Wrapped in flowers, listening to frogs

This issue is born out of forest fires and deforestation. It is born out of extraction and despoliation, which ravage landscapes and people, including unique and irreplaceable lifeways, languages and cultures. This issue is born out of anger and despair for irretrievable losses, including plant and animal relations we will never see again. This issue is dedicated to the three billion animals that lost their lives on this continent in the summer of 2019–20, losses subsequently eclipsed by a virus spiralling out of control in the anthroposphere. But this issue is also born out of fierce love and an undying spirit of joy, as we celebrate the indescribable beauty that still lives on this planet, and fight for its ‘ongoingness’, its ‘survivance’. [1] This spirit was attested to in the overwhelming number of proposals we received for Multinaturalism; had we said yes to them all we would have needed to print five different versions of the issue. Since the theme encompasses diversity on every level, including the inter-dimensional, I imagine these other versions existing in parallel to this one.

The term multinaturalism is a curious mouthful. It evokes, but destabilises, the more commonplace ‘multiculturalism’, which has been critiqued as a neoliberal strategy to present as ‘diverse’ while maintaining white hegemony. Decentring the human, multinaturalism ensures that conversations about culture necessarily encompass nature, guided by epistemologies that have thrived on this planet for millennia without the damaging duality of a nature–culture divide. Coined by the Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, multinaturalism grows out of Amerindian thought, in particular the writings of Yanomami shaman Davi Kopenawa. Like many Indigenous epistemologies, including those of this continent, Amerindian thought posits a time when all life was human. Various events led to the differentiations we see today: mountains, rivers, plants, animals but, underneath these external differences, beings maintain kinship. Some of these relationships are being reacknowledged in a global ripple effect of ‘ecological jurisprudence’, which sees legal title and personhood status granted to bodies of water, such as the rivers Ganges and Yamuna in India, Vilcabamba in Ecuador, Atrato in Colombia and Whanganui in Aotearoa. Here in Victoria, the Yarra River Protection Act, or Wilip-gin Birrarung murron Act, was passed in 2017, the first in the state with a dual-language title and an Aboriginal language preamble. Wurundjeri Elder Aunty Alice Kolasa spoke from the floor of the Victorian Parliament, noting, ‘Our Ancestors and the Birrarung shaped one another—living in balance together for countless generations. The State now recognises something that we, as the First People have always known, that the Birrarung is one integrated living entity.’[2] The Birrarung is not defined as an ‘individual’, ‘but rather as a relational entity, bound into reciprocal relationships’.[3]

We urgently need to decentre the human, yet we christen (Judeo-Christian overtones intended) our current geological era the Anthropocene. Once again, Homo sapiens declares himself Master of the Universe. As Elizabeth Povinelli notes, however, ‘… it is not humans who have exerted such malignant force on the meteorological, geological, and biological dimension of the earth, but only some modes of human sociality’.[4] Marisol de la Cadena reminds us of the ‘anthropo-not-seen’, encompassing ‘heterogeneous worlds that did not make themselves through the division between humans and nonhumans’.[5]

But surely, you may be asking, if multinaturalism posits all of nature to be human, isn’t it just another form of anthropocentrism? Are we unable to ascribe agency to nature unless we bequeath it a human face? Artist-lawyer-trickster Nick Modrzewski satirises Western laws in which human privilege must be invoked to protect more-than-human entities from exploitation by humans. In this world view, the entangled nature of ecologies is overwritten by the Western concept of bounded individuals with human rights and human fallibilities. Modrzewski’s council of trees, who consider themselves persons, have become selfish. No longer seeing themselves as part of an ecosystem, they don’t want to share.

