ART - ISSUE #9
An exhibition at London’s Wellcome Collection explores the relationship between human bodies, plants, and planetary health.
“Illustrations of plants in historical botanical collections are beautiful; they seem very gentle, very innocent. But the stories behind them can be very violent,” says Bárbara Rodríguez Muñoz, curator of Rooted Beings, which opens at Wellcome Collection in March 2022 in London, UK. The exhibition reimagines our relationship with plants and fungi, exploring what we can learn from plant behaviour and how we can rethink the significance of plants beyond simply resources for human consumption. The curatorial team have brought together works from the Wellcome Collection’s archive of botanical illustrations with artists’ commissions to form an open-ended narrative about vegetal life in the context of the climate crisis, from the perspective of environmental and social justice.
Rooted Beings maps the emergence of agriculture around 13,000 years ago (a tiny blip in geological time) as a moment that radically changed human-plant relationships. This arguably marks the origins of western culture’s extractive approach to plants. One of the oldest objects in the exhibition is a papyrus manuscript from 400AD, which is “one of the earliest existing fragments of an illustrated herbal for medicinal purposes. It’s an ancient example of our instrumental relationship with plant life.” However, Rodríguez Muñoz also draws attention to new theories around the introduction of agriculture, through which human beings began to domesticate plants: “Plants also domesticated us. We had a more nomadic life, but the introduction of agriculture meant we had to stay in a single place. So we domesticated each other.”
Illustrations of the Nueva Quinologia of Pavon by John Eliot Howard, 1807-1883. (Illustration Courtesy of Wellcome Collection).
Johnson Papyrus, Unknown maker. Papyrus fragment, double-sided, ca. 400 AD. (Photograph Courtesy of Wellcome Collection).
Approaches that recognise the agency of vegetal life can be found throughout the exhibition, which includes a commission from Joseca, a Yanomami artist from the Amazon rainforest. Rodríguez Muñoz explains that the Yanomami people have a “deep relationship with the forest and with the trees, which they see as entities that have sensitivity”. Whereas the botanical illustrations found in the Wellcome Collection generally represent individual plants or even fragments of plants on blank backgrounds, Joseca “draws plants as part of an ecosystem; in his drawings, you always see the plant with the animals, birds, and humans that feed on it and live alongside it”.
These ecosystems are mutually nourishing systems of interdependence; we forget all too easily that we rely on plants for our sustenance and wellbeing. The exhibition centres on the relationship between human bodies, plants, and planetary health, which Rodríguez Muñoz frames as “fragile and vital”. She explains that the words “human” and “humus” share linguistic roots: “We are of the soil, rooted beings. But many of us have cut these ties to land and nature, and that results in us treating plants and other nonhuman species as resources, endangering this very delicate balance between humans and plants.
“We were also inspired by the philosopher Emanuele Coccia, who says that every act of breathing is an act of deep communion with plants. It’s a beautiful way of thinking about the more scientific, physical side of our relationship: they produce the oxygen we breathe, and they take in the carbon dioxide we release.”
Joseca (Yanomami), Maima si, 2004-2019 drawing, pencil and felt-tip pen on paper. (Artworks courtesy Collection Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris. ©Joseca).
Joseca (Yanomami), Untitled, 2004-2019 drawing, pencil and felt-tip pen on paper.
The exhibition encourages viewers to find new ways to commune with plants. For example, a commission from artist Eduardo Navarro provides viewers with a set of instructions showing them how to experience the exhibition as a plant. “Eduardo’s practice embodies this idea of being more meditative, more rooted, attentive, and sensitive,” says Rodríguez Muñoz. “He thinks of his artworks as a sort of emotional technology to develop empathy for the nonhuman, and to develop new ways of using the imagination, new ways of being, and new possibilities.”
Navarro’s project is a collaboration with philosopher Michael Marder, whose body of work was a key reference point for the development of Rooted Beings. Rodríguez Muñoz draws attention to a quotation from Marder, who writes: “The plants’ rootedness in a place, their fidelity to the soil, is something we can only admire, especially because our condition is that of an increasing and merciless uprooting.” For many, however, recent lockdowns brought with them the novel experience of resting in a single place, suggesting a rediscovered affinity with the lives of plants. It was partly this seismic shift that led Rodríguez Muñoz to think of plants and humans as both “rooted and uprooted beings”, drawing together the present global situation and the wider context of the late capitalist era.
