What Matters is the Method

On Alexandra Gelis’s Estera: medicinal plants and resistance

Yaniya Lee


“Decolonisation,” writes Indigenous scholar Linda Smith, “must offer a language of possibility, a way out of colonialism.” [1] Colombian-Venezuelan media artist Alexandra Gelis explicitly articulates such a language of decolonization with her art-based research methodology. The interactive documentary Estera: medicinal plants and resistance [2] is her answer to the question: “How can you decolonize a catalogue of medicinal plants?” [3] Initiated by Gelis in the Afro-Colombian community of San Basilio, Estera unsettles scientific research procedures formulated during the later period of Europe’s colonial expansion. Gelis, a mixed-race Colombian from the nearby city of Cartagena, and PhD candidate in environmental Studies at York University, has built a strong relationship with the Afro-Colombians of San Basilio through a long-standing engagement in community initiatives. A couple of years ago, Gelis began investigating local plants. She approaches this research as a visual artist, moving beyond traditional practices of ethnobotany. Estera is an alternative catalogue made up of the memories and traditional plant knowledge of the San Basilio residents, a plant-based oral genealogy of the town.

Estera began for Gelis with an estera (or a mat, in English) which she hired a local weaver to make as a sculptural object. Rather than the usual palm leaf, she asked that he weave it out of medicinal plants used for reproductive health. Next, Gelis worked collaboratively with the community to assemble an alternative record of medicinal plant knowledge. With HD video, she recorded her walks with different townspeople to find specific plants and hear what they knew about them. These stories are embedded into the online interactive platform via a series of links. A very significant way Gelis reorients traditional research procedures is to change the destination of the collected information: the project’s intended audience is the people of San Basilio, the very same people who contribute to its creation.

Deep in the mountains of Colombia, near the Atlantic coast, San Basilio is the oldest freetown in the Americas. The Portuguese were the first to colonize this area of the continent. When the Indigenous populations proved difficult to enslave, they purchased West Africans and imported them as a workforce. The Palenquero language was developed in the early sixteenth century when runaway slaves established San Basilio. It’s a Spanish-Creole mix with grammatical and phonological links to Portuguese and West African Bantu. The shared language was formative to the community’s autonomy. Techniques of survival like singing, storytelling, and other oral rituals were developed and passed down from generation to generation. Language and oral traditions connect the people of San Basilio. Until recently, these oral traditions were fostered by San Basilio’s relative isolation.

The interactive documentary’s introduction, unlike the HD video vignettes that compose it, is shot entirely in Super8 film. Estera begins with Super8 footage of San Basilio alongside footage of master artisan Alejandro Herrera Reyes making the sculptural estera with his hands and feet. A soundtrack of low, undulating musical notes and raucous distant voices accompanies the film. The bright colors and grainy texture of the brown bodies in a lush jungle setting is evocative of an entire legacy of anthropological films. Here, introducing the Estera project, is the aesthetic gaze of the anthropologist, and a call back of the staid visual tropes of a scientific field of study typified by its associations with colonialism and imperialism.

Despite this uneasy parallel, Gelis’s research methods are nothing like those of traditional scientists. Working as an arts researcher within the academy allows her to apply alternative methodologies, and to formulate results in experimental forms. Early on in her art practice, Gelis used different functional, sculptural objects to stimulate contact between locals in a community, or between art audiences and her recorded impressions of a particular place (Raspao, 2011–12, Personidas 2013, Sewing in the Woods, 2013). Her projects regularly incorporate different forms of collaboration, with locals often participating in the creation of the work. More recently, Gelis has turned to plants and environmental history as points of entry into researching the biopolitical histories of different communities (Corredor, 2011–13, Weeds, 2014).

The focus on medicinal plants related to reproductive health for the sculptural estera captured during the documentary’s opening segment calls attention to San Basilio’s autonomy and resilience. This particular estera emphasizes an area of plant knowledge that symbolically counters the violent and decimating practices of enslavement. Working in bondage, ties of affection were precarious for enslaved Africans. Slave lineage and family structure was continually fractured and destroyed. This inability to make safe, durational affective ties robbed slaves of their autonomy and pushed many to run away. The runaways who founded San Basilio learned how certain plants and weeds in their surroundings could be used to bring about particular effects in their bodies. In this way they were able to eat, and heal themselves. This knowledge became essential to their survival. The medicinal plants of prenatal health, birth, and abortion are tied to healthy relationships and bodily autonomy. Their use has been invaluable to the continued self-care and emancipation of the people of San Basilio, then and now.

Research practices have a shadowy history when intervening in small communities, with a reputation for dispossessing people of their cultural self-determination. Linnaean taxonomy typified imperial methods of botanical research. It prescribed binomial nomenclature whereby plants were given Latin names considered more suitable than whatever they were already known as. In this way, through the tactic of nomenclature, a relation of power was enacted between research scientists and locals. Nomenclature “acknowledged the authority of imperial botanists and belittled local herbalists and herbal practitioners. Nomenclature, indeed, displaced traditional wisdom.” [4] The system of classification also entailed a complete simplification of botanical categories managing and collecting information from the colonies. In their essay “Linnaean Botany and Spanish Imperial Biopolitics,” Antonia Lafuente and Nuria Vaverde describe this scientific method of research: “Linnaeus’ system was very efficient, since among its merits was its ability to disregard local circumstances, without renouncing its claim to be describing a natural, or universal, order.” [5] With Linnaean taxonomy, everything that was local or specific was eradicated when recording information about a plant species. “Nature, in short, became a structure of data, and expeditions became tools of biopolitics, whose objective was not to appreciate local peculiarities but rather to process them into information, by whatever botanical system that was able to homogenize diversity.” [6] Some scientific research did not turn a blind eye to traditional plant knowledge. Frequently ethnobotanists mine knowledge from Indigenous communities and use the results for their own benefit, either to further their own careers or as profit engines for pharmaceutical corporations. In either case, the information extracted by researchers never returns; local participation ends once locals have shared their knowledge.

