This contribution, inspired by critical debates on the Anthropocene and by the ideas of key Latin American thinkers and academics such as Maristella Svampa, aims at offering an overview of selected works of artists who operate in Latin America. Their work highlights some of the key contradictions and emerging arguments in the debate around the Anthropocene, notably its colonial and patriarchal character. Some of them represent the current systemic crisis induced by extractive capitalism, and underline the relevance of Indigenous peoples’ worldview and traditional knowledge or the connection between the exploitation of feminine bodies and extractivism. Their direct engagement and collaboration with Indigenous communities that resist extractivism visibilizes their agency and active contribution to radical transformation and ecological change, while contributing to challenge the power structures in which these operate.
Art, as the vehicle of aesthesis, is central to thinking with and feeling through the Anthropocene.
Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin’s words point to the role of art in the current debate on the Anthropocene and its cultural, visual, and political implications. Contemporary art production can contribute to critically unpacking the Anthropocene concept and its anthropocentric, patriarchal, and colonial implications, especially since artists and practitioners cross paths with movements and communities in struggles for ecological justice and against extractive capitalism.
Throughout the Americas and elsewhere, Indigenous peoples’ resistance flows from their worldviews based on the intrinsic and sacred relationship between humans and nature as a living and sentient entity (an outlook often described as “Indigenous cosmovision”). In this way, Indigenous cosmovisions, traditional knowledge systems, and livelihoods actively contribute to protecting Mother Earth, thereby challenging one of the assumptions behind the mainstream concept of the Anthropocene according to which all anthropos, all humanity, is equally responsible for the global environmental crisis.
The intersection of art and ecology has a long and deep history. One of the first artists to engage with environmental matters was Joseph Beuys, whose Difesa della Natura illuminated human interconnections with nature through a series of lectures and ecological awareness campaigns, as well as the planting of endangered species of trees and shrubs in a vineyard. But, given the intensifying environmental and social crisis today, art’s capacity to foster resistance to environmental destruction is more crucial than ever. In Against the Anthropocene, T. J. Demos explains the role of visual culture in “mediating and encouraging a rebellious activist culture” and calls on artists and writers “to intersect with movements in the global struggle for climate justice, human rights and ecological sustainability.”1 Curators and art institutions face similar challenges, inasmuch as the intersection between artistic engagement and ecological activism also implies radical changes in curatorial practices and cultural institutions.
In this essay we discuss the work of artists from across the world who have grappled with the ecological crisis in various forms over the last decade or so, drawing in particular on dialogues with Indigenous cultures and feminist movements. Among the works we discuss are Ursula Biemann and Paulo Tavares’s representations of “forest law,” as well as a more recent project for an Indigenous university in the Inga territory in Colombia in which Biemann has been involved. We also look at Latin American women artists such as Carolina Caycedo, María Evelia Marmolejo (Colombia), Cecilia Vicuña (Chile), and Regina José Galindo (Guatemala), whose work focuses on the intersection between resistance to extractivism and patriarchy, inspired by Indigenous cosmovisions and traditional knowledge systems and livelihoods. Embedded as they are in Indigenous peoples’ and feminist struggles, these practices contribute to what the Argentinian sociologist Maristella Svampa defines as “emancipatory counternarratives.”2 These are alternative environmental visions that emerge from and thrive on concepts and practices such as buen vivir (good living), the rights of nature, territory, autonomy, agroecology, food sovereignty, post-extractivism, interdependence between the human and nonhuman, and care.
The Rights of Nature, Indigenous Cosmovisions, and Resistance to Extractivism
Indigenous peoples’ knowledge systems have long challenged the Anthropocene from a decolonial viewpoint. Beyond a mere theoretical discussion, decolonization is rooted in Indigenous struggles for self-determination and against the extraction of materials from their lands. It revindicates their traditional knowledge and livelihoods as possible solutions to the current systemic crisis. Ongoing struggles for the recognition of the rights of nature are crucial to that purpose, inasmuch as they highlight the complexity of ecosystems and their intrinsic value beyond the anthropocentric and colonial view that permeates the concept of the Anthropocene. Seen from these perspectives, artistic practice related to extractivism and the debate on Anthropocene and Capitalocene acquires different nuances that offer opportunities for a “decolonized,” “deracialized,” and post-extractive view.