Modrzewski’s parody urges us to consider the risks of ‘strategic anthropomorphism’, while having fun with its comic potential and raising awareness of the game-changing laws. Before Descartes declared that animals were mere automata without soul, and Western scientific paradigms favouring separation over relation invaded every corner of the globe, animals, plants, rocks, winds and waters were ascribed human-like capacities. In an animate world, where everything has the ability to think and feel, decisions about who to eat and where to excrete are made with a good deal of consideration. Jane Bennett suggests that anthropomorphism can work against anthropocentrism, revealing isomorphisms between categories that Western science insists are distinct.[6] Karen Barad declares an investment in anthropomorphism will act as ‘an intervention for shaking loose the crusty toxic scales of anthropocentrism, where the human in its exceptional way of being gets to hold all the “goodies” like agency, intentionality, rationality, feeling, pain, empathy, language, consciousness, imagination, and much more’.[7]

What some white scholars are arguing for as a necessary ontological shift is a matter of ‘cultural survival’ for others. This is how Gunnai-Gunditjmara woman and Victorian Green MP Lidia Thorpe described the imperative to save Djab Wurrung’s sacred trees from further destruction. A proposed highway extension would see the destruction of trees that have hosted the delivery of an estimated 10,000 Djab Wurrung babies, trees which ‘literally contain the blood of Aboriginal women’.[8] Blood was also invoked, metaphorically, in the case for the Whanganui River, or Te Awa Tupua, in which the river was said to run ‘through the veins’ of local Māori as ‘the central artery of their tribal heart’.[9] Indeed, a regional proverb states ‘Ko au te awa. Ko te awa ko au’, or ‘I am the river, the river is me’.[10] This is echoed by Yorta Yorta Dja Dja Wurrung scholar Lou Bennett AM, who writes, ‘The word for bones in Dja Dja Wurrung is galk. It’s the same word for stick, branch and a general term for tree. They are us and we are them.’[11] No wonder, then, in Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book, the state-sanctioned destruction of a sacred tree leaves its kinspeople feeling ‘unhinged from their own bodies, unmoored, vulnerable, separated from eternity’.[12]

‘No one writes Country like Alexis Wright’, Mykaela Saunders said to me via email when we were discussing this issue. Saunders has deftly woven Wright’s Carpentaria into an array of Country-centred practices by Australian First Nations artists and writers. We’re thrilled to be able to reprint a scene from Carpentaria in which Country and its carers team up against a mining company. This small serving of fictional justice seems appropriate after Rio Tinto’s desecration of sacred caves in Western Australia. As Lidia Thorpe’s uncle, veteran activist Robbie Thorpe, has been reminding protesters for years, ecocide and genocide are one and the same.[13]

Melbourne, like many cities, consists of a grid of straight roads imposed on an undulating landscape. Even rivers were straightened. The Boon Wurrung celebrate the fact that their Ngargee tree, a 700-year-old river red gum, was saved and roads forced to curve around the majestic being N’arweet Carolyn Briggs AM calls ‘our story board’ and ‘a witness’.[14] In a COVID-era conversation over Zoom, Briggs reminded me of the importance of culture in sustaining nature and that it is her mission to ‘Sing into Country, connect Country, help spirit return to this world.’[15] As Art + Australia is produced on Boon Wurrung as well as Wurundjeri Country, Briggs’ words resound as both a reminder and a directive, which each of the writers in this issue attempts to address in their own way. While poetry was never explicitly called for in the CFP,[16] nevertheless, poetry erupts from every crevice of Multinaturalism. Writers are compelled towards a kind of song in an effort to connect with life forces that surpass quotidian speech. It is no surprise that veteran poet Cecilia Vicuña expresses herself in poetry, but so too it erupts in Saunders’ article, sprouts in the entwined text of Caitlin Franzmann and Camila Marambio, declares itself concretely in the collaborative page-works of Debris Facility and Nick Mangan, and gently in the combined artist journals of Xin Cheng and Chris Berthelsen. So, too, poetry is the way Alexis Milonopoulos provides his interpretation of multinaturalism, perhaps the best working definition of this term I have seen and one which fittingly emanates from Brazil.

