BY José Roca in Features | 06 JUN 07
Featured in
Issue 108

Alberto Baraya

Colombia, botany and classification; fake flowers and post-colonialism

BY José Roca in Features | 06 JUN 07

Many historians contend that the ‘discovery’ of the New World began in the 18th century, when geographers, mineralogists, botanists and zoologists came to America to chart the territory and its natural resources. These scientists, financed by the Spanish crown until the 19th century and by European countries after the emancipation of the colonies, had clear political and economic agendas – charting a territory means having the will to dominate it. More importantly, acquiring an inventory of the botanical resources of the colonies paved the way for their subsequent capitalist exploitation. Like their sword- or cross-bearing predecessors, these explorers came armed with Truth itself, in this case a system of thought seemingly grounded in objective observation and the disinterested discourse of science.

Arguably, the categorization of the botanical wealth of the Americas was among the biggest instances of biological theft ever. As scientists, the Europeans imparted to the locals their empirical ‘knowledge’ about the superiority of some portions of the human race and the measurable limitations inherent in living in certain places. Geographical determinism made the case for the impossibility of people in certain climates to develop ‘sophisticated’ civilizations. The observations of the viajeros (travellers), as they are collectively known, helped buttress a social and political system based on exclusion, racism and privilege – establishing a pyramidal system of values, with the tip occupied by Europeans, their religion and cultural values.

For more than a decade the Colombian artist Alberto Baraya has been working on deconstructing the figure of the viajero – and by extension, the discourse of science. In his ‘Herbario de plantas artificiales’ (Herbarium of Artificial Plants, 2001–ongoing) he parodies and questions the empirical objectivity of a botanical naturalist. The ‘Herbarium’ is as enormous and absurd an enterprise as that of the naturalist Carl Linnaeus: Baraya aims to collect, identify and classify every artificial plant he can get his hands on. Many of these plastic, cloth or paper specimens have been stolen from restaurants, lifted from waiting-rooms or pocketed at someone’s house, thus re-enacting the ethical quandary embodied in the act of ‘collecting’ committed by the historical scientific expeditions. As Baraya has stated: ‘By picking up some plastic flowers on the street, I behave like the scientists that Western education expects us to become. By changing the goals of this simple task I resist this “destiny”. In that moment all assumptions are put into question, even History.’1 The first leg of this ongoing project involved the classification of all the specimens in a sort of absurd taxonomy in the spirit of Jorge Luis Borges’ ‘Chinese encyclopaedia’. The plants in Baraya’s ‘Herbarium’ are accompanied by a file that lists the ways in which they can be classified: by the place where they were found (eatery toilets, funeral homes etc.); by their colour; by the spaces they are used to decorate.

In recent years Baraya has gone a step further by entering the territories explored by European and American scientists in the 18th and 19th centuries. He follows the path of these expeditions, collecting artificial specimens on the way: ‘In 2004 I participated as a documentarian in a trip to the Putumayo River. […] The anticipation of finding or not finding plastic flowers in the Amazon generated a certain fear, because it implied an ecological question regarding the fate of the last frontiers of resistance to “civilization” and “progress”. Actually finding them ended up being a sort of confirmation of what I would term “the laws of decoration”: even the most “natural” places need to be ornamented by any means. Also, that globalization penetrates even the farthest corners of the world, the evidence of a break of cultural frontiers.’2

For the São Paulo Biennial in 2006, Baraya spent three months in the Amazonian state of Acre, whose post-colonial history was shaped by the rubber boom in the early 19th century. Baraya reversed the process of material exploitation and, with the help of former seringueiros (rubber tappers), painstakingly covered the whole surface of a 30-metre-tall rubber tree with latex taken from similar trees. Once the latex solidified, it was peeled off and laid on the ground, like the discarded skin of a giant snake, a life-size cast of a lost cultural practice that fostered the decimation of the indigenous population, the virtual slavery of migrants from the drought-stricken north and the political transformation of an enormous territory.

Recently Baraya’s project has turned to his observation that flower and plant specimens are a preferred motif for tattoo artists and their clientele, and he has documented this tradition in photographs. For the current visual arts festival, Encuentro Internacional de Medellín 2007 in Colombia, he chose to work with the archives of the Museo de Antioquia, where he came across the drawings of Ruperto Ferreira, a forgotten local botanist. Baraya put together a booklet of Ferreira’s drawings and distributed them to tattoo parlours across the city, which in turn offered the historical designs to their clients. By once again dispersing knowledge throughout the social fabric Baraya continues his quest to problematize the certainties of scientific thought.

1 Interview with the author in Como Viver Junto, Fundaçao Bienal, São Paulo, 2006, p. 24
2 Ibid