Feature - Issue #15
How design can be used to reimagine our approach to healing through the use of plant-based materials.
In 2019, Swiss-born artist Uriel Orlow embarked on a collaboration with Lumartemisia, the women’s cooperative in Lumata, Democratic Republic of Congo. Together, they established a medicinal herb garden dedicated to cultivating Artemisia afra, a plant commonly known as African wormwood and traditionally used in local communities against malaria. The installation, titled Learning from Artemisia, was commissioned for that year’s Lubumbashi Biennale and aimed to shed light on the tragic irony surrounding the ongoing malaria crisis and the lack of urgency around developing new treatments based on available traditional remedies. Instead, global efforts to control malaria continue to be primarily focused on synthetic insecticides.
While the numbers clearly show current treatment strategy has helped significantly decrease malaria cases across the globe, the success comes at a cost. Communities in malaria-affected regions, especially in the global south, are often exposed to an efficient yet startling cocktail of preventive chemotherapy for the population coupled with insecticide-infused bed nets and direct use of dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, commonly known as DDT, for the crops. Originally synthesised in 1874 by Othmar Zeidler, an Austrian graduate student, DDT gained recognition for its insecticidal properties during World War II and was extensively tested by the United States in various locations from Naples to the Pacific. Once the war was over, its affordability, persistence, and effectiveness led to its widespread use in American agriculture from the 1950s, eventually finding its way into households as a multipurpose cleaning product.
Then, the detrimental impact of DDT on the environment and human health was exposed in the American marine biologist and writer Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking book, Silent Spring. As a result, the substance was prohibited in the US in the 1970s, marking a significant milestone in environmental history. In 2001, its global use was banned under the Stockholm Convention, except for vector control against diseases like malaria.
Today, the World Health Organisation (WHO) continues to endorse the use of DDT in countries with high malaria rates, arguing that the benefits associated with its efficacy outweigh the risks it poses both to the environment and the population. However, concerns persist against its widespread usage. Nearly a century since its introduction, DDT’s chemical residue remains in the environment, mosquitoes have developed resistance to it, and ecosystems have suffered disruption, impacting beneficial species alongside disease vectors such as mosquitos and fleas. Additionally, emerging evidence highlights the long-term health effects of DDT, such as the increased risk of breast cancer in granddaughters of women exposed to the pesticide. Eyebrows are therefore raised as to what this has in common with actual healing. Is there really no alternative at hand?
Dutch designer Nienke Hoogvliet’s research revealed that many textiles contain harmful chemicals that can cause a variety of disorders and diseases. Her line of research led her to ask the questions: Can textiles also release substances that can be beneficial to our health and skin? Would herbs have beneficial effects when used as textile dye? PhotoGRAPH COURTESY STUDIO NIENKE.
Healing By Design