April 2017

Decolonizing Nature: Resistance, Resilience, Revitalization

 An interdisciplinary environmental justice conference hosted by UNM, April 19–22


Subhankar Banerjee


The colonization of nature under capitalism is rooted in an ethos that views human beings as separate to and above nature—Earthmasters for whom the planet is an inexhaustible reservoir of natural resources to be exploited. With profit as the prime motive, the resources are denuded beyond sustainable limits for the disproportionate benefit of a wealthy few. Pollution and waste from this activity also are skewed in their impact, in this case to the substantial detriment of poor and marginalized people, indigenous communities and biotic life. Capital’s colonization of nature has brought us to our current moment of grave ecological peril—climate change, Sixth Extinction and other human-caused environmental crises that cumulatively and rapidly degrade Earth’s life-sustaining ecological fabric.


Decolonizing nature has thus become an urgent priority if we are to progress toward a just and sustainable Earth for all living beings. How do we resist further ecological devastation? How do we achieve resilience in times of stress? How do we revitalize affected ecological habitats and communities? The University of New Mexico will host an interdisciplinary environmental justice conference, Decolonizing Nature: Resistance, Resilience, Revitalization, from April 19 through Earth Day, April 22, to address these and related issues.


It will bring to Albuquerque 33 speakers from the fields of art, architecture, humanities, religion, science, and grassroots activists from across the U.S. and from México, Canada and Ecuador. The gathering will foster discussions on integration of knowledge across disciplines, practices across cultures and social-environmental movements across geographies. It will convene in the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque (parking is extensive and free).


In conjunction with the conference, 516 ARTS, a contemporary nonprofit art gallery in downtown Albuquerque, will host a companion exhibition, Decolonizing Nature, from April 15 through 29 of works by artists from Brazil, Guatemala, México, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Additionally, on April 18, the UNM Art Museum will host a one-day screening of films that address decolonization of nature.


Alarmed by the science of rapid environmental change, scholars in different fields in the humanities started to reorient their disciplines to incorporate ecological concerns, which gave rise to, in the last decade, a new field—environmental humanities. At about the same time, artists began to engage increasingly with the politics of ecology, and art critics and historians began to write about it. And on the ground, indigenous peoples from all over the world have been using their creation stories, art, literature, traditional knowledge and creative organizing to fight back destructive industrial projects.


The time has come to integrate knowledge across disciplines and practices across cultures to inspire necessary and meaningful actions toward a just and sustainable Earth for all life. Such integration is the subject of the Decolonizing Nature conference. The discussions will be grounded in academic scholarship, creative practices, environmental pedagogy and grassroots activism. Such an interdisciplinary approach is not merely useful but is essential, because the causes of the crises we are facing and the solutions we may envision are as much social (driven by our desires, values and morals) as they are scientific. One of the aims of the gathering is to discuss, debate and deliberate on building creative alliances for environmental conservation, justice and sustainability for all living beings.


The conference will feature talks by such prominent public figures as Robert D. Newman, president and director of the National Humanities Center, and William McDonough, the influential and internationally renowned designer and co-author of Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. We will celebrate recently published books authored or edited by some of the conference speakers: T. J. Demos, author of Decolonizing Nature: Contemporary Art and the Politics of Ecology; Joni Adamson, co-editor of Humanities for the Environment: Integrating knowledge, forging new constellations of practice; Rob Nixon, author of Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor; Alan C. Braddock, co-editor of A Keener Perception: Ecocritical Studies in American Art History; Alyosha Goldstein, author of Formations of United States Colonialism; Finis Dunaway, author of Seeing Green: The Use and Abuse of American Environmental Images; Willis Jenkins, co-editor of Routledge Handbook of Religion and Ecology; Salma Monani, co-editor of Ecocriticism and Indigenous Studies: Conversations from Earth to Cosmos Practice; Lynda Mapes, author of Elwha: A River Reborn; Phoebe Godfrey, co-editor of the two-volume anthology Systemic Crises of Global Climate Change: Intersections of race, class and gender and Emergent Possibilities for Global Sustainability: Intersections of race, class and gender; Manuela Picq, co-editor of Sexualities in World Politics: How LGBTQ claims shape International Relations; Chris Williams, co-author of Creating an Ecological Society: Toward a Revolutionary Transformation; Dahr Jamail, who is working on a book on climate change; and Anne McClintock, who is working on a book on the militarization of environmental crises.