Estera’s methodology explicitly undoes the unequal power dynamic between researcher and researched by using collaborative research methods. Gelis asks everyone she talks to what the Palenquero name is for the plant they are talking about. She asks where a plant is found, how it’s kept, what it can be used for, and if the person has any special memory of it. [7] Estera embraces botanical knowledge considered irrelevant by researchers who stuck to the Linnaean system. Online, Estera presents local knowledge in a way that reflects the centrality of their oral practices. Furthermore, by choosing to have the community itself, the participants and collaborators in Estera, as the work’s intended audience, Gelis keeps the collected knowledge accessible.

In one vignette, Dionysia Perez Marquez talks about flor de la India, which she calls acacia de la India. It grows near where people live, in front of houses, on patios, and on paths. She is a beautiful old woman in a pink blouse and black eyeglasses, speaking in the carefree manner of a teenage girl. When fresh leaves from this plant are chewed, they relieve toothaches by causing numbness in the mouth. Perez Marquez pushes a leaf of the plant between mostly toothless gums. The video captures a small leafy sprig of the plant in her grayish bun. Sucking, she explains that wearing a twig of the plant on your hair will help you find love.

As arts-based research rather than science, Gelis’s results are not required to take any particular form. Estera as an interactive platform is nothing like a systematic, reductive, hermetic final analysis. The documentary is neither static nor linear. The project’s “Plants” menu page is a drawing of an entangled web of branches, leaves, and sections of braided hair. Embedded in the drawing are buttons for each of the plants featured in the documentary, which link to informative videos of locals describing the properties of each species. Knowledge is transmitted by the oral contributions of local collaborators, each individual’s experiences and memories left intact. By orchestrating and organizing the catalogue in these ways, Gelis participates in the community on its own terms. Rather than imposing an outside way of thinking when doing her research, she adopts and adapts her visual art practice and ethnobotanical interest to their way of life.

In the case of San Basilio and Estera, the oral traditions recorded weave a genealogy of the town that speak to its history; an image is created of the town’s cultural history using plants, from its establishment as a refuge for escaped slaves all the way through to the community’s continued survival in the present. Although home Internet access and computer use are by no means common, there are one hundred new iPads in San Basilio’s school for students to use. Estera will best fulfill its purpose in the future, when technology becomes commonplace. At that point, plant knowledge and oral traditions may be entirely a thing of the past, but this loss is something that Gelis is actively working against with her project. Gelis’s interactive documentary is important because it provides a model of how to do scientific research without violating the subject community. As Henk Borgdorff writes in his essay “The Production of Knowledge in Artistic Research,” “We can justifiably speak of artistic research…when that artistic practice is not only the result of the research, but also its methodological vehicle, when the research unfolds in and through the acts of creating and performing.” [8] Indeed with Estera Gelis’s arts research practice works with the community instead of against it. It’s a decolonial approach that demonstrates the ways research practices should change in order to delink science from a violent history tied to imperialism. Ultimately, for those of us who don’t live in San Basilio, what is most significant about the project is its methodology.


Notes

[1] Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (London: Zed Books, 2012), 204.

[2] Alexandra Gelis, Estera: medicinal plants and resistance (2015).

[3] Alexandra Gelis, personal research notes, August 2015.

[4] Antonio Lafuente and Nuria Valverde, “Linnaean Botany and Spanish Imperial Biopolitics,” in Colonial Botany: Science, Commerce, and Politics in the Early Modern World, Londa Schiebinger and Claudia Swan, eds. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 141.

[5] Ibid., 137.

[6] Ibid., 138–9.

[7] Alexandra Gelis, personal research notes, August 2015.

[8] Henk Borgdorff, “The Production of Knowledge in Artistic Research,” The Routledge Companion to Research in the Arts, ed. Michael Biggs (London: Routledge, 2010), 46.

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Yaniya Lee is a writer and interviewer of diasporic African ancestry born on traditional Mohawk territory. Her 2013 chapbook In Different Situations Different Behaviour Will Produce Different Results brings together the work and ideas of artists Chris Kraus and Jacob Wren. During a residency at L'APPAT in Brussels, Belgium last summer, she wrote and printed her most recent chapbook, Troubled. This set of auto-fiction interviews examines that ways class comes to shape personal ethics. She has contributed to C Magazine, Magenta, and Lemon Hound, and she regularly hosts the Art Talks MTL podcast, a series of long-form interviews with art workers in Montreal. In early 2016, as a participant in VTAPE's Curatorial Incubator, she will curate a program that reconsiders the concept of work from an afro-pessimist perspective. Yaniya is currently pursuing an MA in Gender Studies at Queen's University.