Exhibition view. Photo credit: Mustafa Khanbhai.
Artists: Mustafa Khanbhai, Priyanka D'Souza, Waylon D'Souza.
Curated by: Adwait Singh
Exhibition dates: 13 June – 31 August 2019
Venue: Mumbai Art Room
“What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, men would die from great loneliness of spirit, for whatever happens to the beast also happens to the man. All things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth.”
‘Mutarerium’ is a portmanteau derived from the Latin verb mutare meaning to change or exchange, and terrarium, an independent glass unit for growing plants. It connotes the imagery of our planet as a mutating terrarium, or at the very least, a closed system within which life is mutating in perceptible and imperceptible ways. Seen against the backdrop of the Sixth extinction or Anthropocene extinction, where we stand to lose up to 50% – 95% of our biodiversity owing to the current extinction rate which is 10 – 100 times higher than that of any previous mass extinction events, and a 100 – 1000 times higher than what it would be under the ordinary course of things (the background extinction rate), the darkly glowing orb that is our planet appears to be in a state of suspended animation. But that perhaps is just another human gaze glancing off the orb of the future. For under the cloudiness life continues to mutate and divine new configurations and if one were able to pierce through the haze, one would encounter an affronted eye staring back at us. In all probability, life would, as it has before, find a way in spite of human intervention, but the critical question is would it be life as we know it? Can we get used to the new way of living and would this living be so much living as longing/ languishing? And more importantly, would there be a ‘we’ to pose that question from?
This project aims to convey a vision of geological time that decentralises the human, in favour of more-than-human evolutionary trajectories that far exceed anthropic timelines, adaptability, resilience and capacity for survival. By foregrounding these non-human timelines and hidden life worlds, the project seeks a subjective brush against deep and cyclical time that defies full comprehension, whilst forcing an acknowledgement of the planet’s own deep cunning that has written many-a species in and out of its story. ‘Mutarerium’ conjures some of these movements and speculations from the impenetrable depths of the earth to address our existential inability to come to terms with the possibility of life that precludes human protagonism, and a conception of time that recycles and loops back into itself without assuming the ‘Anthropocene’ as its referential interval. What’s offered here essentially is a corrective to the harmful dichotomy between nature and culture, which sanctions a differential treatment of the former as well as its subsequent romanticisation and rape at the hands of the latter, not unlike the double-edged deification of women by patriarchy. Instead of recognising our ecological efforts as arising from a need to ensure a sustainable future for our own kind, the problem with the term ‘Anthropocene’ lies in our patronising subsumption of the stories of others as requiring or not requiring protection from the knightly humanity. By revealing our entanglements with other species as ones of life and blood, inextricably linked together and wired into a vast living assemblage for better or for worse, the project casts our lot together with the co-critters that we are in a becoming with. Both dystopian and cautionary in intent, ‘Mutarerium’ illuminates alternative pathways and non-linear models of growth that are tentacular and symbiotic, as derived from the fellow critters who predate our existence on the planet by far and profess better promise of riding out the ecological turbulence ahead.
Waylon James D’Souza
Waylon D’Souza’s installation The Cascade of Futures Past employs an old idiom from Indian sacred geography – the mandala – to yarn the evolution of Gangetic dolphin from a petite land dweller, Pakicetus to the long snouted amphibian that it is known as today, starting around the same time as the gradual elevation of the Tethys sea into the Himalayan watershed. The mandala format enables a collation of different vantages – paleontological, climatological, geological, biological, anthropological and mythical – as well as a circular view of time. The species has become severely threatened on account of damming and other riverine activities by humans which disrupt its biological cycles in addition to adversely impacting its gene pool. Through a diagrammatic compression of the various factors at play, the artist hopes to convey a more comprehensive picture that can inform our conservation praxis. The need for a transnational, integrated conservation effort articulated from a fisheye perspective, is expressed through a melange of different national flags corresponding to countries that share the Ganga watershed. At the heart of the work lies the goddess Ganga astride her vanishing vahana. This together with the cities and communities flanking her are indicators of ecological practices/ formulations that have become quite divorced from their significance, as well as the exigency of involving local communities in conservation and policy making. The estuaries at the top as well as the fishing nets at the bottom literalise a reticulated ecological complex where small disturbances can butterfly into large effects. Wild reports of algal blooms and cephalopodic infestation of the world’s oceans certainly give credence to the Lovelockian scenario of a rogue cyanobacteria smothering out humanity, lending weight to the theory of a provoked planet acting out in self-defence. The harvested filter feeders such as cuttlefish, clams, and barnacles represent the evolved self-sustenance of these interarticulated systems that can get compromised due to any of the anthropogenic changes such as eutrophication, acidification, pollution and overfishing. Perhaps someday these creatures, like the shell-binder (decorator) worms found on the beaches of Mumbai, will come to bear the weight of our sins in the form of plastic carapaces, propelling other ecological shifts in turn.
