In the beginning there was the Skyworld.
She fell like a maple seed, pirouetting on an autumn breeze. A column of light streamed from a hole in the Skyworld, marking her path where only darkness had been before. It took her a long time to fall. In fear, or maybe hope, she clutched a bundle tightly in her hand.
Hurtling downwards, she saw only dark water below. But in that emptiness there were many eyes gazing up at the sudden shaft of light. They saw there a small object, a mere dust mote in the beam. As it grew closer, they could see that it was a woman, arms outstretched, long black hair billowing behind as she spiraled toward them. [...]
Like any good guest, Skywoman had not come empty-handed. [...] When she toppled from the hole in the Skyworld she had reached out to grab onto the Tree of Life that grew there. In her grasp were branches – fruits and seeds of all kinds of plants. These she scattered onto the new ground and carefully tended each one until the world turned from brown to green. Sunlight streamed through the hole from the Skyworld, allowing the seeds to flourish. Wild grasses, flowers, trees, and medicines spread everywhere.
In the beginning of her book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (Milkweed Editions, 2013) Robin Wall Kimmerer recalls the story of the Skywoman, shared by the original peoples throughout the Great Lakes. In the legend, the Skywoman is being carried down by a goose and lands on the back of a turtle. Where she lands is only darkness, water and water animals. A muskrat gives its life in order to bring her a small handful of mud which she spreads across the shell of the turtle. Moved by the generosity of the animals, she begins to dance her gratitude and through that the land begins to grow. Then she spreads the seeds that she brought with her so that the animals have plenty to eat. As her fall creates a beam of light from the Skyworld, the plants can grow.
The story of the Skywoman is a story of reciprocity – beneficial relations between different species. The Skywoman is not Eve, banished from the garden for tasting a fruit and forced to subdue the natural world in order to survive. She is an ancestral gardener, an immigrant, a welcomed guest that wants to give back. The story is a creation myth that carries an ethical message. What is also intriguing is that the main protagonist is female. It is SHE who has agency in the process of creation, SHE who is able to honour properly the gifts of animals, SHE who creates the land out of a piece of mud. From a contemporary perspective, there is a feminist undertone to the whole myth and this is also what makes it suitable as an introduction to the exhibition of Ines Doujak at the CCA Temporary Gallery in Cologne.
The main inspiration for the series of artworks presented in the show were namely women land defenders from all over the world – activists who work to protect ecosystems and the human right to a safe and healthy environment. They are the ones facing the acceleration of the land grab with all its horrific effects: the disruption of working economies, monoculture farming, the destruction of the soil and diversity, and climate change. Many of these defenders, who have a sense of responsibility for a common future, are members of Indigenous communities in the Global South trying to protect their ancestral lands. Many are of older age, rather than younger people with “lives ahead of them”. The artist writes: “Women provide most of the labour on the land in many parts of the world and are responsible for family food security. Despite this they face systemic discrimination in terms of their access to, ownership of and control of land, and the income that arises from its productive use. A lot of them are Indigenous who live on 25% of the planet’s land, which is home to 80% of its diverse array of plant and animal life. Not obsessed with capital accumulation, they cause a minute amount of the earth-killing greenhouse gases but in return are categorized as ‘backward’ and thus not entitled to rights. Their land is constantly lost to soya farming and the cows that make beef for the export business. Women, especially Indigenous women, are particularly vulnerable to environmental-related violence, which largely goes unnoticed. Many women activists were murdered for defending community land and environmental rights and an even larger number face threats, intimidation, rape, torture and/or imprisonment. The most responsible for this systemic violence are politicians, military or security personnel. Many environmental defenders are increasingly branded as ‘terrorists’ for the simple act of peacefully defending their lands and territory. With the global turn toward authoritarianism, women are at the wrong end of the power spectrum.”
What is important to mention is that ‘women’ are defined here as a political category including “all those who suffer under the material conditions that have historically been assigned to women, as trans and nonbinary people, intersex and agender, and queer people” (Ines Doujak). Máxima Acuña de Chaupe (b. 1970) in Peru, Eva Bande (b. 1978) in Indonesia, Bai Bibyaon Ligkayan Bigkay (b. 1928) in the Pantaron Mountain Range, Joye Braun (1969–2022) in North Dakota, Berta Cáceres (1973–2016) in Honduras, Maria Chaverra (b. 1950) in Colombia, Kateryna Handziuk (1985–2018) in Ukraine, Sônía Guajajara (b. 1974) in Brazil, Francia Márquez (b. 1981) in Colombia, Wangari Muta Maathai (1940–2011) in Kenya, Vanessa Nakate (b. 1996) in Congo, and many others – the courage of these women land defenders, working in extremely difficult conditions, gives us hope and counters the dystopian worldview constantly imposed on us. It shows how to abandon fear and develop agency in helpless times in order to transform the future.
Contrary to what you might expect, the exhibition does not refer to the activist struggles in a direct, documentary way. It operates on another level, by returning to the sphere of the symbolic. The political inspiration translates here into a captivating, sensual environment drawing from different aesthetic and cultural traditions.
You enter the exhibition space through a projection of a movie with a burning fist and a woman, already indicating the potentially revolutionary spirit of what is inside.