The Ground Opening: Mourning and Birth. Gözde İlkin. Stitching, paint on fabric dyed with plant extracts (Perganum harmala), 2020. (Photograph by Nazlı Erdemirel)
A sense of displacement can be found throughout the Wellcome Collection archives, which are primarily built off the back of European colonial expeditions from the 18th and 19th centuries. When specimens and illustrations of plants were brought back to herbariums, laboratories, and libraries, they were often re-named after the scientist or explorer who “discovered” them, erasing Indigenous histories and modes of knowing.
The cultivation of some of these plants was key to the expansion of empires, says Rodríguez Muñoz: “Plants and humans were being moved across the world to create monocultures, which were fuelled by slavery. Everything was being uprooted, ecosystems were being devastated - these stories are still ongoing.” She gives the example of quinine, which is extracted from the bark of the cinchona tree. She explains that the tree’s seeds were taken by various empires for the creation of monocultures in places like Indonesia, eroding the rainforest and enslaving people in the process. Its antimalarial properties made the cinchona plant an important tool for expanding empires, because it protected soldiers, administrators, and industrialists as they entered new geographies.
“This plant can tell you a story,” says Rodríguez Muñoz, “and like many objects in the Wellcome Collection, it’s a story of violence and it’s also a story of healing.” Although on the one hand the antimalarial drugs developed from cinchona have been vital in eradicating disease and improving quality of life for millions of people, they come from a context of extreme violence through colonial endeavours, which themselves inflicted terrible illness on Indigenous populations that lacked immunity to western diseases.
A Great Seaweed Day: Gut Weed (Ulva Intestinalis), Ingela Ihrman. Mixed media sculpture, 2019. (Artworks © Gözde Ilkin. Commissioned by the 13th Gwangju Biennale)
The Inner Ocean: The Passion Flower, Ingela Ihrman. Mixed media sculpture and performance: lacquered and painted textile and foam rubber, plastic, wadding, wood, tape, passion fruit soft drink and straws, 2017.
Many stories like this can be found in the work of Patricia Domínguez, which explores experimental research on ethnobotany (the study of how people from particular areas or cultures use indigenous plants), healing practices, and the commercialisation of wellbeing. Her commission, Matrix Vegetal, consists of a series of totemic sculptures, each featuring a vitrine containing objects from the archives at Wellcome Collection and Kew Gardens. The installation is the largest in the exhibition, innovatively combining an artist intervention with the institutional display of museum objects. Each sculpture focuses on a different plant, exploring bodies of research drawn together by a team of researchers from Wellcome and Kew, combining western scientific traditions and histories with Indigenous forms of knowledge. The back of each totem displays a watercolour painting made by Domínguez in response to the multipartite narratives surrounding each plant.
These plants include both medicinal and toxic plants originating from different ecosystems, such as cinchona, brugmansia (also known as angel’s trumpet, a highly poisonous and hallucinogenic flowering shrub), the plants used for ayahuasca, and mandrake. The mandrake display, Rodríguez Muñoz explains, tells a story of traditional wisdom in Europe, which is often forgotten: “This knowledge was held by women, who were using these root plants for healing - but they were then framed as witches and persecuted. We wanted to recognise this knowledge, which has been erased for the same reasons as Indigenous knowledge in Latin America has been erased, because of religion, patriarchy, and so on.”
Mandrake, Patricia Domínguez. Watercolour on paper, 2021.
Antiquities of Mexico (vol.2) - p.120, Lord Kingsborough. (Illustration Courtesy of Wellcome Collection).
By weaving objects from the archival collection closely together with the work of contemporary artists telling stories of violence and indigeneity, Rooted Beings seeks to collapse some of the taxonomies and binary systems used to categorise both people and plants. According to Rodríguez Muñoz: “The exhibition critiques the artificial separation between nature and culture, and how this results in acts of violence - environmental violence and racist violence against human and nonhuman lives.”
Rooted Beings attempts to “challenge the idea that we are independent entities, that our selves stop with our skin. The theme of ‘wilding’ helps us to talk about all the ecosystems that exist within our bodies and that we are part of outside our bodies. Everything is porous; these walls we have created aren’t really there.”
The exhibition helps visitors to reimagine themselves as interwoven with the lives of plants and to recognise the fragile but vital relationship between plants, humans, and planetary health. If we are better able to understand human-plant interconnections, we may be able to learn from plants’ capacity for living in communities and for being adaptive, attentive, and rooted.
“The way we live has led to the extinction of many species,” Rodríguez Muñoz concludes, “but we also have the capacity to nurture ecosystems. In the approach to this exhibition, we don’t run away from the violence or the crisis, but we try to move beyond them and think about our role as agents that nurture the ecosystems we inhabit.”
Rooted Beings is a collaboration between Wellcome Collection and La Casa Encendida, Madrid. You can find out more by visiting: wellcomecollection.org