonathan Kavalier

As a horticulturist, I don’t often have the opportunity to participate in art exhibitions. So when museum curator Karen Milbourne approached me with an idea for a collaboration between the National Museum of African Art (NMAfA) and Smithsonian Gardens, my interest was piqued. I met Karen when she attended a talk I gave on building gardens in Madagascar, a country I had the immense pleasure of living in for two years before joining the Smithsonian. Since I was already emotionally invested in Africa, the idea of collaborating with NMAfA sounded great, and definitely supported Smithsonian Gardens’ mission to enrich the Smithsonian experience through exceptional gardens, horticultural exhibits, collections, and education. What came out of many discussions was an idea to commission earthworks from several African artists in some of the Smithsonian Gardens.

moeLedelle Moe’s outdoor sculpture piece, Land/Displacements, outside the National Museum of African Art – photo via Pinterest

Now two years later, this idea has finally come to fruition. My job was to manage the logistics of installing these very different earth works involving sculpture, living plants, and earth moving. Add to that the challenge of working around existing garden infrastructure and the 30 million visitors that come through the Smithsonian annually, all without compromising the artists’ visions. I am very happy to say that the earth works have all been successfully installed, and some rice planting finally happened a few weeks ago for Ghada Amer’s piece, Hunger. We’ve actually been growing rice in our greenhouses for the past two months, eagerly waiting for the warmer weather to arrive so we can plant the rice into the Earth Works exhibit.

The most challenging, and rewarding, part of coordinating these installations was working around the visiting public during what is the busiest time of year for Smithsonian Gardens. Lots of time and effort were put into ensuring the public’s safety during the course of the work, but the reward of observing visitors witnessing the creation of these exhibits was priceless.

merwe 2Looking down Independence Ave. along the folds of van der Merwe’s Land Reform – photo courtesy Jonathan Kavalier

We hope you’ll stop by the National Mall this summer and fall and see these spectacular works of art that only could have happened with the partnership and hard work of Jonathan Kavalier and the rest of Smithsonian Gardens. They mark a true “first” for the Smithsonian, revealing the constant connection between art, humanity, and the land that each earth artist in the show has skillfully and distinctly revealed.  Don’t miss it!

Earth Matters Around the Web

800px-Oasis_de_Tergit_(10)A water well in the Adrar region of Mauritania – photo via Wikimedia Commons

There is no doubt that issues of water will be defining in the near future. In the face of climate change and growing demands on limited resources, how can we be responsible and still support economic growth? Rapidly growing African countries are often leading these discussions, as was seen this week in news stories from around the internet:

  • In opening remarks at this week’s thematic debate on Sustainable Development and Climate Change: Practical Solutions in the Energy-Water Nexus, U.N. General Assembly President Vuk Jeremic called for thoughtful responses to the worldwide paramount charges of sustainable growth with equitable economic development.
  • The Democratic Republic of Congo is moving forward with plans for the construction of the Grand Inga on the Congo River, which would, when completed, be the largest hydroelectric plant in the world. The plant is expected to provide a massive source of renewable energy for the growing country and much of the rest of southern Africa.
  • Women in Mauritania, with the help of the Mauritanian Red Crescent Society and International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), have responded to drought conditions by working to promote and nurture more drought-resistant crops and work toward nationwide food security.

Learn more about the U.N.’s recent calls for environmental sustainability coupled with worldwide economic development in the wake of Rio+20, the conference that sparked this week’s thematic debate on Practical Solutions in the Energy-Water Nexus.