Rights of Nature: Decolonising Indigenous Epistemologies

Recent decades have seen the emergence of movements amongst indigenous scholars to decolonize their knowledge systems. To what extent has environmental activism acknowledged this scholarship? Do Eurocentric concerns draw on this knowledge whilst continuing to marginalise indigenous realities? Decolonizing indigenous epistemologies may include raiding institutional archives to reclaim their patrimony, but it also asks: What strategies are available for deconstructing the state’s institutionalised narratives of indigenous identities and knowledge? Where oral transmission is the indigenous form of archival knowledge, what legitimacy is given the witness testimony? And, most importantly, when indigenous research methodologies are consistent with indigenous worldviews and designed to benefit peoples’ lives, do ‘rights of nature’ discourses help or hinder this aim?

Eduardo Abaroa is an artist whose recent work investigates the practices of archaeology and anthropology in relation to pre-Hispanic cultures in Mexico. Proyecto de demolición del Museo de Antropología (Project for the demolition of the Museum of Anthropology) meditates on Mexico’s State-supported ethnographic fascination with its indigenous peoples, frequently taken as pre-colonial cultures of the past—as is exemplified in the famous Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City—a perspective that ignores their disenfranchisement and oppression in the present at the hands of the Mexican State. When indigeneity becomes the involuntary object of anthropological museumification, then Abaroa’s filmic proposal is to envisage the dismantling of the very infrastructure of anthropocentrism and the symbolic centre of the neo-colonial relation to the country’s native peoples.

Mabe Bethônico’s artistic practice involves long-term research projects resulting in video and sound pieces, installations, lectures, publications and websites, using documentary sources, extensive interviews, and field recordings. She frequently works in dialogue with archives and other institutions, tests the limits between documentation and construction, and inquires into how information can be assembled and continuously reworked, questioning truth as much as redressing social and political modes of invisibility. Mineral Invisibility, her work for the Rights of Nature exhibition, takes historical images of mining to refer to this industry in Minas Gerais, southeast Brazil, where Bethônico has conducted research since 2008. She investigates the political dimensions of memory and the public archive in relation to the fast-growing extraction industry that consumes landscapes but operates largely in shadowy darkness. Bethônico’s counter-archive inspires public debate about the environmental and social costs of this mining operation, asking how to negotiate between workers’ rights, the needs of economic livelihood, and the integrity of the natural environment?

Jean Fisher is a UK-based art critic. Her research explores the intertwined legacies of colonialism and the emergent conflicts of globalization in Ireland, Native America, the Black Atlantic and more recently Palestine. In the 1980s in New York she contributed regularly to Artforum International. At that time she curated exhibitions of contemporary Native American art with the artist Jimmie Durham. In New York she taught in the School of Visual Arts, State University of New York at Old Westbury and the Whitney Independent Study Program. From 1992 to 1999 Fisher was editor of the international quarterly Third Text. Her publications include the anthologies Global Visions: Towards a New Internationalism in the Visual Arts (1994), Reverberations: Tactics of Resistance, Forms of Agency (2000), Vampire in the Text, a collection of her writings published by InIVA in 2003, with a preface by Cuauhtémoc Medina and, with Gerardo Mosquera, Over Here: International Perspectives on Art and Culture (2004).

Trained as an industrial engineer, Fernando Palma Rodríguez infuses his artistic projects with recycled materials that animate his zoomorphic forms with robotic movements. Bringing together outsider science and improvised electronic programming with the cosmological metaphysics and environmental activism drawn from his indigenous Nahuatl culture—he is a founding member of Calpulli Tecalco, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the restoration of the natural environment, history, and culture of the original peoples of the region—Palma’s objects feed on electricity as an animistic force, reviving animal life otherwise threatened with disappearance. His work often focuses on the ecological situation in the district of Milpa Alta, located at the southern edge of Mexico City, threatened with informal urbanization and deforestation, where the viewing of nonhuman personhood, the rights of nature, and the becoming-animal of the machine, resonate with traditional knowledge systems once commonly shared across the continent.