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Exploring and recreating ecologies that take shape between plants and people

Exploring and recreating ecologies that take shape between plants and people

Alexandra Gelis

At the ArtworxTO Hub West, 250 the East Mall, Etobicoke, a display is growing, quite literally, that looks to educate visitors on the relationship between the migrations of people and plants to the Toronto area.  The installation is primarily sound-based and draws on award winning artist and PhD candidate Alexandra Gelis’ research on plants and seeds that have been brought to Toronto by immigrants.  This inspiration comes from the concept that Gelis brings of plants as political allies which can either reinforce or resist power and/or knowledge structures, depending on who is using them and how.

The exhibit, With-living migrant relations, features a sculptural component developed throughout four elements: medicinal plants, braids/soil/hair/walking, a large drawing with paper made from migrated plants, and a film made with plants. The installation formally explores the traditional hair braid designs within which enslaved African women enslaved hid their seeds and through which they mapped their routes of escape to San Basilio de Palenque.

“With - living migrant relations installation represents the semiotically layered resistant and fluid knowledge implied in the migration, as well as the implementation of medicinal plants to nourish and heal the body, the land, the spirit, the non-living, the non-human elements in solidarity with different ways of being,” says Gelis. “The work aims to re-narrate plants as protagonists that shape human history”, she adds.

Visitors get the feel of plants and interact with sculptures as part of the multimedia experience

To illustrate the relations between the plants and their social power, Gelis’ exhibit has many sculptures that enforce the creative and cultural aspects of plant migration into post-colonial countries.  Each of the sculptures contains plants from her research and visitors can smell and touch them to get the feel of the plants. Interacting with each of the sculptures and plants also activates the soundscapes of the exhibit that detail the history and cultural significance of the plants themselves.

Thirty-two speakers spread throughout the space resonate with a series of soundscapes resulting from Gelis’ research of plants and seeds brought by immigrants to the city of Toronto. A new set of sounds is triggered through all the installation by passing one’s hand between the plant and the light illuminating the plant -- sounds connected to the story of the plants. An old water pump -- when pumped shows a 16mm film made with phytograms of the different plants and contains some plant-specific knowledge. A book on a corner of the installation invites visitors to leave their own stories.

Gelis with Earth to Tables Legacies Team

“The idea of plants as political allies is central to my concept of migrated plants. In this research-creation interactive installation. I explore the idea of Plants that have been appropriated as Technologies for Territorial and Population Control (PTTPC) -- plants transplanted by those in a position of power to colonize (see Corridor series) but who also become allies of those in a subordinate position as a form of resistance (see Estera: plants and resistance series)”.

Indeed, the exhibit is an immersive, interactive, sculptural sound and film installation! It enlightens visitors about the powerful cultural connections that plants have and the meanings behind their transport and growth.  The exhibit is open till May 2022 for which Gelis will be onsite on May 28 from 2-4 pm to share aspects of her research project with visitors through workshops, conversations, and demonstrations.

Alexandra Gelis is a Colombian-Venezuelan media artist with a background in visual arts and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Environmental Studies at York University. Her work predominantly involves photography, video, electronic and digital processes, and addresses the use of image in relation to displacement, landscape and politics beyond borders or culturally specific subjects. She is part of the Earth to Tables Legacies project of which Prof. Deborah Barndt is the PI and who is also her PhD supervisor. Her work has also been featured in a recent YFile article.