Exhibition 'Politics of Sharing', ifa Gallery Berlin 2016 © ifa / Pfordte

A space for unheard voices

How can we preserve good living conditions on our planet? From which concepts of community and sharing can we learn today? Focusing on collective knowledge, other ideas of community and our relation to nature, the exhibition 'Politics of Sharing – Collective Wisdom' opens our view to other worlds of thought. In the interview, Gabriel Rossell-Santillán, Natalie Robertson and Daniel Maier-Reimer talk about impulses in their artistic pursuit and provide an insight into the situation of the indigenous communities in Mexico and New Zealand.

Interview by Siri Gögelmann

ifa (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen): Gabriel, your artwork is based on research and ethnographic fieldwork done at the Huichol community in Mexico. Natalie, you focus on the Maori way of living in New Zealand. What does the concept of community in those indigenous groups look like and how did it change in the past? 

Gabriel Rossell-Santillán: I think there are different ideas of sharing and different ideas of community. Right now there is no indigenous community without a contact to our western system. There are different ways of thinking and communities with a particular relationship to the system, but there are no exteriorities. 

Natalie Robertson, 'Lady Arihia wharekai. Porourangi Marae, Waiomatatini. On the occasion of the 80th birthday of Canon Morehu Boysie Te Maro', 2010; With moral permission Canon Morehu Boysie Te Maro

Maori artist Natalie Robertson explores cultural landscapes in New Zealand and the conflicting relationships between settlers and indigenous communities.

Natalie Robertson: Nowadays in Aotearoa – which is the Maori name for New Zealand – it's very difficult to find intact communities where all the people work together, sleep together, live together and produce food together. The colonisation has impacted very heavily on the Maori way of living. One hundred years ago, 90 percent of the population lived in the tribal areas and ten percent in urban centres. Now it's the opposite way. My work featured in the exhibition is dealing with the region where my grandfather grew up, and also his mother and his grandparents. A river runs through that area and there's a fish in the river that comes from the sea. For us, the river is our mother. And the fish is sacred to us. When we define who we are and think of us as a community, we think of us forming part of the environment we live in. The other species are our relatives; they are a part of who we are. So that's our concept of community. The rising sea levels, deforestation and marine pollution destroy our environment and the other species. As a result, we also lose who we are. When the British settlers arrived to New Zealand, they introduced another way of thinking of the land, of humans having dominion over other creatures.

ifa: The link between humans and nature is part of all of your work. What is the concept of nature contained in your artwork and how do you incorporate the concept of sharing during your working process?

Daniel Maier-Reimer: The first part of my work is the relatively solitary process of walking. When I started to think about my relationship with nature I was struck by the omnipresent attitude towards nature in terms of its usefulness to human needs. Even environmental movements see nature as something to be protected, because it's important for future generations. I tried to develop another view onto nature and maybe new ways of perceiving it. I see the resulting images as illustrating a mode of existence. My working practice of choosing only one image and reducing it to very little information goes along with that. You could understand it as an attitude that just refuses to disclose anything. But if I changed that I would have a feeling of betraying the core of my practice. Inviting others to bring their view not only into my work, but also sharing the authorship through this process was interesting and enriching, but still staying in a way truthful to my working practice. Handing over the task of 'presenting the journey' started on the occasion of a small journey in Italy. I was following the city boundary of Florence which is a relatively ordinary walk of five days. But Florence is a place loaded with imagery. The photo resulting from that walk could have been taken anywhere. Inviting others to develop their view of the walk made me understand more about my own practice. So even if you always end up seeing the same image, the position of the others added a meaningful quality to my work.

Auckland-Christchurch 2015, 2015 © Daniel Maier-Reimer
Exhibition 'Politics of Sharing', ifa Gallery Stuttgart 2016 © ifa / Gögelmann
Exhibition 'Politics of Sharing', ifa Gallery Stuttgart, 2016 © ifa / Gögelmann

Daniel Maier-Reimer's art is the practice of travelling, usually on foot. The German artist summarises his journey in one single photograph.

Rossell-Santillán: When you share and you decide to work with people who have another epistemology it can be very challenging and at the same time very inspiring. Once I went to Mexico City with a friend from the Wirrarika community, an indigenous community in the north of Mexico I worked and lived with. We presented our deer project and I was talking all the time, I said: "We know that the Wirrarika people preserve and respect nature. They have this incredible relationship with nature and they don't distinguish themselves idiomatic from nature." This wise man just looked at me. Later we had a glass of vine together and he told me: "Gabriel, do you really think that those people who made Teotihuacán, Chichén Itzá and Palenque understood themselves as the same thing as nature? Then why do you think they made all those geometric forms, buildings and pyramids? The idea that indigenous people identify themselves as nature was used by the Catholic Church as part of the colonization. By saying that there, in the Americas, doesn't exist anything but nature they justified invading, destroying and exploiting our lands."

New Zealand
Exhibition 'Politics of Sharing', ifa Gallery Stuttgart, 2016 © ifa / Gögelmann

ifa: Pointing on destruction, pollution and contemporary challenges in the world: What can we learn from other communities and what is your impulse for your art?

Robertson: The world often sees New Zealand as a country with a clean, green environment. But I was born at the foot of a volcanic mountain next to a river, and near to a geothermal lake but also close to a toxic pulp and paper mill. Lake Rotoitipaku in the area belongs to the local Maori tribe. It was beautiful, like a natural bath with warm water. But the pulp and paper factory have been polluting the river for so long that even the farmers became concerned. So then the mill dumped toxic waste in the lake, destroying it. When I was young, I lost friends dying of cancer, children and teenagers. That's one of the reasons why I'm doing my work. Through my art practice I look at the situation and I draw the attention of how we treat the environment and people. I'm not proposing solutions. But I'm trying to give a voice to those concerns which are not seen. Therefore I record the people, make videos and talk to them. The most heartbreaking part of the testimony was from a man talking about his childhood. Walking home to his village, he found eels on his trail. They had come out of the lake and out of the river, because of the toxic waste and then died on the road.

Maier-Reimer: With my art, I'm not interested in finding solutions. And I don't think that it's a promising position as an artist to take. I would suggest that seeing, describing and commenting without the intent to solve problems is already something.

Rossel-Santillán: As artists we can create a space for other voices, experiences and knowledge in the world. They can enrich our lives and they are also important for us. The knowledge can be helpful in solving today's problems, because we can't do that alone. In the last part of my project, the Wirrarika asked me to elaborate an archive. I took photographs ofa drawing of the royal woodpecker, a bird that is extinct at the Mountains. The only references to that bird as materiality or image exist in the ethnological collections of Berlin Dahlem. I discussed it a lot with the Wirrarika, what it means to set up an archive. At the moment, one problem in the Wirrarika community is the state, that had built schools inside the communities in the past 15 years. There the children are learning western thought, for example Kant and Nietzsche. We are not against Kant and Nietzsche. But the children should also learn about their own ancestral thinkers and knowledge. We, the western society, have to open up. Otherwise, in the end we all know the same authors and we are shrinking our world to only one experience, ours. We need the other people and their knowledge. The Wirrarika inheritage their knowledge from the second century A. D. until today and it's still intact. We don't have such a knowledge, that's why we have to enter into a dialogue and take their knowledge seriously.

ifa: Thank you for sharing your art, ideas and thoughts with us!

Gabriel Rossell-Santillán: Obsidian; © Gabriel Rossell-Santillán

In his installations and video art, Gabriel Rossell-Santillán deals with the transformation of the indigenous in Nayarit, Mexico. He was born in Mexico City in 1976 and is based in Berlin now.