Seven Women Offer Alternative Ways of Relating to the Earth

Storms are evocative phenomena, from the metaphoric sense of firestorms of conflict to more literal interpretations related to climate change, rain and water mismanagement, soil erosion, and extractive practices. When the rocks begin to crumble, however, regenerative forces give rise to new earth, smells, and sensibilities. Following the movement of soils, dusts, or ashes in the work of seven women artists from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Peru, Sudan, and Palestine living in Africa, Asia, and Europe induces a storm of sensorial experiences embedded in organic materials across territories, offering alternative ways of relating to and documenting the earth. Their varied practices reveal how artists, peoples, and materials alike are weathering the storm.

In Sudan-born Amna Elhassan’s installation “Rhythmic Reverie” (2023), a 3D-printed sand clock dispenses wooden chips infused in aromatic, floral-based oil. Musk, clove, and sandalwood are crushed and gently sifted into the metal structure it rests on, before being diffused by a candle into the airy space of the Achterhaus, a collective artist residency and studio in Hamburg, Germany. One is immediately enveloped in a sense of domesticity. The incense, crafted in the family home of the artist in Bahri, Saudi Arabia, carries generational bonds of kinship. An incense clock, of which this installation is one, holds different fragrances and digitizes forms of incense burning used in various daily rituals, allowing passersby to “recognize the time of the day by the smell in the air.”

As Larissa-Diana Fuhrmann writes in Scented Narratives in Time and Tradition (2023), the smoke produced by the contraption mirrors the “fragility of our world,” namely the contemporary upheaval and tenuousness of both human and nonhuman life. The clock itself, which was created in collaboration with artists from the University of Fine Arts Hamburg, who crafted the clock’s components, is juxtaposed with a printed silkscreen backdrop and wooden pieces scattered on the floor with sand. The installation reminds me of the logistics of displacement. The material lightness and formal permeability of scent resonates with the forced migration of 8 million Sudanese people from Khartoum in April 2023 due to civil war. Scent is something easily carried when fleeing a place, able to diffuse without disappearing: It can follow you, and you can follow it. 

Tibian Bahari refers to the mixed-media work “Fabric of Space: Tracing The Natural” (2023), shown that year at the Alliance Francaise in Nairobi, Kenya, as geotextiles that are odes to the manifold textures of Sudan. “Fabric of Space” weaves together topographies of displacement, condensing time, land, and social histories into a single composition. شارع بدر، مربع٢٢(“Badr street, block 22”) (2023), is a more literal and smaller-scale exploration: she maps the Khartoum neighborhood she grew up in via cuttings of jute sacks. These sacks are also used to hold and transport cement — a material mixed with sand — which she further explores in “Lost Self Portrait. 50Kgs” (2023). Relating building materials to the construction of one’s identity, this artwork, ironically or fittingly, was lost due to the Sudanese military looting her family home, a place where they cannot return.

The metamorphosis of soil is also pertinent to the work of Peruvian artist Nancy La Rosa, which utilizes pulverized grey and red andesite and Huamanga stones in her compositions. These pieces are inspired by the crevices seen when mountains split due to natural processes, as well as the Huaccotto and Rumicolca quarries she observed in Cusco, Peru. By centering these hidden fissures, La Rosa exposes the vitality of the material, whose process of revealing itself following long-term geological temporalities both contrasts and resonates with the difficulty of tracing fast-paced forced human migration. Bahari recovers this impossible-to-map movement through abstraction: Sitches in both geometric and biomorphic shapes in various directions represent how the storm is weathering. 

Like scent, particles of sand find their way through the crevices of borders, too — via the soles of your shoes, as a fundamental example. The movement of sand in larger quantities to produce art installations presents its own set of challenges, such as the quest for red sand from Sudan to remake Reem Aljeally’s “Hunting for Chairs” (2022) installation in Nairobi. The first iteration of the collaboration between Aljeally and Elhassan Elmuontasir at the French Institute in Khartoum used the red soil characteristic of its semi-arid environment to recreate how the landscape is inhabited during social gatherings. For the group exhibition The Forest and Desert School Revisited (2022–23) at Circle Art Gallery in Nairobi, which I curated, we resorted to using loamy clay to be responsive to the local ecology. The soil was embedded with the sunken legs of red wooden chairs that were also suspended from the ceiling, a reference to those often scattered around the Sudanese capital during social events, often by “tea ladies” who sell the warm beverages on the streets. These sink further into the sand by the “weight of its occupier,” Aljeally notes in the text describing the first iteration of the installation in Khartoum. 

