Rice: Seed Journeys in the Americas

ONAJIDE SHABAKA is a visual artist living in Miami. His recent exhibitions and projects have included: “Antillean Lacunae,” at the Little Haiti Cultural Center, Dec., 2016-Feb., 2017; “Nature/Nurture,” at Salisbury University, Salisbury, MD; a residency in the Iron Range of Boundary Waters, MN; and “Dirt Yuta Suelo Udongo Te,” an exhibition he curated at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, 2015.

www: art3st.com

Twitter: @onajide

Instagram: @onajide

In 1972 I was a student at California College of the Arts in Oakland, CA. A requirement of the freshman student’s core curriculum included sculpture. I researched non-European sources to begin my project and discovered wood carving from the Maroons who had escaped slavery in the South American country of Suriname, fleeing into the jungle and mingling with indigenous peoples. Their syncretic wood carving reflected a synthesis between their West African origins and their new home. Although it may have been my dream to actually visit the country, it eventually receded in my mind to the point of being forgotten until 2016, when I was standing in front of a group of young people in the city of Moengo, Suriname as part of the Diaspora Vibe Cultural Arts Incubator (DVCAI) International Culture Exchange (ICE).

Since 1989 my art practice has focused primarily on ethnobotany, geology, and archeology as they relate to human history, society, and culture. The 2016 Suriname experience whetted my appetite for a more engaged time to investigate some of the things that my memory had resurrected, so during the following nine months I worked with DVCAI and Tigertail Productions in Miami and ReadyTex Gallery and local artist Kurt Nahar in Paramaribo, Suriname to create a month-long residency for myself where a residency program did not exist.

“untitled (saramacca blue)”
mixed media on paper
11 x 14 in. / 27.9 x 35.6 cm
© 2017

During those nine months I researched the relationships between colonial countries and the African slave populations they imported and moved around. It’s not widely known, but slaves were imported to specific parts of the Americas based on their knowledge of crop cultivation where centuries of experience meant their expertise was greater than the colonialists. I wanted to find a single crop that was grown in both North and South America, including the Caribbean, that could tie together this vast botanical project into something more concise while still encompassing the vastness of time and space that I was dealing with: spanning oceans and several centuries.

“Akisamaw Village rice planting”
(film still)

Rice was the crop I discovered and it became central to my project. Rice also allowed me to look at the historical timeline of industrial crop monoculture in Lowcountry South Carolina for interesting parallels in Suriname, since the colonial Dutch brought slaves from the same ports in West Africa to do the same work in a similar environment. Along the west African coast, rice was grown among the mangroves using a method called tidal cultivation. This was the first method used in both regions, before the slave population had to cut down the mangroves to expand growing areas. The key to making it work was their expertise in building embankments to prevent salt water incursions and working with the tides to ensure a fresh water supply. With this highly skilled population, the colonial system was able to survive until the later importation of Asian rice (oryza sativa, which grows faster than African rice, oryza glaberrima).

Rice was not planted in Portugal, England or Holland at the time when Brazil, South Carolina and Suriname were made colonies. Nonetheless, plantation owners have traditionally taken credit for the crop’s introduction and establishment. Descendants of runaway slaves in the Guianas, however, hold a contrasting view. They attribute the introduction of rice to an enslaved African woman.

When African slaves were first taken to Suriname from the Senegal-Gambia-Ivory Coast region, traditional rice growing areas, seeds of rice and other crops were hidden in the hair of captured women. Rice and various other food crops from West Africa found their way to a number of regions throughout the greater Caribbean from the southern US to Central and South America.

From Suriname to Cayenne and across the Amazon to the Brazilian states of Amapa, Para and Maranhao, an oral tradition claims that an African woman introduced rice by hiding grains in her hair. The precious seeds escaped detection and this, they explain, is how rice came to be planted. Even the rice plantation economy of colonial South Carolina suggests a similar account. In 1726 Swiss correspondent, Jean Watt, noted that ‘It was by a woman that rice was transplanted into Carolina’.

So, how has this project been developed within my practice?

“Plantage Katwijk” watercolor, collage on paper (artist book page), 6 x 12 in. / 15.2 x 30.5 cm, © 2017

Food talks about who we are as people, encompassing our personal and collective history. Because rice is the planet’s most widely eaten grain, I think a lot about cuisine as cultural and historical expression. Suriname is a country with many cultural influences, including African and Asian. It is not like “rice smuggled in hair”, for instance, results in a specific or directly translated image, form, or manifestation in my work. I create things tangentially, without trying to force a specific reading, although I hope that certain elements can be picked up, read, and understood. My visual and material culture research has so far resulted in various referential cues, or clues, to historical moments or sites I find interesting. The ethnobotanical crops and wild plants map out human and animal migrations over several hundred years. These plants have allowed humans to live in places they were unfamiliar with during the slave era but also provided them sustenance and health when medical physicians were not available or affordable.

Returning to the studio, I have taken some time to organize and develop some ideas about how to share this project. I began creating a few pieces, and out of these ideas I have started working on an artist book: a combination of photographic images, printmaking, and laser cut pages. There are collage works on paper, and I will make a few textile pieces as well, but my studio is small so I don’t have room to keep different in-process works out to work on at any moment. The creative process has been slow because each serpentine piece I’m working on—influenced by Maroon wood carvings—is painted, drawn, scanned, matched to something that fits, collaged, and then scanned again. If it doesn’t fit I have to draw and paint another, hence the consumption of time. The book is coming along nicely, and should be finished in 2018.

