ESCALA and The Environment

In her work, Dr Lisa Blackmore, a Senior Lecturer for the School of Philosophy and Art History, has identified environmental challenges as an urgent issue. Latin America, with a significant indigenous population, vast biodiversity, and colonial history that continues to mark the present, is a fascinating locus from which to examine the climate crisis.

It is for this reason that the Essex Collection of Art from Latin America’s Curators, in collaboration with the School of Philosophy and Art History, decided to set the collection’s research theme as ‘the environment.’ ESCALA collects artworks through a postgraduate MA module called ‘Collecting Art from Latin America.’ Each year, a research theme is set and students are invited to propose artworks for acquisition based on this theme. Below, we will showcase artworks pertaining to the environment that are now in our collection thanks to the work of our amazing students.

Cynthia Soto, Botanical, 2009

Botánico (2009) is a photographic piece depicting a portion of the Zurich University Botanical Garden, a large institution consisting of over eight thousand species of plants. Photography functions as both the medium and the subject of this work – by capturing an image of a botanical garden, Soto references the West’s tendency to capture, classify and exhibit. The artist complicates this Western tradition through the photograph’s densely packed composition – it is neither landscape nor a still life – hinting that the non-human world is not as easily separated, categorised and classifiable as we may like to think. 

Alberto Baraya, Machu Picchu Expedition: Green Parasitic Orchid, 2013

Baraya’s piece references the colonial expeditions of the eighteenth century financed by the Spanish crown, when botanists, zoologists and scientists travelled to the Americas to chart its territory. It mimics the studies made by the botanists which is supposedly characterised by disinterest and objective observation.

The piece consists of a fake flower Baraya found on a trip to Machu Picchu. To its sides are drawings with calculations – parodying scientific study – as well as photographs that mimic the practices of phrenology a pseudoscience grounded in racist thought. Through an absurdist pseudo-experiment, the piece serves to question the objectivity of science. 

María Elvira Escallón, Untitled (from the New Flora series), 2003

Escallón photographs trees that have been carved with motifs from traditional and colonial furniture. Over time, these trees will grow and their trunks will change with the influence of birds and insects. The artist depicts a space where the ‘wild’ and the managed come together over time – where nature and culture are inextricably bound.

The artist raises questions about conservation and the boundaries between nature and culture. Many communities living in areas considered to be ‘wild’ actually exert careful, but deliberate influence over the territory, managing its ecosystems whilst listening closely to the feedback provided by the land. This symbiosis is not recognised in many of the West’s conservation efforts – particularly in ‘protected areas’ from which people are often excluded.  

This blog post was written by Diego Chocano, Assistant Curator (ESCALA and University Arts Collection)

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