Erinah Babirye and the Quaternary.

Erinah Babirye’s work is about plants, she paints leaves and flowers in a variety of colors and forms, she abstracts some and “figurates” others, the work attempts to examine the history and memory of the plant outside its utility, our encounter with nature as with all between man kind and the environment is one of expropriation of plant and animal life, the lives of ecologies are tied to some utility now, either as food, raw material or entertainment, these ecologies possess no territory or scope of self-determination, it is clear now that natural life is at the mercy of human activity, there is an underlying violence waged by both sides: man and nature. The violence of nature is an innate raw power but that of man is premeditated channeled and focused, the violence of man has been pointed at some level of control, (taming dogs, killing off mosquitos, roads and other acts) the goal of man’s level of violence is in effect to control and make nature convenient, but in the recent past man has achieved more than that in some spaces nature has been completely eradicated and in its place an artificiality has arisen where all interactions with the physical have gone through a series of filters and these sieve materials, sounds, smells and sights to create environments that are fully artificial.

(Work by Erinah Babirye)

The violence that most Ugandans have had as a community was that which nature could handle, our tools did not have the power to significantly terraform, they provided food, shelter from materials that were not significantly processed and clothes that were in essence still a stage in raw material, the violence exercised against nature had some sort of primal balance to it, there was a directness in the way violence against nature was meted, there was always contact, it was primal and regenerative, it was always young and the land never changed, it was eternal, you never outgrew your home, it carried you forever. The violence being meted out after the colonial project significantly differs, industrialization could change the landscape in permanent ways repeatedly, this is not to say that the expropriation by the natives here was in a way justified and “purer” 1 they simply did not possess the tools to scale the violence. The default for human beings at various stages of civilization is a form of extraction of resources, that is what it takes to survive, but we are past surviving, scarcity is no longer the problem (there is irony in this statement, but for now take it in the context of perpetual expansion).

The point with all this to analyze the direction of discourse as far as art is concerned (at least here in Uganda) the predominant message is that as a race we have been so evil in our relation to the earth and that the violence we have committed is overwhelming, and that we need to rein ourselves in to stop the calamity that is inevitable if we don’t. however there is opposition to this, some feel like we as a community have not extracted enough from nature to give up, most developed societies reached levels of artificiality we have not, there are glaring technological and infrastructure gaps and while this version of progress may not necessarily be the best, most people want that, they feel that asking them not to drive a car, or build a smaller house is “unfair” in a way, that they are being denied the dream of progress.

Art practices that arrive at the point of critique of consumption for a populace that does not feel like they have consumed of course fails to even garner contempt, it is dismissed, no one (local) engages with it on any meaningful level, and maybe this brings us back to the issue of violence, there is no doubt whatsoever at least locally on where the control of natural resources lies and it is not with the sensitive and rational, it is with the violently greedy, the artist can only do so much.

1 Zizek Slavoj on “Slavoj Žižek on the gesture of colonizers and postcolonialism”