Sustainability as a form of resistance in art


In her essay “Building Radical Soil,” Puerto Rican historian and poet Aurora Levins Morales claims that her own family opposed tsarism, monarchy, colonialism, and imperialism. “We have inherited a long view and are less likely to have an all-or-nothing response to the ups and downs of our movements,” she wrote, referring to her blood relatives as well as her comrades. and political ancestors. Morales bases his analysis on the metaphor of soil – how rich and fertile traditions can establish “strong and stable roots” despite intergenerational contradictions:

Soil is more than a collection of mineral molecules. It’s organic and alive, made up of rotting leaves and underground runners, fungal filaments and billions of bacteria, seeds dropped by birds and dust blown in from halfway around the world. Clay, sand, rock and plant matter, local weather and regional climate, latitude and season interact with each other and are modified. Soil is not a list of ingredients. It’s relational, just like our sense of history.

At NYU’s Latinx Project, a new group exhibition picks up on Morales’ call to action, exploring how artists from the Latin, African and Asian diasporas are promoting sustainability across borders. Build Radical Soil features nine artists meditating on ancient and contemporary methods of conservation – from urban agriculture and solar power to decolonial cartography. Archival records of community organizing events accompany murals and site-specific installations, which are integrated into the gallery’s infrastructure, positioning collective artistic creation as an antidote to political domination.

Cinthya Santos Briones, “Herbolario Migrante” (2021-22)

Curator Sofía Shaula Reeser-del Rio has focused on spatiality in the small Noho Gallery, incorporating artwork into every corner, pillar and window. For “Schematic for Solar Powered Elsewhere” (2018) by Michelle Hernandez Vega, an overhead projector placed on the floor projects the image of a window lit by the sun against a corner of the gallery, making the shades appear distorted and twisted. Beneath the base of the projector, a large platform divided into sections holds a box of air freshener, pieces of fruit, and tiny false eyelashes. Vega talks about her experience of contacting family members in Puerto Rico during a power outage after Hurricane Maria through the compartmentalization of memories.

A similar organizing principle guides the embroidered cyanotypes of Cinthya Santos Briones. For “Herbolario Migrante” (2021-22), the artist adapted products from a series of workshops she held with migrant women into dark blue strips containing tiny leaf samples sewn with technicolor threads. Below these, in blue accordion booklets, are written memories collected from the women volunteers of the Mixteca organization of New York. Together, the works ground herbalism in indigenous Mexican traditions. The colored lines on each threaded sheet make them look almost like feathers, blurring the line between collecting, classifying and preserving.

Nyugen E. Smith, “Bundlehouse: Borderlines No.3 (Isle of Tribamartica)”, detail (2017)

Colombian artist Lina Puerta portrays food justice as a matter of public health and work. His magnificent tapestry “Broccoli Crop Workers” (2017) shows spectral figures in blue, pink and orange shirts from behind, representing the faceless masses of agricultural labor in the United States. They stand together in a forest of black lace and other textiles, Aztec embroidery and small hummingbird-shaped pins. Below is a quote from a NPR the article is squeezed into the space of a banner: “Improper exposure to pesticides harms 10,000 to 20,000 agricultural workers every year. The people who harvest America’s food.

Next to this coin, the gold-embossed print “Bank Statement (Levels)” (2012) by Glendalys Medina recalls the economic colonialism imposed on developing countries by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank; around the corner, Nyugen E. Smith imposes another form of colonial trauma, through a fictional map based on the Caribbean. Smith composed “The Island of Tribamartica” (2017) with Trinidadian and Zambian lands, among other materials on paper, sewing pink and gold thread between poorly shod huts. Groups of “clustered houses” are arranged in shades of red and blue, while threading delineates boundaries – though the spacing between dots results in dotted lines, alluding to impermanence.

Maria Gaspar, “City as site” (2010-22)

The built environment of a large city contains its own ecosystem, from which a diversity of public art develops. The photographs in Maria Gaspar’s “City as Site” (2010-22) engage the streets of Chicago as part of a city-wide art project. The artists and students in the photographs blend into colorful flora and painted street markers, camouflaged or immersed in their surroundings. Gaspar encourages young artists to take on the role of infrastructure in his work, positioning their physical existence as fundamental to urban sprawl.

Through it all, Build Radical Soil posits that resistance begins at ground level and that truly progressive traditions will survive the neoliberal era. It’s perhaps clearest in the gallery window, where Justin Sterling’s glass terrariums bridge the gap between city and land. Translucent window frames filled with dirt and plants hang on chains, looking rusty and dilapidated against the sleek Manhattan skyscrapers outside. A tension is apparent between the new and the old, the timeless and the ephemeral. This dilapidated display, in which new life continues to grow, gives the impression that it outlive us all. It is a poignant reminder of our short time inhabiting this world, and how a sapling that is small in one generation can grow tall and mighty in the next.

Justin Sterling, “The Beginning of the End” (2019)

Build Radical Soil continues at the Latinx Project (285 Mercer Street, Noho, Manhattan) through May 5. The exhibition was curated by Sofía Shaula Reeser-del Rio.


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