How we use language is crucial, for ‘It matters what stories tell stories’.[17] Robin Wall Kimmerer talks of the difficulty of learning her native Potawatomi because what we consider in the West to be nouns (inert objects) are verbs in her mother tongue, entities in a constant state of relational becoming: ‘To be a hill, to be a sandy beach, to be a Saturday, all are possible verbs in a world where everything is alive’.[18] In such a lively, mobile and relational world, language must also be pliant enough to do justice to justice. Here, small and subtle shifts include the capitalisation of ‘Indigenous’ wherever and however that word is used, as well as a deliberate loosening of the rules around italicisation. Italics frequently designate non-English words as ‘other’ to the linguistic monoculture of the Anglosphere. Eventually, through long use, certain words get ‘naturalised’ (read: assimilated) just enough to lose their oblique angle (and here we might pause to reflect on the use of the words slope and slant as racial slurs, as if anything that is not ‘straight’ is suspect). For this issue, following the logic of poetry, we have let the authors decide what they want to italicise and what they don’t: what they wish to accentuate and what they wish to let flow. If only our roads were as sinuous as our language! Let’s not build any more ‘straight’ roads; rather, let them bend to accommodate Country.

Speaking of an active refusal of the straight, Kimmerer says, ‘It’s all in the pronouns’.[19] She’s talking here about giving gender and personhood to entities English characterises as ‘it’, and while this runs counter to the recent surge in non-binary pronouns for people, it also actively queers language by opening life to a multitude of possibilities. In this issue, proud Ngarigu queer artist Peter Waples-Crowe shares his rainbow-coloured cloak of influences, while Linda Stupart unleashes a queer Arctic demonology, and Richard Orjis sniffs out the scatological underbelly of an Auckland public park. Each of them reminds us that nature’s queer diversity, from multi-sexed mushrooms to hyper-sexed bacteria, far exceeds anthropocentric heteronormativity. The prismatic exuberance of life is what New Zealand artist Peter Madden celebrates in his unbelievably detailed relief collages, which shimmer and pulsate, each leaf, flower, butterfly and frog carefully differentiated but vibrantly interconnected.

Following the most recent Artlink issue, Kin Constellations: Languages, Waters, Futures, in which editors Léuli Eshrāgi and Kimberley Moulton acknowledge recent publications that have provided inspiration or sustenance, I would like to acknowledge Kin Constellations; the two publications coming out of NIRIN, the 22nd Biennale of Sydney; Lisa Radford and Yhonnie Scarce’s year-long collaborative editorial project for Art + Australia Online, The Image Is Not Nothing (Concrete Archives); and the 2019 combined issues of Más allá del fin and Discipline, for their astute South American–Australian connections.[20] Multinaturalism continues to cross-pollinate the two continents, most notably in Franzmann and Marambio’s ‘To Move Through the Dark Night of the Soul’, in which two endemic tree species call to each other across the vast Pacific. What do they say to each other? In my conversation with N’arweet Carolyn Briggs, she noted that trees, whether native or introduced, ‘start talking to each other, complimenting each other’. She mimed their enmeshment by wiggling her fingers.

Clearly, the continents are talking to each other; beyond Marambio’s and Vicuña’s native Chile, there are contributions from Colombia, Ecuador and Brazil. As Jair Bolsonaro was repeatedly bitten by rheas while convalescing from COVID-19 in his presidential palace, we wondered if the birds had been inspired, as we have, by Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu. While many people suggest COVID-19 is Gaia in action,[21] Brazil’s ratite insurgency was celebrated globally as a ‘rhea-sistance’—the natural world biting back at one of its foremost persecutors. Bolsanaro’s wilful destruction of the Amazon and its First Peoples for extraction and plantations enacts what Vandana Shiva recognised decades ago as ‘monocultures of the mind’.[22] What we need instead is a ‘polyculture of complementary knowledges’,[23] and indeed Vijay Prashad has suggested we should supplant ‘multiculturalism’ with ‘polyculturalism’: solidarities across and through difference.[24]

Similarly wary of monoculture’s devastation of naturalcultural diversity in his beloved Colombia, anthropologist Michael Taussig learned to eschew not just agribusiness but ‘agribusiness writing’, which invades institutions and, worse still, mindsets.[25] In this issue, Taussig also connects the continents, moving seamlessly from his Sydney childhood, lolling on the carpet listening to Tom the Naturalist on the radio, to imbibing yagé in the jungles of the Putumayo, while his shaman friend shapeshifts into a jaguar. The metamorphic sublime Taussig evokes that issues, as he says, like a pilot fish from the glowing radio dials, finds its analogy in the NoctilucaScreen project of Sebastian Wiedemann, a ‘cosmomorphic cinema’ which honours bioluminescent sea creatures, and Kuai Shen’s use of ‘tactical media’ for ‘artistic amplification’ of rain ants in the Ecuadorian jungle.

