'Spiritual' artists render and respect the earth

March 12, 1994|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

The earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth."

So wrote Chief Seattle of the Suquamish Indians in a moving 1852 letter to the United States government, which had proposed to buy land from his people. "All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web he does to himself."

Those words of almost a century and a half ago could stand as the theme of "Rejoining the Spiritual: The Land in Contemporary Latin American Art," an exhibition at the Maryland Institute consisting of seven installations by Latin American artists living in the United States.

These artists -- originally from Brazil, Chile, Cuba and Uruguay -- revere the traditions of indigenous American and African people, who respect every living thing and see the land as the source of the spiritual. Against this, they see the European-American-oriented attitude as one of exploitation and ultimate destruction of our precious resources.

Catalina Parra of Chile, for instance, takes Chief Seattle's letter as the text for her work "Themes That Have to Be Solved" -- or, as she also calls it, " 'Pending Themes,' in the sense of things that are still unresolved."

In her installation, rabbit skins hang from barbed wire attached to frames on two walls. Against a third wall are loaves of bread stacked on poles, and in the middle of the room chains representing water hang from the ceiling. Below them on the floor -- as on the floor of the sea -- are fish carcasses encased in plastic.

All of this stands for destruction -- of the animal world, the fertile land and the sea. "It is the destruction of our planet," says the artist.

On the installation's fourth wall hangs the text of Chief Seattle's letter, which reads in part, "Will you teach your children what we have taught our children? That the earth is our mother? What befalls the earth befalls all the sons of the earth."

Clearly, the idea behind Parra's work is that we have not yet learned that basic lesson.

"It is the idea of what the white man has done to the environment, and the connection of the natives to the land," she says.

All the artists in "Rejoining the Spiritual" deal with those conflicting attitudes toward the land.

Some, such as Parra, put more emphasis on destruction. Others, such as Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, a Cuban descended from the Yoruba people of Africa, emphasize the connection.

Her "The Herbalist's Tools" is a tribute to her father, an herbalist who sought plants in the forest for their healing and spiritual properties.

The walls of Campos-Pons' installation space are painted green and partially covered with the outlines of leaves, as if one is in the forest.

Specimens of plants lie on a table, and three wooden columns stand for three important trees.

"The trees are the ceiba, a sacred tree full of history and legends," Campos-Pons says. "The Royal Palm, the national tree; and the almacigo, a tree with sap to heal wounds and leaves to heal stomach problems."

The installation comes from her own past, she says.

"It is a piece put together out of memory of childhood, and it's about the human in relation to the forest, the belief that the forest is alive and full of spirits and energy. It recalls scenes that I grew up with, when my father would go into the forest and bring back specific plants for the use of people. He had the knowledge, the power to do that."

"Catafalque," the installation of Rimer Cardillo of Uruguay, is about the fact that we have not only gone into the forest without asking permission, we have destroyed the forest. A catafalque is a wooden framework that supports a coffin.

Cardillo's installation includes a wooden wall from which are hung the skins of dead animals suspended over a mound of soil. This is a symbolic funeral for what's happening to the Amazonian rain forest and the animals that inhabit it, Cardillo says. It refers to what happened previously to the Uruguayan rain forest.

"There was a tremendous subtropical forest that once covered one third of the country," the artist says.

"Now only three percent of the original forest remains. . . . [The piece] is about the extermination of the original landscape of the Americas."

Josely Carvalho, of Brazil, also refers to the forest in her "In the Name of the Birds, the Turtles and the Holy Fish." One part of her triangular installation combines a wall hanging and video monitors. Both show pictures of the Xeta people, who, Carvalho says, have become extinct because of the destruction of the forest where they lived.

"They were discovered in the forest only in 1956," says Carvalho, "and now they are extinct. In 40 years we are able to kill a culture."

Her work also includes silk-screen panels with pictures of dead birds and fish and a repeated image of a woman screaming, which serves as a kind of motif for the whole installation. "It is about the rape and revenge of Gaia," says Carvalho.

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