Every weed is a rebeld being
2 Jun 2022, 2:24 pm
A critical review of the naming and classification of vegetal specimens, highlighting patriarchal, racial and religious prejudices. This is the premisse of Botannica Tirannica, exhibition conceived by the artist, researcher and FAU–USP professor, Giselle Beiguelman (São Paulo, 1962) specially for the Museu Judaico [Jewish Museum], curated by Ilana Feldman.
There, Giselle creates and installs a garden, presenting plants with offensive names to jews, black people, gypsies, women. Her lexicon archeology refers to myths and heritages that many times pass unnoticed in everyday use. “How many feminists have a Swiss cheese plant [in Portuguese, ‘costela-de-adão’, literally ‘Adam’s rib’] next to their couch without realizing the degree of misogyny implicated, assuming this name as ‘natural’?” asks us the artist.
Requested by SP–Arte, Giselle Beiguelman answers to five questions on the exhibition. While deconstructing perverse nomenclatures, her project opens us the always living possibility of renaming and, largely, reinventing – plants, the world, relations.
“Naming is declaring ownership, and to the native peoples the material and symbolic owning of nature is denied”
Gabriela Longman: How do botanics and vegetal taxonomy inherited from the XIX century dialogue with artificial intelligence in the making of Botannica Tirannica?
Giselle Beiguelman: In the state-of-the-art knowledge, from the editing of genetic code to artificial intelligence, we see a consolidation of eugenics key-word: standardization. In the process of generative images, made with AI, new data is created from other data, identifying and combining internal patterns and despising the dissonances.
This procedure is astoundingly similar to that which Francis Galton, eugenics father, utilized in his studies in the XIX century. The basis of his study methodology was a photographic method that he developed himself: the composite portrait. In this process, Galton superimposes many photographies and erased its differences, in order to identify the generic thief, or the generic jew. The composite portrait, as Galton has written, doesn’t “represent any man in particular, but portraits an imaginary figure that possesses the medium characteristics of any group of men”. This is similar to what a Neural Network does to create an image such as a deepfake.
GL: What does the naming of plants reveals us about the colonial imaginary, full of prejudice and how does this nomenclature subscribes in the long term?
GB: In the midst of colonization, botanics institutionalizes as a technology of power. The scientific nomenclature consecrates kings, queens and prejudices in its process of domination of nature. Next to the cataloguing of the world, follows the collection of specimens that will feed the plantations. Colonization expropriates not only land, but also the plant from the integrality of life. Its ambience, its medicinal and religious functions are submitted to the symbolic ritual of erasure by the name of things. The jatobá [in English, courbaril], for instance, is no longer the tree of hard fruits, sacred to the native peoples because of its healing powers, to become Hymenaea courbaril, referencing the female hymen, because of the rigidity of its bark.
Taxonomy anthropomorphizes the vegetal world. It makes of plants a mirror of men. Dissected, compartmentalized and ranked in European botanical gardens, the universe of plants is converted to an allegedly neutral space, in which patriarcal, racial and religious prejudices are projected. The principles of progressive evolution and natural selection contaminate the economy to the imaginary and vice versa. Prejudice gains laboratorial backing and roots deep in the collective imaginary.
Many are the plants with popular names that approach the woman from a male chauvinist viewpoint, such as maria-sem-vergonha [small-flowered touch-me-not, in Portuguese, ‘shameless-Maria’], beijo-de-puta [girlfriend kiss, in Portuguese, ‘whore’s kiss’] and peito-de-moça [habanero-type pepper, in Portuguese, ‘girl’s breast’]. But this also occurs in scientific nomenclature, in which there are many plants whose scientific names remind of Greek nymphs, beautiful semi-goddesses that never got old and provided everything to men and nature, and christen the gender of Nymphaeas that enchanted the painter Monet.
Black people are a target to many types of prejudice, expressed in popular names, but also in scientific ones. Plants which contain the word kaffir or cafrum in their names are highly offensive. Term derived from the Arabic to ‘unfaithful’, caffir became a generic synonym of black to the English European colonizers; and cafre, ‘merchandise’, in Portuguese, expanding the racist notion that identified black men and women as objects. The word is considered today in sub-Saharan African countries as an equivalent to the repudiated word ‘nigger’, that today is conventional as ‘N-word’, for the racial violence contained in it.
The prejudiced denominations are also revealed in the projection of white European culture in the form of plants, conjugated to offensive terms to the native peoples, which are defined as índios [‘Indians’, in Portuguese]. This is the manner Cristóvão Colombo, who believed having arrived in India, called the native inhabitants of the Americas. Many are the plants in English known as Indian + some element of white culture, such as Indian mocassin and Indian hemp. Invasive plants are called gypsy, an adjective related to cheating. The ethnic group is rom, sinti or caló.