For example, Forest Law (2014), a multimedia installation developed by the Swiss artist Ursula Biemann and the Brazilian architect Paulo Tavares, is the result of an investigatory field trip carried out in the Ecuadorian Amazon in November 2013, when the two authors met with various Indigenous communities and leaders involved in legal claims for the protection of their land and rights, as well as activists who engaged in the campaigns for the recognition of the rights of nature.3Forest Law is composed of a two-channel video and an assemblage of photos, text, soil samples, and documents collected from the field trips. It also includes the publication Forest Law/Selva jurídica, which reflects on how knowledge from these trips created (or anticipated) “a new constitutional space wherein both humans and non-humans gather in a political assembly, the living forests of Amazonia.”4 Among the leaders featured in the work is the late Don Sabino Gualinga, the spiritual and political leader of the Kichwa people of Sarayaku, who explained the importance of his people’s long-standing resistance against extractivism in the Amazon. From their cosmovision and traditional knowledge, the Sarayaku have developed their own concept of a “living forest” (selva vivente, or Kawsak Sacha in Kichwa) that encompasses all the values—spiritual, physical, and ecological—of an equitable and respectful relationship between humans and the living world. Accordingly, the Kawsak Sacha declaration is “universal and proposes a legal recognition of the revindication for territorial rights and Mother Earth, which is necessary and essential for the balance of the planet and the preservation of life.”5
Forest Law, which evolved through dialogues between the authors and the forest, contains additional interviews with Indigenous social leaders and traditional medics in the field who understand themselves as the guardians of the forest. Other interviewees include Nina Pacari, a historical Indigenous leader and former judge of the Ecuadorian Constitutional Court who actively advocated for the inclusion of the Rights of Nature in the country’s constitution; José Gualinga, from Sarayaku (fig. 1); and Domingo Ankwash, a Shuar leader in the frontline struggle against oil pipelines and mining projects in the Indigenous lands of the Cordillera del Condor. His activism includes leading a struggle against the giant copper mine operated by Ecuacorriente, a subsidiary of the Chinese consortium CRCC-Tongguan (fig. 2).
Biemann and Tavares offer a critical view and alternative representations to the current debate on the Anthropocene, perspectives that are embedded in community, social practices, and agency. Their project elucidates how Ecuador continues to be pulled in one direction by its constitutional recognition of the rights of nature and of Indigenous peoples’ rights and, in the other direction, by the push to further expand the extractivist frontier. Different administrations that have ruled the country over the last decades have been confronted with increasing resistance from communities throughout the country, including rural, Indigenous, or African-descended communities. Amazonian Indigenous women have been central to this nationwide struggle against extractivism, in part by establishing Mujeres Indígenas Amazónicas, a network composed of women leaders from the whole of the Ecuadorean Amazon.
The importance of traditional knowledge systems, forms of nonhuman intelligence of plants, and interspecies relations is central to a recent initiative led by the Indigenous Inga People of Colombia, where Biemann has become involved. The future Indigenous university aims to reactivate and protect traditional knowledge systems currently under threat in a country where violence, discrimination, and attacks on Indigenous peoples and land defenders are rampant.6 The project pursues two tracks connecting architecture with science and arts—one related to the actual design and construction of the “physical space” of the university, the other centered on the Inga people’s traditional knowledge systems and uses of medicines and plants. By establishing an educational institution aimed at fostering a “biocentric approach,” the project proponents commit to the cocreation of knowledge and to promoting a paradigm shift in the relationship between humans and nature.
Like the multimedia art and activism of Tavares and Biemann, the Chilean artist Cecilia Vicuña’s work on Indigenous culture, historical tradition, and violence against feminine bodies is based on poetry and Indigenous culture, as well as on the recuperation of traditional handicrafts and objects like quipus.7 A quipu is an old system of communication that uses knotted, colorful ropes to register information, a symbolic use of textiles that reached its highest expression during the Inca empire. Vicuña looks to the past of Latin America, recontextualizing it to tackle present forms of violence, whether embedded in patriarchal or colonial power structures or in the separation between land and body central to the extractivist worldview. In the video project Quipu Mapocho (figs. 3, 4), Vicuña retraces her origins to the Mapocho River (a river sacred to the Mapuche), whose spring is close to an Inca sanctuary and flows through Santiago de Chile, while fertilizing ancient lands.8 Vicuña draws symbols and signs from the river route and reconfigures them as a large-scale territorial quipu. Vicuña’s groundbreaking work has supported Indigenous people and cosmologies in a country where the Mapuche have always been marginalized, criminalized, and violently repressed for their commitment to protect their lands and territories. Not only has Vicuña recently been awarded the prestigious Leone d’Oro at the 2022 Venice Biennale of Arts, but the Chilean Constitutional Assembly has also recognized the importance of Indigenous traditional knowledge systems and cosmologies by including the rights of nature in the draft of the new constitution.
Vicuña’s works further point to the relevance of the various forms of ecoterritorial feminisms that have multiplied under the expansion of neo-extractivism in Latin America in the last twenty years. Indigenous women, campesinas, Afro-descendant, impoverished, and vulnerable women are coming out of the societal margins, mobilizing in the public sphere, recreating relationships of solidarity, and building new forms of collective self-management against the negative effects of extractivism.
“Cuerpo Territorio”: Transfeminist Perspectives on Extractivism
La crueldad contra la mujer, esa víctima sacrificial que es la mujer, mancomuna a los hombres que son la mayoría de los trabajadores del extractivismo.—Rita Segato, “La violencia contra las mujeres”
Various definitions have been adopted to describe the connection within feminisms and the struggle for land and rights in Latin America, from territorial feminisms to communitarian or popular feminisms, anti-extractivism feminisms, or ecofeminisms of the South. All of them share the common challenge to the patriarchal, racist character of double “domination,” whether in interpersonal relations or relationships with nature.