Like Waylon, for her project Whales in Baroda Priyanka D’Souza revives the antiquated idiom of miniature paintings to recreate chapters from cetacean history, and particularly the history of whale beaching in the Indian subcontinent. She examines a range of sources from natural history journals to state correspondences and missives, fishery records, mythical accounts and hearsay, in order to expose the prejudices, mis-citations, and hierarchies inherent within our classification and representation of these magnificent beings. Using the metaphor of consumption to link our historical consumption of whales in the form of whale bone corsets, blubber used for manufacturing soaps, cosmetics, leather, candles etc. (as well as the recent renewal of commercial whaling by Japan), with the phenomenon of whale fall (that can nourish various marine organisms such as zombie worms for years after the whale has died), global warming (whales can sink considerable amounts of carbon to the ocean floor upon their death checking its release into the atmosphere in the form of greenhouse gasses) as well as the ingestion of plastic waste by these leviathans with fatal consequences, Priyanka diagnoses the current ecological crisis in terms of humanity’s insatiable hunger that has started corrupting several natural phenomena. The geomorphic motifs created with ironed polythene in the suit of paintings, are an ode to ‘plastiglomerate’ – a naturally occurring rock formation that has been hailed as the first material marker of the Anthropocene on account of its plastic assimilation — discovered in Hawaii in 2016. The plastiglomerates appear to morph into viscera referenced from autopsical images of whales that have chocked up on plastic and died. In the last painting, one can also discern the Hajiali coastline in Mumbai (where the artist lives), home to a flourishing coral ecology that is being rapidly destroyed by the coastal road project that is seeing truckloads of debris deposited daily into the sea despite the stay order from the court. The first painting refers to an 18th century Deccani illustration of a whale fall for a 13th century Arabic cosmographic text by Zakariya al-Qazwini, Aja’ib al-makhlukat wa ghara’ib al-maujudat (Marvels of Creatures and Strange Things Existing). The text makes mention of a giant fish, the Bahamut on whose back stands a bull that hoists up the mountains of ruby which support the angel who holds the earth. Under the Bahamut, it is said that god put a darkness impervious to human knowledge which to Priyanka metaphorises the limits of our ken and the dark ecologies of the deep beyond.
With her second work Mythologies and Mushrooms Priyanka examines the critical question: what will be born out of the ashes of humanity and inhabit our ruins? In her book The Mushroom at the End of the World, the Chinese-American anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing studies the biological, capitalistic, industrial, gastronomic and touristic flows enmeshing a particular type of mushroom, matsutake, that grows in human-disturbed forests across the northern hemisphere. By highlighting the nourishing qualities of matsutake that enables trees to grow in daunting terrains, Tsing reveals a silver lining of interspecies collaboration in the face of indiscriminate human destruction. In fact, recent studies suggest that fungal forefathers have been long at work, literally preparing the ground (by dissolving and releasing minerals out of primordial soils and secreting carbon-based acids making them hospitable) for the emergence of first land flora, facilitating their growth by forming close symbiotic liaisons that continue to qualify 90% of the plant diversity around us today. This in turn advanced the oxygenation of the atmosphere and powered further diversification of terrestrial biosphere. By setting mycelium to devour newspapers, the artist questions the contested truth fed to us by the media, the scientists and the politicians concerning the real state of our environment, slyly suggesting that perhaps soon it wouldn’t matter anymore as our graves are gradually run over by mushrooms. Or perhaps we’ll be able to mend our folly in the nick of time by incorporating fungal lessons in interspecies cohabitation to build sustainable futures.
Picking up the thread from where Priyanka and Waylon leave it, with his Critters series Mustafa Khanbhai projects his enquiry into post-human futures, where former urban ecologies and human habitations have been reclaimed by hybrid species that have out-survived humanity. “There are no real ‘glitches’ in nature,” explains Khanbhai, “what we think of as glitches are just new possibilities outside the human plan for efficiency and correctness.” Using the generative software Blender to speculate on the aftermath of the Sixth extinction, Mustafa ushers our attention towards species that cohabit our built environments and have successfully adapted and continue to adapt themselves to the vicissitudes of our urban ecologies, formulating a zoo- poetics that can productively feedback into our future socio-urban and institutional structuring. From pigeons who have left their original habitats in the sea-cliffs to roost in the corners of our houses, to lizards that have incorporated electrical lamps in their modalities of hunt, to strangler figs that put the survival skills acquired in rainforests to use as they strike roots in our concrete buildings, one has to acknowledge the layered ecosystems that pervade our habitats. Assuming that we haven’t out-evolved the need for more-than-human companionship and the contingency of our survival upon theirs, it behoves us to reflect deeply as to how we can open up our futurities to make room for our fellow critters. Not unlike Priyanka’s mushrooms, Mustafa’s strangler figs that are simultaneously organisms and habitats, parasites and providers, pose a silent challenge to the rigid and segregated structures of our society and can yield new models for our cities.
In the second work entitled Wheels Mustafa studies the critical condition of African elephants, situating them beyond the natural cycles of carbon, water and nitrogen and within a nexus of power, poaching, international black-market, illicit arms trade and terrorism. Due to the difficulty of carbon dating and tracing, ivory serves as an ideal black currency. From Mozambique to the special economic zone of the Golden Triangle where the borders of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet, the book traces the circuits that ivory traverses from its harvesting to camouflaging and bartering in exchange for armaments that are used for sustaining a multiplicity of illegal economies and fuelling insurgencies. The level of violence varies with the stakes as well as reasons that range from drought-affected farmers who turn to poaching for survival to governments who trade weapons for ivory goods.
 Words from a letter dated 1855, sent by Native American Chief Seattle of the Duwamish Tribe to the then US president Franklin Pierce, in response to an offer of purchase of the Dwamish lands in the present-day Washington State.
 As pointed out by Timothy Morton in the introduction to his book Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Cambridge MA & London: Harvard University Press. 2007, pp. 5).
Exhibition view. Photo credit: Mustafa Khanbhai.