In the first space, sculptures of two hippopotamuses await you, inspired by a 4,000-year-old Egyptian burial object – a blue hippo – whose surface decoration with lotus flowers and buds refers to marshes, the animals’ natural habitat. Artefacts like these were meant to supply the deceased with regenerative power to guarantee rebirth. Female hippos fiercely protect their young, thus Taweret, a goddess who protects mothers and children, was depicted as part hippo. In the enlarged replicas, Doujak added modified representations of abortifacient herbs – another way for mothers to protect themselves – and war machinery, reflecting the military violence used against women, who still to this day are raped during military conflicts and whose children are kidnapped (as experienced recently in Ukraine). The hippos are accompanied by a fountain, another symbol of restorative powers, this time featuring figures of women embracing, kissing and having sex with each other. A communal body is being formed and pleasure plays an important role in it. From the ring of the fountain, objects resembling seeds reach out into the exhibition space, inviting the audience to sit around and chat with one another. Snakes on the walls – animals known for shedding their skin – bring again the theme of renewal and, as a symbol of Greek god Asclepius, healing.
From this mystical space evoking notions of change and regeneration, we move along a strange black garden filled with different seeds and substances, for example clay. The seed bank containing hundreds of species was inherited by Ines Doujak from her friend Leo who was a passionate gardener. The collection was immense but also not fully ordered, the labelling was idiosyncratic and the seeds, not always properly stored, were under a constant threat from insects and animals. Leo hoped to do something useful with his accumulation and felt it had a subversive potential. The artist, originally overwhelmed with the gift and care that it requires, decided to follow his intuition and integrate the seeds into a new artwork of hers. The messiness of the collection made her reflect on the politics of naming plants and how naming practices devised in the eighteenth century consolidated not only Western hegemony but also a particular historiography, namely, a history celebrating the deeds of great European men. As Londa Schiebinger writes in the text excerpt reprinted in this booklet: “Linnaeus’ naming system retold the story of elite European botany – to the exclusion of other histories.” The seed installation of Ines Doujak is accompanied by an artistic proposal that responds to this problem: to rename the plants with names of rebellious women from all over the world. The visitors are encouraged to explore the seeds collection by using the QR codes on the jars with seeds that lead to their biographies. In this way each seed becomes a potential revolutionary inspiration. Additionally, the artwork evokes the empowering practices of informal seed saving and sharing, against turning the seeds into marketable products in the capitalist economy.
Indigenous names of plants very often contained information concerning how they can be used, for example, in medicine. Through the renaming of plants in the eighteenth century, a great deal of this knowledge was lost. New names separated plants from their original context and meaning. This practice of examining through isolating various elements from each other (an ‘analysis’, in the original meaning of the term), which often results or assumes the death of the examined subject, is characteristic for modern scientific method. The artworks in the middle room of the exhibition use elements of anatomical, disease and plant atlases as well as educational boards from the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century, a time in which this kind of publication proliferated thanks to better scientific and printing methods. Typically they present one specific element of the body, a body itself or a plant isolated from its environment – abstracted and put to an external gaze. In her collages Ines Doujak brings the different bodies back together and forms new ones. The inside of the bodies is not strictly separated from the outside. Through the exposed vulnerability of humans, animals and plants, whose skin often shows symptoms of a disease, an unexpected harmony emerges – a connection between all beings. At the same time the surprising constellations question the practices of various types of classifications: scientific, gender, racial etc. Ancient concepts of healing involve the idea of putting various bodily liquids into a harmonious balance. With her collages Ines Doujak repairs what has been broken, torn apart and subjected to a disinterested gaze by modern regimes of thinking and doing.
In the last space in the exhibition, the topics of healing and hope continue, this time in the form of an invitation to more communal forms of action. The room contains a set of objects to be used during an artistic event in public space at the end of October this year, the goal of which is to express solidarity with women land defenders from all over the world. In the weeks after the exhibition opening, the space will host a series of meetings and workshops leading to this joint action. Flags, costumes, a cart, a song, benches on which to sit and talk – all of them fulfil a specific function in the process of preparing and conducting the event. Through them a communal body will be formed to counter the politics of indifference and despair and regain agency in seemingly hopeless times. Activist Jakeline Romero Epiayú, artist Camilo Pachón and curator Luiza Proença will contribute to the procession. The event is an act of internationalist solidarity based on the recognition that protecting the environment is inseparably related to political struggles against (post)colonial domination, structural racism, and misogynistic practices.Windows in red, yellow and blue filter the light and invoke a notion of potentiality again, as by mixing these three, many different colours can be achieved. A figure of a screaming woman on a goat expresses anger and readiness to take power. Is this a land activist or perhaps an emanation of the Skywoman herself that has descended into the space of the CCA Temporary Gallery to support the cause? In either case, a formidable spirit is invoked here, and you are invited to support it!
In this booklet we share with you a beautiful poem by Lynne Thompson about poet’s memories related to different generations of women in her family. It is followed by an excerpt from an outstanding book by Malcolm Ferdinand in which protecting the environment is inseparably related to political struggles against (post)colonial domination, structural racism, and misogynistic practices. Londa Schiebinger shows how different naming practices were influenced by specific ideologies and political views. A PDF of the booklet is available HERE.
The exhibition is curated by Mateusz Okoński and Aneta Rostkowska.