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Reconnecting to History and Community through ‘Decolonizing Nature’

Carlos Maravilla portrait - Pyragraph
Portrait of Carlos Maravilla. Photo by Nataly Tamayo.

Guest Bloggers Lara Esther Goldmann and Chloë Courtney are a curatorial collective based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In advance of the upcoming pop-up exhibition Decolonizing Nature at 516 ARTS in Albuquerque, which is in conjunction with the conference Decolonizing Nature: Resistance I Resilience I Revitalization (details below), Goldmann and Courtney interviewed the Mexico City-based duo Carlos Maravilla Santos and Ehecatl Morales Valdelamar about their art practice and collective, Plan Acalli. This joint project encompasses an engagement with the cultural histories, memories and resistance to colonization inherent to the practice of chinampas, artificial islands engineered to work sustainably with seasonal flooding, and producing abundant harvests due to the regeneration of the soil through silt and nutrients. Their work is closely tied to the community of Xochimilco, the last remaining region of the Valley of Mexico that sustains the indigenous practice of chinampas.

Lara and Chloë: When was it that you began working together? And why did you decide to collaborate?

Carlos: Well, all of this began while we were studying at the College of Art and Design at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, which is located in Xochimilco. We decided to live here and to begin learning about the space of Xochimilco. We did several tours of Xochimilco and began to consolidate the project of Plan Acalli, which followed our intention of being in the place as much as possible, to inhabit it and explore it.

Ehecatl: What we had in common was to define ourselves as artists who work in conjunction with the community, and little by little, we began to form those connections and become part of the community of Xochimilco. So, for the past four years, we’ve worked here, in the canals, developing different dynamics and aspects of our work with the intention of reaching out and connecting with communities. We’ve grown close with some embarcaderos [those who navigate the canals in shallow-bottomed boats], and with some chinamperos. Through these experiences, we’ve shaped the collective Plan Acalli.

Decolonizing Nature Carlos Maravilla Santos_Semilla y sembrador - Pyragraph
Semilla y sembrador, 2016; Chapin & low-fire ceramics. Photo by Carlos Maravilla Santos.

Can you describe a specific experience or aspect of the project Plan Acalli that is most important or significant to you?

Ehecatl: For me, the history and the experience of the project are so important because they reflect the memory of my grandfather. He navigated the route of the National Canal about 80 years ago. We as young people don’t have this option; we can’t make this trip that is so significant to our history. Families once used the canals to transport their produce to sell at the market. So, this project speaks of the situation we find ourselves in both as young people and as inhabitants of a protected environment (Xochimilco). We are totally separated from the history of the place, but these types of actions help to connect us back to the memories and stories. When my grandfather lived, things still reflected the natural systems: the canals were fed with fresh spring water, as well as various rivers, and the seasonal rainfall. This was a very organic system, but now, only about a third of the original National Canal is still open.

Carlos: For me, the connection with the community is essential. Almost all of the work of our collective has to do with our process of integrating and sharing with communities. This really enriches our process as artists. It enables us to explore, working toward a strong connection and reconnection—on one hand, with the community, and on the other, with nature.

Ehecatl Morales portrait - Pyragraph
Portrait of Ehecatl Morales Valdelamar. Photo by Nataly Tamayo.

How do you understand the larger impact and broad relevance of your site-specific, community-based collaborations?

Ehecatl: Our artistic work departs from a commitment to the revitalization of waterways and canals. It’s the process of remembering and resisting in order to combat the excessive growth of Mexico City and its policies promoting urbanization in the last zones of the ecological reserve. The project has functioned through its capacity to connect with the communities associated with the environment of waterways and canals, as well as urban communities. It has created an open space for the interchange of ideas.

Carlos: In my view, Xochimilco has much to contribute as an example of a balance between an urban environment and natural space, but it has been little understood and studied. Our project functions as a lighthouse, which opens pathways to give new respect to ancestral knowledge and promote learning among communities with similar conditions. These vessels, or Acallis with which we express ourselves, are in essence bridges for dialogue between different cultures under threat. They are works that call to those who would offer their support. They depart from the local, but resonate with the global.

Decolonizing Nature Maleny Cedillo Inclan - Pyragraph
“Haciendo Chinampa.” Photo by Maleny Cedillo Inclán, in collaboration with Carlos Maravilla & Ehecatl Morales-Valdelamar.


Decolonizing Nature Public Reception: Earth Day, Saturday, April 22, 5-8pm (public walk-through with artists and curators from 5-6pm). The exhibition is on view April 15 – 29, 2017. 516 ARTS is open Tuesday through Saturday, 12-5pm.

Decolonizing Nature: Resistance I Resilience I Revitalization
is a free conference open to the public, held April 19-22, 2017. It is sponsored by the Land Arts of the American West and Art & Ecology programs in the Department of Art at the University of New Mexico in partnership with the National Hispanic Cultural Center, 516 ARTS, Friends of the Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge, Los Jardines Institute, and the Santa Fe Art Institute. The project is coordinated by Subhankar Banerjee, Lannan Chair and professor of Art & Ecology, University of New Mexico. Click here to register.

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