In a different jungle environment, that of West Papua, Sophie Chao writes of the Marind people’s ‘conjoined ethics and aesthetics’. Challenging ideas of what might constitute artistic practice, daily life for the Marind is a ‘multispecies choreography’. The women Chao speaks of imbue their unborn children with linguistic and affective tools for a life of ‘more-than-human care, respect and response-ability’. Similarly, this issue is punctuated by features on strong Aboriginal women artists, representing a diversity of practices and locations. Tony Birch takes time out from his inimitable opinion pieces on climate change to sing the praises of Wemba-Wemba/Gunditjmara artist Paola Balla. Danni Zuvela narrates a case of the South talking back to the colonising North, via politicised plants in the practice of Ngugi woman Libby Harward, and we print, with permission from her family, the words of the late Pitjantjatjara woman and celebrated artist Niningka Lewis, who spoke of her life and practice, from the heart of the continent.

As I said at the start, the impetus for this issue came out of the devastation of forest fires; it has been created in the midst of COVID-19. And, as we were editing these articles, we lost our beloved Kate Daw, head of VCA Art, to cancer. Kate’s office was next door to the Art + Australia team, and we will miss her cheeky smile, her sunny disposition and all the coffees and chats, more than words can say. Kate’s elegant cherry blossoms on a black ground wrap this issue like a hug, promising renewal in dark times. The end of Wright’s Carpentaria, which Saunders alludes to in her article, also signals the potential for renewal, vocalised by a ‘… mass choir of frogs—green, grey, speckled, striped, big and small, dozens of species …’[26] This too echoes Taussig’s characterisation of the yagé spirits sounding ‘like a duet back and forth between the wind coming off the river and the croaking of numberless frogs vibrating in millennial mud’, as well as the Corroboree Frog to which Peter Waples-Crowe pays homage in his artwork. In Wright’s novel, the frogs are ‘singing the country afresh’, which is the most urgent, yet, I hope, joyful multispecies task ahead, for all of us.

 

[1] Donna Haraway uses the term ‘ongoingness’ throughout Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2016; Gerald Vizenor popularised the term ‘Survivance’ in Native American Studies, and edited the collection Survivance: Narratives of Native Presence, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 2008.

[2] Alice Kolasa, ‘Yiookgen Dhan Liwik-al Intak-kongi Nganyinu Ngargunin Twarn / Dreams of our Ancestors Hopes for our Future’ (parliamentary speech), 22 June 2017, Wurundjeri, wurundjeri.com.au/wp-content/uploads/pdf/Wurundjeri_parliamentary_speech_download_a.pdf. Interestingly, in an address to the Victorian Parliament in 2000, Boon Wurrung N’arweet Carolyn Briggs AM noted that the Parliament building is located on the very site the Kulin Nations used as a meeting ground to resolve differences for thousands of years. Victoria, Legislative Assembly, 31 May 2000, extract from Book 9, Aboriginal Reconciliation, p. 1994.

[3] Cristy Clark, Nia Emmanouil, John Page and Alessandro Pelizzon, ‘Can You Hear the Rivers Sing? Legal Personhood, Ontology, and the Nitty-Gritty of Governance’, Ecology Law Quarterly, vol. 45, 2019, p. 827. The Act, they say, ‘stops short of recognizing the river as a legal subject, and as such, does not afford the river the rights, power, duties, and liabilities of a legal person’, p. 824.

[4] Elizabeth Povinelli, Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism, Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2016, p. 13 (my italics).

[5] Marisol de la Cadena, ‘Runa: Human but Not Only’, HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, vol. 4, no. 2, 2014, p. 253.

[6] Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2010, p. 99.

[7] Karen Barad, ‘Nature’s Queer Performativity’, Kvinder, Køn og forskning / Women, Gender and Research, nos 1–2, 2012, p. 27.

