Joanna Page is Director of CRASSH and Professor of Latin American Studies at the University of Cambridge.

Q: Joanna, what is your book Decolonial Ecologies: The Reinvention of Natural History in Latin American Art about?

The book explores projects by contemporary Latin American artists who draw on historical methods of collecting, organising, and displaying nature. These include the medieval bestiary, baroque cabinets of curiosities, the albums and atlases created by European travellers to the New World, taxidermy and natural history dioramas, as well as the floras and herbaria composed by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century naturalists. Artists are returning to these genres and archives to engage with them critically and creatively. They develop perspectives that we might describe as decolonial and post-anthropocentric, with the aim of pluralising epistemologies and re-entwining natural history with human history.

Many of the artworks I discuss in the book expose historical complicities between the natural sciences, colonialism, and capitalism. They also seek to reconnect Western science with those forms of popular, indigenous, and spiritual knowledge and experience that it has systematically excluded since the Enlightenment. The reinventions of the visual forms of natural history explored in the book present us with ideas that are crucial to forging more creative ways of living through environmental change. For instance, they challenge the paradigm of conservation that has often been dominant in the West and that perpetuates the myth of pristine nature, replacing it with a focus on coexistence, collaboration, and co-evolution.

Q: What drew you to the subject and what do you find particularly interesting about it?

Like many people, I find collections beautiful and intriguing, and natural history collections encode much that is fascinating about how different societies have chosen to organise their knowledge of the natural world. It also allowed me to explore in greater depth some subjects that I have been developing an interest in over some time, including decolonial theory, post-anthropocentrism, modernity, and environmental philosophy. Being able to meet many of the artists featured in the book, either on research trips to Latin America or via Zoom, was one of the best parts of the project – their insights really shaped a lot of my thinking and their commitment to the work they do was inspiring. Another real attraction for me was that these artists’ approaches do not plunge us into the kind of apocalyptic gloom that hangs over a good proportion of environmental art today: ultimately, their interest is not so much in lamenting our destruction of the natural world but in encouraging us to find more imaginative and equitable ways of engaging more closely with it.

A recent growth of interest in the global history of science, in decolonial critiques of the production of knowledge, and in the relationship between art and nature in times of environmental crisis has created the space for a flourishing scene of artistic practice that is set to continue its expansion. (Decolonial Ecologies, p. 23)

Q: Around which themes did you decide to structure the book, and to what end?

Each of the book’s chapters features a different genre: bestiaries, cabinets of curiosities, floras and herbaria, accounts of scientific voyages, albums and atlases, and taxidermy and natural history dioramas. This allowed me space to think through how each form had developed historically – its politics, economics, ethics, and aesthetics – and then to compare and contrast these with the contemporary reinventions by Latin American artists that were the main focus of the analysis. I wanted to be able to explore the affordances of each medium: what kinds of knowledge does a bestiary make possible, for example? What about an atlas? The book is also organised according to a rough chronology, as it starts with mediaeval bestiaries, moves through genres that are associated with the colonial period in Latin America and the Enlightenment, and ends with the natural history dioramas that became very popular in museums at the beginning of the twentieth century. So it also tells a story of how the natural world has been represented in collections and classifications in the West, and how those methods of representation are being challenged, redeployed or reinvented by contemporary Latin American artists.

Q: In your view, what are the main contributions of your book?

Some recent publications have taken as their subject the relationship between art and science (including natural history) or between art and environmental crisis, but few of them have focused on Latin America. This is a critical context, given the enormous impact of the colonisation of the Americas and current-day extractivist practices on environmental change across the world, but also because of the important and distinctive perspectives on global debates on extractivism and climate futures that are emerging in Latin America. So my book aims to bring these debates centre-stage, and to interrogate some of their implications, including Enrique Leff’s idea of ‘environmental democracy’. At the same time, it demonstrates in new ways how artistic projects are deeply entwined with the construction and circulation of knowledge, both past and present. I propose in the conclusion that we might read these artworks as instances of a ‘decolonial neobaroque’, which (unlike the postmodern neobaroque) engages in forms of historical re-embedding in order to construct a critique of Enlightenment epistemologies and Eurocentric modernity.

Q: What would readers be surprised to learn about in your book?

Some of the arguments I develop in relation to these artworks – drawing on Latin American political ecology, indigenous approaches to the natural world and decolonial thought – are counter-intuitive from a contemporary Western perspective. For example, I show how Leff’s call for the ‘socialisation of nature’ pulls in a very different direction from many First-World environmental thinkers, for whom ‘nature’ should be completely removed from human projections and values. What I found in many of these art projects is an understanding that if the root of ecological destruction is an ontological separation between humans and the rest of the natural world (which is at the core of the Enlightenment project in Europe), then finding ways of resocialising or even rehumanising nature may become an important mode of contestation. Perhaps the most paralysing of Anthropocene discourses is the belief that human intervention in nature is necessarily damaging. Many of these artworks allow us to glimpse how humans might play a role in shaping landscapes and ecosystems in ways that are based on collaboration and reciprocity.

Decolonial Ecologies: The Reinvention of Natural History in Latin American Art is published open access by Open Book Publishers and it is free to read or download. For a brief overview of some of the artworks and arguments explored in the book, see this blog post by Joanna on the Open Book Publishers website.



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