“Dirt Yuta Suelo Udongo Tè”


During my first trip to Minnesota in 1997, a rain soaked drive north almost to the Canadian border to Ely from Minneapolis, I asked my friend driving to stop along the roadside so that I could gather a small cup of reddish mud from a pothole. At the time, I thought for sure he would think I had lost my mind. However, upon my return to Miami and subsequent years, it quickly became a material used in my “art play,” resulting in both drawings and sculptures. Since 1997, the idea of dirt as a cultural material has taken off in many directions. I returned to Ely for visits over the next several years to continue my “botanical and geological research,” and began shipping his trove of dirt and found objects back home.

Dirt, from the lithosphere to geophagy to ritual is difficult to define since it can represent the dissolution of everything; the final stop and conclusion to life. It is, however, nature and a salve, brought to life of this iron red oxide material and all of its various ideas for a creative art practice.

“Dirt is not dirt, but only matter in the wrong place.” Variations of this quote have been attributed to William James, Sigmund Freud, Mary Douglas, John Ruskin and a host of others, but an 1883 issue of Longman’s Magazine confirms its author was Lord Palmerston. He aired his starched Sunday shirt on a gooseberry bush only to have it flitter into the mud, but he donned it anyway, uttering this now famous line.

After a long conversation with an artist friend about my containers of dirt I thought it would make an intriguing art exhibition and series of readings. The curated exhibition, “Dirt Yuta Suelo Udongo Tè,” points to dirt through various linguistic references: English, Talaandig (Philipines), Spanish, Kiswahili (east Africa), and Kreole (Haiti).

Although initially a very open idea, the exhibition of fourteen artists took on a narrower focus. Although central to an exhibition about dirt, it was not just about the substance as it took on a more metaphorical bend with personal and societal pollutions surfacing as an important idea. And, of course, humor was interjected with various images and sculpture. Most of the included artists were based in Miami, Florida, where the lush landscape tends to overshadow the unpaved terrain, they all took the topic naturally in their own art practices.

Dirt became contemporary art with the Earthworks of the late 1960s, a type of formalism that moved out of the gallery, into the ground and then out to rural spaces. Nature is dirt, after all — a timeless emollient within which many cultures find themselves. We are made of dirt. We return to dirt. Our relationship to dirt is entirely mixed up with cultures and societies.

As I began developing this dirt project more fully my thoughts went in many directions about its significance to both art and science. Works from fourteen artists explore different takes on the subject matter: cleanliness, cycles of destruction and creation, the fleeting nature of time and memory, the sediment of human existence, and our relationship with the environment. It includes sculpture, photography, paintings, drawings, mixed-media works, delicate Raku pottery, and two poems written especially for the exhibition.

Performance artist David Rohn takes a much more literal approach using the substance smeared over his body and hair in a number of staged personages. They each provoke the mind with the fundamental essence of our interior lives in a blatantly external and messy way. Less shock but ultimately thought provoking, Rohn’s pieces are also literal in the sense that humans around the planet play with and eat dirt.

For generations, the eating of clay-rich dirt has been a curious but persistent custom in some rural areas of Mississippi and other Southern states, practiced over the years by poor whites and blacks. But while it is not uncommon these days to find people here who eat dirt, scholars and others who have studied the practice say it is clearly on the wane. [M]any are giving up dirt because of the social stigma attached to it.

Dr. Frate (cited in the NY Times article) said dirt eating is one of the few customs surviving among some Southern blacks that can be directly traced to ancestral origins in West Africa.

(February 13, 1984) WILLIAM E. SCHMIDT

Thinking back memories of my own childhood, my grandparents are from Tennessee and South Carolina, and I remember when growing up hearing stories told about women eating dirt. They apparently did this while pregnant because of its nutritional value. It’s called geophagy, and apparently it’s a common occurrence in places in the Caribbean.

The original cache of dirt was scooped up near Ely, MN which is located in the Vermilion Iron Range. There is still iron ore (taconite) mining in Minnesota. If we look at the photographs of Mark Hahn in another mining state, Arizona, we see the scale and depth of copper ore extraction that most people have never seen. The open sore on the landscape it produces is something the people of Boundary Waters Minnesota are fighting to prevent, as are many anti mining initiatives.

Edouard Duval Carrié gives us to view a diptych of two hand painted light boxes. They comprise each a man and woman made up of bacterial transparencies to create the figures, part of his “Tainted” series. This series focuses on human fragility in both a personal and societal way. His art, while often set in a world of Caribbean historical fantasy, reaches beyond the personal and into the political realm. These figures are not icons but very representatives of our failed humanity.

When we look at Ralph Provisero’s sculpture of compacted dirt, we see geologic time in shortened form. Over the course of the exhibition the sculpture’s process will metaphorically become a once living and now decaying object. It starts off moist and seemingly full of life. As it dries out, it cracks and flakes apart just as real world environmental events take place over time. Unless you stand there and watch the sculpture the full length of the exhibition the process will be perceptible only because you know it was pristine and solid when it was formed.

Through my cultural practice I have been investigating dirt in the context of the African Atlantic and Indigenous Mesoamerican diaspora. Dirt is a sacred and secretive material that that I have creatively implemented in a variety of contexts on a variety of media. Additionally, I spent the month of September, 2015, as artist-in-residence in the Everglades National Park. I studied alongside park’s scientists who where monitoring water salinity and soil composition and their importance to healthy ecosystems.

With the help of a few artists I have brought forth a few of the ideas I have been working with since that rainy day in 1997. The exhibition is an opportunity to share some of the explorations of other artists.

“Dirt Yuta Suelo Udongo Tè,” will return at the Ritter Art Gallery, Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, Florida, January 22 – March 5, 2016 with fourteen artists and invited guest authors reading about dirt during a public event on Feb. 11, 2016.