In the case of jews, the antisemitism focuses on physical and cultural characteristics, such as religious men beards, and adheres to milenar myths, such as the crown of thorns of Jesus Christ and the evil legend of the ‘wandering jew’, that names the plant Tradescantia zebrina, and species of the same genre, in many languages. The legend circulates from the XIII century in Europe and is part of the oral narrative of the Holy Week. It portraits the penitence of a people that would have been cursed to wander the world restless, immortal, until the end of time. This legend was a key-part of Nazi propaganda, that has expanded it creating the image of the parasite jew, millionaire, agent of an international conspiracy to dominate the world.
“Dissected, compartmentalized and ranked in European botanical gardens, the universe of plants is converted to an allegedly neutral space, in which patriarcal, racial and religious prejudices are projected”
GL: Could you tell us a little about the process of constructing the Jardim da resiliência [‘Garden of resilience’]? How much time did it last? How was the interaction between the research teams with the museum’s staff?
GB: The Garden of resilience was of the first ideas of the project. Since the beginning I wanted to present these plants, so common in our everyday life and whose violence has been neutralized by the assimilation of the patriarcal mentality underlying colonialism. How many feminists have a Swiss cheese plant [in Portuguese, ‘costela-de-adão’, literally ‘Adam’s rib’] next to their couch without realizing the degree of misogyny implicated, assuming this name as “natural”? The Garden is the place where the exhibition creates a mirror to look within ourselves. The idea has grown with the work made with the staff of Museu Judaico de São Paulo. I have dialogued the whole time with the curator Ilana Feldman, the project’s coordinator, Mariana Lorenzi, and the director Felipe Arruda. It was a laboratorial work that throughout 6 months of production, we discussed all steps. The expography by Helena Cavalheiro, the design by Maria Cau Levy, the lighting by Fernanda Carvalho were integral part of the creation of the work. The invited artist Bruno Araújo has been with me since the beginning of the research, about a year and a half ago, and with him I’ve rooted the ideas. Not less important were the long conversations with Ricardo Van Steen, that painted the watercolors present in the exhibition I, and with Gabriel Francisco Lemos, that composed the sound landscape.
GL: The so-called hemps “always opposed, never eradicated” become the centre of your counter-discuss and manifesto of the exhibition. Can you comment on this cause?
GB: Hemp [‘erva daninha’, in Portuguese] is a term full of prejudice. It’s the fruit of damnation. Currently they’re called ‘spontaneous plants’ [‘plantas espontâneas’]. It’s in the process of colonization the the idea of this kind of plant is installed, that the Spanish called mala hierba. The weeds, plants that don’t have a “utility” for the venture of plantations. Throughout the research, it has come to me that many of the plants with pejorative names were supposedly “hemps”. They became, as such, a resilience symbol in these social, cultural and ethnical groups – such as jews, black people, native people and “gypsies” (a name that is in itself problematic because it generalizes the rom, sinti and caló and appears in the dictionary as a synonym to ‘cheater’!) – that the colonial standardization always tried to control and destroy. However, as the plants, these groups create their procedures of resistance, reinvention and survival. This is why I affirm that “every hemp is a rebeld being”.
GL: Published recently in Brazil, the books of Stefano Mancuso propose new manners of seeing/thinking the vegetal universe in dialogue with technology, ecology and political systems. Does your work dialogue with these investigations? Which authors have you taken as reference?
GB: Stefano Mancuso is a fundamental author in the current debate. Emmanuele Coccia (The Life of Plants) as well. But I have read many authors that discuss the relations of colonialism and botanics in the XVIII and XIX century, such as the pioneer studies of historian Warren Dean, and the soon-to-be-released in Brazil A Decolonial Ecology, by the Martinican Malcom Ferdinand. A whole bibliography dedicated to the study of botanical misogyny was very important, such as Sex, Botany and Empire: The Story of Carl Linnaeus and Joseph Banks, by the historian Patricia Fara. Finally, the studies on race and science by Lilia Schwarcz, and the ones by my father, Bernardo Beiguelman, consecrated geneticist, but botanical by studies, on eugenics, crossed the reflection from end to end.
This diversified set, that includes also a wide historical literature, from Linnaeus to Galton, going through Samuel Morton and other racists, that allowed me to scrutinize the AI by other angles and suggest experiments that bet on a field beyond dichotomies between nature and culture, the field of a possible extra-nature, less centered on the man and in interlocution with technologies oriented to the transformation of life.
In synthesis, Botannica Tirannica proposes an ecosystem of an erratic science, that only transits through supposedly reading errors, where hybrid, nameless, rootless beings flourish. A mutatis mutandis flora, or that lives “changing what needs to be changed”.