[8] Lidia Thorpe, ‘Destroying Sacred Trees Contradicts Treaty Hopes’, The Saturday Paper, 17–23 August 2019, p. 3. A sacred Directions Tree was cut down on October 26, and 50 protesters were arrested. At the time of printing, the planned highway extension has been temporarily halted.

[9] Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa/ National Library of New Zealand, ‘Change-maker—the Whanganui River’, natlib.govt.nz/he-tohu/learning/social-inquiry-resources/cultural-interaction/cultural-interaction-supporting-activities-and-resources/change-maker-whanganui-river; accessed 14 September 2020.

[10] Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa/ National Library of New Zealand, ‘Change-maker—the Whanganui River’, natlib.govt.nz/he-tohu/learning/social-inquiry-resources/cultural-interaction/cultural-interaction-supporting-activities-and-resources/change-maker-whanganui-river; accessed 14 September 2020.

[11] Lou Bennett, notes to her composition Jaara Nyilamum, 2019, with the Australian String Quartet for their Australian Anthology series, asq.com.au/asq-australian-anthology/dr-lou-bennett-am-jaara-nyilamum; accessed 14 September 2020.

[12] Alexis Wright, The Swan Book, Giramondo, Artamon, NSW, 2013, p. 79.

[13] Robbie Thorpe, ‘Genocide=ecocide’, Decolonizing Activism, Deactivating Colonialism: Maysar Forum Discussion, 31 August 2010, abbreviated presentation online at Decolonizing Solidarity, 14 September 2015, decolonizingsolidarity.org/2015/09/14/genocide-ecocide-robbie-thorpe.

[14] N’arweet Carolyn Briggs AM, Zoom meeting with the author, 3 July 2020.

[15] Briggs, Zoom meeting.

[16] CFP stands for ‘call for papers’, not ‘call for poetry’.

[17] Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, p. 12.

[18] Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, Milkweed Editions, Minnesota, 2013, p. 55.

[19] Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, p. 57.

[20] This is taken further by Más allá del fin 3.5 by Sonja Carmichael and Sarita Gálvez in an article called ‘Knotting Together South-South Connections’. I would also like to acknowledge the South Project, brainchild of Kevin Murray, for much valuable work in networking artists and thinkers in the Southern Hemisphere in the early to mid-2000s.

[21] See, for example, Brazilian anthropologist Els Lagrou’s article ‘Nisun: Revenge of the Bat People’, Jornalistas Livres, 14 April 2020, jornalistaslivres.org/nisun-a-vinganca-do-povo-morcego-e-o-que-ele-pode-nos-ensinar-sobre-o-novo-coronavirus; accessed 14 September 2020.

[22] Vandana Shiva, Monocultures of the Mind: Perspectives on Biodiversity and Biotechnology, Zed Books, London; Third World Network, Penang, 1993.

[23] Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, p. 139.

[24] Vijay Prashad, Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting: Afro-Asian Connections and the Myth of Cultural Purity, Beacon Press, Boston, 2002.

[25] Michael Taussig, ‘The Corn Wolf: Writing Apotropaic Texts’, in Taussig, The Corn Wolf, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2015.

[26] Alexis Wright, Carpentaria, Giramondo, Artamon, NSW, 2006, p. 519.

 

 

Title image: 

Peter Madden
Coming from all the places..., 2014 (detail)
Inkjet on perspex and wood
Private collection. Courtesy of the artist and Ivan Anthony, Auckland

Tessa Laird is a writer, artist, and Lecturer in Critical and Theoretical Studies at VCA School of Art. In the late 1990s she co-founded and edited two important New Zealand art magazines: Monica Reviews Art and LOG Illustrated. Since then she has been a critic for various publications including the New Zealand Listener, Art New Zealand, and Art and Australia, and has written countless catalogue essays and chapters in artists’ monographs. Her speculative enquiry into colour A Rainbow Reader was published by Clouds in 2013, and her book Bat, as part of Reaktion’s celebrated Animal series, was released in 2018. Tessa WAS editor of Art + Australia Online from 2016 - 2019, and guest edited Art + Australia. 2021. Issue Eight (57.1): Multinaturalism.