Aljeally and Elhassan Elmuontasir’s scattered red chairs resonate with the scattered hibiscus on the cracked clay soil of Ola Hassanain’s installation “Tell the waters what the clay kept secret”(2023), which was shown at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam during Open Studios that year. In the work, she investigates one of the largest irrigation projects in Africa, the Gezira Scheme, as a site of catastrophe. Water excess and mismanagement caused it to seep into the clay soil further, a process affecting residential buildings which Hassanain describes as “ecological emptying.” It caused cracks in her grandmother’s house, leading to it being necessarily abandoned. However, despite its structural problems, the family was forced to take refuge there last year, when war broke out in the capital. Here, clay combines with concrete to create a structure suggestive of multifunctional use such as storage. The smell of the clay overwhelms the smell of the tea, and partially stains the floor. Hassanain’s portrayal of brittle textures where organic material like clay comes in contact with natural elements like water recalls the residue of Elhassan’s incense clock, wherein the ground surrounding the work is covered in ash from candle fire amongst wooden chips. 

Gloria Pavita, too, uses soil as a medium. Her work “[na Bulongo]” (2023), last shown at the 2023 Architecture Venice Biennale, projects a video over a single heap of multilayered soil, binding the moving image with the seemingly static soil composition. Themes of repair, reclamation, and repatriation course through Pavita’s explorations of soil — the projection literally returns our gaze to that vital layer. Furthermore, these practices are contextualized in extractive and exploitative practices from Philippi in Cape Town, South Africa, to Camp Mutomba in Lubumbashi, DRC, as noted by curator Lesley Lokko’s label. While the soils selected were locally sourced with gardeners in Venice, they visually recall the native terrain of DRC and South Africa, where Pavita lives. 

The video opens with narrations in the Xhosa and Lubumbashi Kiswahili languages, exploring the fine, grey hygroscopic soil of Philippi, before moving on to the yellow-orange dry silt sand of Soweto, South Africa. The last scene is situated in Camp Mutombo, and depicts three layers of soil at once: the mineral-rich laterite soil of the mines at the bottom, the loamy, fertile soil of the sort found in Pavita’s grandmother’s garden in the middle, and clay soil being molded by children at the top. These themes of repatriation of foreign soils brought into contact with native ones shares resonances with the Belgian TV show Soil (2021) as well. In the series, the son of a Moroccan family’s funeral business initiates a new business idea that challenges his community’s burial norms: He brings soil from Morocco to Belgium to bury their dead, as opposed to repatriating bodies back to Morocco in line with convention. Indeed, Pavita’s project similarly bridges distances in an unorthodox manner: when I sniffed the soil of her installation, my mind somehow convinced me I could smell the distant produce projected upon it. 

Thinking of food brings me back to the table of Palestinian artist Samah Hijawi’s performative dinner “Holy Cow and The Pomegranate: Sumac,” staged in October 2023 at Kaai Theatre in Brussels. Placing the audience in groups along three parallel dinner tables decked with herbal plants and other ingredients, we, the audience, took part in assembling the starter dish of Za’atar to make, taste, and eat, which we did with bread dipped in olive oil. In a monologue Hijawi delivered contemporaneously, she discussed how seeds, plants, and people move in cosmic spheres, while time, trade, and capitalist systems dominate our modes of eating. As we sampled the cuisine of such a wide region, she traced the fluid movement of food across national borders, teaching us about the ancient and contemporary Za’atar of her heritage. 

The Za’atar we made is an assemblage of three essential ingredients: thyme/oregano, sumac, and sesame seeds, which are sourced from different parts of the globe. Hijawi brought our attention to the specificity of those “spices and their dusts”: the many lands in Sudan from which the sesame seeds she served us originated; the fertile crescent, from which she stocked certain herbs; and Belgium, where ingredients were “picked up by people’s hands we have never met but [that] become part of us.” The performance reminds us that plants have also always traveled via forces beyond human intention — through wind and storms, for one — to find their way to us on a planetary scale. Indeed, the work of all these artists — Hijawi, Elhassan, Bahari, La Rosa, Aljeally, Elmuontasir, and Hassanain — reminds us that there are manifold ways to weather, coexist with, and even maintain a piece of homeland through the storms of climate change, migration, displacement, and war. 

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