The direct relationship between exploitation of women’s bodies, patriarchy, and extractivism is at the center of Colombian artist María Evelia Marmolejo’s 2015 performance Extractivismo.9 In this performance, the artist put live, blood-sucking leeches on her body (figs. 5, 6) to visualize how humans are extracting raw materials while contaminating their bodies. The extraction of blood represents the exploitation of Mother Earth. In Anónimo 3 (1982), Marmolejo performed a healing ritual in which she covered her body and face with surgical tape and gauze to ask Mother Earth to forgive us for polluting and destroying flora and fauna.10
In a similar vein, another prominent Colombian artist, Carolina Caycedo, focuses her work on ecological matters, the impact of extractivism and large-scale dams, and the direct connection between human bodies and ecosystems. In her performance Geocoreografías Oritoguaz—descolonizando la Jagua (fig. 7), 250 Colombian defenders against dams in the Magdalena River used their bodies to write “Ríos Vivos” on the riverbank.11 The work testifies to Caycedo’s engagement with struggles to protect rivers as living organisms. Her documentary A gente río represents the river as a collective body and contains interviews of communities affected by the Belo Monte, Itapú, and Bento Rodrigues dams in Brazil (fig. 8).12 Caycedo’s work, or what Macarena Gómez-Barris calls “geo-choreographies,” produces a “relational mapping of power that uncovers the epistemological material and bodily violence that thwarts biological life.”13
Similarly, the Guatemalan artist Regina José Galindo deals with embodiment, violence, and politics, using her body to denounce violence against women, social exclusion, and injustice. In her most recent performance, Ríos de gente (Rivers of People)14 (figs. 9, 10), Galindo’s body is extended to the “cuerpo territorio” of communities that protect waters and rivers. The project, produced for the festival Libertad para el Agua in April 2021, involved the participation of thousands of people who carried a long piece of blue fabric on their shoulders, chanting slogans for the protection of rivers and waters. This “human snake” symbolizes a river that flows and takes back its place, reclaiming its bed after having been displaced by the expansion of extractive interests. The collective performance, attended mostly by Indigenous people from all over the country, is meant to represent the collective struggles by communities against extractivism and the destruction of rivers. By turning humans into a river, Galindo highlights the notion of cuerpo-territorio that connects various types of violence, whether patriarchal, colonial, or extractivist. As Svampa puts it, “the defense of bodies and territories opens a collective space of healing, in the attempt to break out from the colonial and patriarchal paradigm.”15 What takes the stage in Galindo’s work is the agency of communities and their bodies, which in turn become dignified and embodied actors of resistance.
The production of art as a tool for the transformation of social space is increasingly present in the political sphere and in art institutions. The works shown in this essay build knowledge that goes beyond categories such as art, activism, and archive and allow connections between fields of knowledge, epistemologies, and relationships based on partial and critical knowledge. They highlight some of the key contradictions and emerging arguments in the debate around the Anthropocene, notably its colonial and patriarchal character.
All of the works selected for this article are characterized by the artists’ engagement and collaboration with Indigenous communities that resist extractivism and the destruction of ecosystems by large-scale infrastructures. Such artistic production contributes to strengthening the agency of Indigenous peoples’ communities and their active contribution to radical transformation and ecological change. Still, the challenge is to understand to what extent visual production can effectively destabilize the official narrative, the processes of privatization and expropriation, and the extractivist paradigm. The debate is open.
Much of Biemann’s work is inspired by the writings of Eduardo Kohn, mainly How Forests Think.
Video on artist’s website, Biemann, Becoming Earth, https://becomingearth.unal.edu.co/video-works?vid=11 (accessed September 9, 2021). Biemann and Tavares, Forest Law/Selva jurídica.
The Living Forest Declaration, Kawsak Sacha, Sarayaku, https://kawsaksacha.org.
Devenir Universidad, https://deveniruniversidad.org (accessed 2022).
Exhibition catalog, Qhapaq Ñan:il grande cammino delle Ande, IILA Organizzazione Internazionale Italo-Latinoamericana, MUCIV, Rome, 2021, https://www.qhapaqnan-iila.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/Magazine-2021.pdf.
“Ríos Vivos, acción colectiva con Ríos Vivos Colombia, La Jagua, Huila, 2014,” https://atlasiv.com/2017/09/27/carolina-caycedo-arte-la-resistencia/2016-caycedo-rios-vivos-c/. Movimiento Ríos Vivos is an umbrella organization of Colombian environmental defenders with whom Caycedo collaborates; https://riosvivoscolombia.org.
Carolina Caycedo, A gente río, Art and Education, https://www.artandeducation.net/classroom/video/361708/carolina-caycedo-a-gente-rio.