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The Palm Tree Diaspora

Words by Márcio Cruz

How an encounter with tropical palms in the temperate climate of Brest, France, made writer Márcio Cruz reflect on the journeys of plants and his ancestors.

In December 2020, at the end of the strict second Covid-19 lockdown in France, my partner and I went to Brest, located in the Finistére region, for some fresh Atlantic air. The area is known for its nuclear-armed naval base and royal ties to imperial France. More recently, Brest - alongside the cities of Nantes, Bordeaux, La Rochelle and Saint-Mallo - has been slowly addressing its ties to the transatlantic slave trade. Thousands of ships built in Brittany left their home ports heading towards the coasts of Africa and the Americas. Battle and slave ships would not exclusively carry guns and enslaved people. Very often, naval trips would transport naturalists.

The botanical garden Le Jardin des Explorateurs (The Garden of the Explorers) is home to many species collected by naturalists Jacques La Billardiére, Louis-Antoine de Bougainville and Philibert Commerson, as well as sailors on missionary trips to South America, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Japan. Along the stone wall on the eastern edge of the garden, six palm trees defiantly watch the Chatêau de Brest (Brest Castle) from a distance.

Negative Palms and Fortune Coconuts, by Gabriel Moraes Aquino, exhibited in 2022 at La Villette’s 100% Festival in Paris, France.

The transport of palm trees has only increased in the last decade. As global heating makes European climates more hospitable to these species, we see more and more of these plants being captured, transported and commercialised. The Swedish-Dutch furniture chain Ikea, for example, offers many different types of coco palms and tropical plants (including the Amazonian Moriche palm, also known as the tree of life).

The works of two artists, one Latin American and one Caribbean, offer the possibility of parallels between the displacement of humans and palm trees. Gabriel Moraes Aquino, a Brazilian artist working in France, articulates the exoticism and alienation of palm trees. In the installation formed by the artworks Negative Palms (2021-2022) and Fortune Coconut (2021), Aquino invites the audience to enter a phantom tropical garden. Inside, double-sided photo negatives are framed by 2-metre-high wooden stands. LCD monitors on the side of each stand display images of the many different lives of palm trees in landscape design.

As Aquino reduces the often-colourful photographic representation of palm trees, with exuberant leaves and tones of green, to its negative form, our visual perception is tricked. Instead of joyful emotions commonly associated with the tropical paradise, the lack of colours and the dark brown negative transparency leads to eco-anxiety and an eerie sentiment of an imminent environmental collapse. In the centre of the installation lies Fortune Coconut - 64 cotton-stuffed coconuts guarded by an barbante yarn cage. Each coconut contains a message. One asks: “Can the palm trees save the world?”

Palmier (2020) by Cédrine Scheidig.

French-Guianese artist Cédrine Scheidig uses photography to reflect on the double consciousness of young Caribbean and Afro-diasporic subjects in Europe. Palmier (2020), from the A Life In-Between series, is an image of a palm tree shaved into a Black person's hair. The image makes me wonder about a call for a return to the tropical Caribbean, while it stresses the joy and beauty of Black young life in the African diaspora. The creative energy of Palmier points at the future without losing sight of the Black ancestral ties with nature.

Another example is the dendezeiro palm tree. Originally from the west African coast and brought to Brazil by Portuguese settlers, this very special palm tree became a symbol of Bahia’s culture. From the palm trees coconuts, Afro-Brazilian communities extracts oil to make a red palm oil known as azeite de dendê, a key ingredient in traditional Bahian cuisine and a sacred offer to orishas (deities) during the rituals of the Candomblé religion.

These different ways of building connections between Blackness and the environment might inspire a more balanced relationship between humans, plants and animals. With the impact of the climate crisis intensifying, the monoculture of palm trees in formerly temperate and cold climates might not be a solution, but listening to these beautiful tree's silent frequencies will help us to connect with more equitable production, spiritual and healing practices. Could the tree of life help to repair it?

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