I strive to uncover invisible, suppressed stories that lie in the geopolitical shadows of colonialism and migration. As the 2016-17 Artist-in-Residence at the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at NYU, I will research the social history of plants via spice routes and botanical expeditions to create a multiplatform project, Rhunhattan, that will include psychogeographic and immersive tech experiences, as well as object and olfactory work to bring forth the historical and contemporary relationship between the islands of Rhun (located in present-day Banda Island Archipelago of Indonesia) and Manaháhtaan (original Lenape name of Manhattan).
During 17th century Spice Wars, Dutch Nieuw Amsterdam was captured by the British and renamed “New York.” By 1667, the Dutch relinquished their claim to the colony in exchange for Rhun, the sole British colony in the Banda Islands of present-day Indonesia, thereby gaining monopoly of the lucrative nutmeg and mace trade. This pivotal moment came at a bloody cost for Indigenous peoples: both for the Bandanese and the Lenape people of Manaháhtaan. Over the centuries, as the spice trade faded, Rhun also settled into the background while Manaháhtaan rose to unprecedented financial success. The remaining colonial landmarks that continue to link these islands are the present day National Museum of American Indian at Bowling Green, which occupies the original site of Fort Amsterdam, and Fort Nassau of the Banda Islands; both forts share the same diamond-shaped architectural structure. In the visual narrative that I will be developing I see the identical forts act as portals between the two contested sites to collapse the time and distance of these two islands.
To tell this story of two islands with intertwined fates of land dispossession and erasure during the birthing of imperial globalization propelled forward by countless caravans and ships transporting spice, sugar, and silk, I am reeducating myself about the broken human relationship with land and waters. We are living in debt to our future generations and must learn how the Lenape sustainably managed the island for the sake of futurity over millennia. In a time when massive glaciers the size of lower Manhattan crashing into the ocean doesn’t make a media splash, we have a great responsibility to fight apathy. We are living in urgent times and there is a need to revitalize indigenous cultures and knowledge for environmental stewardship. We need a paradigm shift from falsely believing that human beings are landlords of Earth to seeing humans as being part of the ecosystem.
In the past year, through developing the Wayfinding Project at A/P/A Institute at NYU, I have been learning about indigenous geography through the groundbreaking work of ecologist Eric Sanderson of the Mannahatta Project at the Bronx Zoo’s Wildlife Conservation Society, and the Hōkūleʻa, a Polynesian double hull canoe circumnavigating the world with ancestral knowledge with the message of Mālama Honua “To Care for Mother Earth.” These experiences inform a series of upcoming projects dedicated to Manaháhtaan, with an emphasis on native plants. I choose to work with native plants to honor the land that feeds and nurtures us. In addition, planting native plants has positive effects on supporting pollinators, thereby strengthening the environment. In the ecosystem, the air, the insects, the algae, the soil, the stones, the human and non-human animals all depend on each other and this interdependency must be respected as afterall, we are not all going to Mars.
The first event that launched my residency was A Tale of Two Islands that took place on September 27, 2016 which began with planting three native trees at NYU’s Native Woodland Garden followed by a performance lecture. Chief Reggie Herb Dancer Ceaser of the Matinecock Nation guided the cultural protocols for the planting along with the participation of NYU Native American and Indigenous Student Group (NAISG) and Professor Jack Tchen’s Lenape Trail Seminar students. The native trees we planted include hornbeam, which used to grow in the NYU area. On Indigenous Peoples Day, in conjunction with the Wayfinding Project, we will have Lenapeway, a 24-hour window exhibit at 715 Broadway on view from October 10 – December 9, 2016 that realigns the spine of Manaháhtaan – Lenapeway, presently Broadway – with its Lenape heritage. This exhibit will be activated with a guided walk through NYU’s Native Gardens on October 18, of which there are eleven on campus created by NYU Grounds Manager George Reis. I am also partnering with Highway 101, ETC (Experiential Tech Community) to create a virtual reality experience, Mannahatta VR, to reimagine precolonial Manhattan and the possibilities of Indigenous Futurism.
In the Spring semester I am planning for travel-research to the Banda Islands to grasp the other side of this watershed historical moment through interviews, community engagement, visiting fragments of Fort Nassau, researching in archives and connecting with the landscape. My hopes are to produce a 360-degree video as well as select site-specific augmented reality experiences that will allow viewers to experience both places simultaneously while thinking through these shared experiences of the two islands. In the face of global environmental degradation, inequality, and polarizing debates over political and cultural borders, it is key to recognize that all ethnospheres and biospheres are, like archipelagos, connected beneath the surface.