The event will also feature talks by several influential indigenous artists, activists and scholars: Nanobah Becker (Navajo), a renowned screenwriter and director who grew up in Albuquerque and is now based in Los Angeles, made the critically acclaimed short-film The 6th World; Kyle Powys Whyte, an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation is the Timnick Chair in the Humanities and associate professor of Philosophy and Community Sustainability at Michigan State University; Dylan AT Miner, a Wiisaakodewinini (Métis) artist, activist and scholar, is currently director of American Indian and Indigenous Studies and associate professor in the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities at Michigan State University; and Nick Estes from the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, a co-founder of The Red Nation and a doctoral candidate in American Studies at UNM, will speak on the Dakota Access Pipeline.


We will also host several sessions on issues facing us in New Mexico, the Southwest, the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands and México. Speakers in these sessions include, México City-based internationally renowned artist Minerva Cuevas; Jennifer Owen White, manager at the Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge in Albuquerque; Sofia Martínez, co-founder of Los Jardines Institute in Albuquerque; Silver City-based acclaimed photographer Michael Berman; Perry H. Charley, executive director senior scientist at the Diné College in Shiprock, N.M.; and several UNM current and emeritus faculty members, including John Fleck, Bill Gilbert, Alyosha Goldstein, Basia Irland and Rebecca Schreiber.


The sessions will be moderated by UNM faculty members, including Jeanette Hart-Mann, Szu-Han Ho and Samuel Truett.


The accompanying exhibition Decolonizing Nature at 516 ARTS, curated by UNM graduate students Lara Esther Goldmann and Chloë Courtney, focuses on artists working in film, video, photography and printmaking, exploring different styles and approaches to environmental activism. Local, national and international artists include María Thereza Alves (Brazil), Sandra Monterosso (Guatemala), Allora & Calzadilla (Puerto Rico), Virginia Colwell (México), Carlos Maravilla Santos & Ehécatl Morales-Valdelamar (México), Dylan Miner (Mich.), Basia Irland (N.M.) and Michael Berman (N.M.). The curators say, “The exhibition brings together diverse voices within the conversation surrounding geopolitical power structures, coloniality and their severe impact on ecology and indigenous communities, as well as the influence of these issues on the present-day discourse concerning environmental activism. The exhibition aims to create an engaging, open-minded and challenging platform to approach these issues and our role within a global society and to find meaningful and powerful ways for social transformation.”


The film screening on April 18 at the UNM Art Museum has been organized by Axel Christopher González and Elspeth Iralu, doctoral students in American Studies at UNM.


On April 22, there will be panels during the morning hours at the National Hispanic Cultural Center, followed by a visit in the afternoon to the Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge to experience Abrazos: A community Celebration of Environmental Justice. The day will culminate with an evening reception at 516 ARTS. 


The conference and all associated programming are free and open to the public, made possible with generous support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Lannan Foundation, New Mexico Humanities Council, UNM Office of the Vice President for Research, Center for Regional Studies, College of Fine Arts, and the Department of Art.


The project is organized by the Art & Ecology and Land Arts of the American West programs in the Department of Art at UNM, 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.


For more information visit: http://decolonizingnature.unm.edu


Subhankar Banerjee, Lannan Foundation Endowed Chair of Land Arts of the American West, professor of Art & Ecology, and director of the Land Arts Mobile Research Center, is coordinating the Decolonizing Nature: Resistance, Resilience, Revitalization forum.




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