Aotearoa New Zealand and USA, 2020
In a 1940 poem, Bertolt Brecht asked:
What kind of times are they, when
to talk about trees is almost a crime
because it implies silence about so many horrors?
In a 1995 poem, Adrienne Rich answered:
…so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it’s necessary
to talk about trees.
Family Tree Whakapapa brings together the work of four sisters to ‘talk about trees’ – in a labor of love. That love is both a sisterly love and a love for the environment, fueling a project in the form of an exhibition that persisted despite the challenges of COVID-19. The project was conceived as both a personal and professional reunion, as we are artists, poets or both, hailing from both land and water hemispheres, with all the longing that distance creates. It has been twenty years since we last exhibited all together – in Hong Kong. At the time of this writing, it remains impossible for us to gather in New Zealand as planned, though ‘the show will go on’ at the Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art and History in Masterton and at the Wallace Arts Centre in Auckland.
As curators, painters, photographers and writers, we portray trees in conditions in and outside of human care and conflict. Genealogical roots and botanical roots intertwine. The microcosm of family expands to the macrocosm of the planet and all of its species, whether endangered by disease or depredation.
In its beauty and force, ‘nature’ is often regarded as benign and apolitical. We do not expect trees to assume editorial stances or embody ideologies. Whether bombed or irradiated, contained or marginalised, in underground union or standing in persistence, trees and their representations can offer solace and space – for the necessity of talking, listening and learning.
Based on her experiences in Japan, elin o’Hara slavick’s works bear witness to the ongoing aftermath of atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the nuclear power disaster in Fukushima. Madeleine Slavick’s photographs reveal dichotomies and their collapses in our experience of nature in environments both rural and urban, decrying the marginalisation of trees. Sarah Slavick’s paintings explore the underground life of trees in an elegiac series that conveys both grief and hope, for what is threatened and for what might survive through the strategies that trees enact. Susanne Slavick hand paints specimens derived from ‘tree of life’ carpet designs over printed scenes of environmental loss and destruction. These trees do not lie down like doormats; they rise up and persist, suggesting the possibility of recovery.
Climate change and the pandemic are just two of the many dilemmas we face. In any crisis, and especially at the intersection of these two, we reassess priorities, re-examining our purpose and direction – our very identities. The te reo Māori ethos of whakapapa is even more salient in such times. It speaks to genealogy and human relations in the broadest sense, in context and connectedness across terrestrial and spiritual realms. Family Tree Whakapapa joins this ethos in offering both critical commentary and sensual delight in visualizing the tree as refuge and livelihood, consumed and consuming, under assault and triumphant, as historical record, and as harbinger of things to come.
About the exhibit: FAMILY TREE WHAKAPAPA
elin o’Hara slavick / North Carolina
Madeleine Slavick / Aotearoa New Zealand
Sarah Slavick / Massachusetts
Susanne Slavick / Pennsylvania
A full-colour publication accompanies the exhibition, with an essay by Katherine Guinness (Colorado, USA) and a poem by Rawiri Smith (Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairarapa).
There is also a living tree in the gallery. Visitors can sit near the tree and listen to poems and texts concerning trees by many writers, including Wislawa Szymborska, Joy Harjo, Richard Powers, David Mitchell and Pat White (NZ), and elin and Madeleine.
More from each of the sisters in this video:
Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art and History,
12 December 2020 – 14 February 2021
The Wallace Arts Centre Pah Homestead,
20 April 2021 – 13 June 2021
Opening 20 April, 6pm
The artists acknowledge support from:
City of Boston, Opportunity Fund Grant
College of Fine Arts at Carnegie Mellon University
Hiroshima City University
Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum
The Japan Society for the Promotion of Science
Masterton Creative Communities
A write-up about the exhibit can be found at PhotoForum.
Exhibit photos by Julie Clifton, Ian Saville and Madeleine Slavick
Family Tree Whakapapa runs at Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art and History from 12 December, 2020 – 14 February, 2021 and at Wallace Arts Centre in Auckland , from 20 April – 13 June, 2021. More about the Wairarapa exhibit here and here, and the forthcoming Auckland exhibit here.
About the artists
elin o’Hara slavick is a Professor of Art at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and has exhibited internationally. Her work is included in many collections, including the Queens Museum, The National Library of France, The Library of Congress and the Art Institute of Chicago. Author of two monographs, Bomb After Bomb: A Violent Cartography and After Hiroshima. Her writings and images have been featured in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, FOAM, San Francisco Chronicle, Asia-Pacific Journal and Photo-Eye, among other publications. She is also a curator, critic, poet, and activist.
Elin’s work in Family Tree Whakapapa is from the series After Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Fukushima. Some of the exhibited works can be found in her monograph After Hiroshima (Daylight Books, 2013). During eight trips to Japan, she made cyanotypes of A-bombed artifacts from Hiroshima and Nagasaki and irradiated matter from Fukushima, conjuring the shadows left by humans and things as a result of the blinding light and heat of the atomic bombs and the waves of the tsunami and radiation in Fukushima. Exposure is central to her project – both photographic exposures and exposure to radiation. Like humans, trees stand as witnesses, victims and survivors. Eiln Slavick also works in the darkroom with related and symbolic materials, x-ray film exposed to the lingering radiation in A-bombed artifacts, and rubbings of A-bombed surfaces, including some of the sixty trees that survived the A-bomb in Hiroshima. elinoharaslavick.com
Madeleine Slavick / 思樂維 is a writer, editor, community arts advocate and photographer. She has authored several books of photography, poetry and non-fiction, and has recited her poetry internationally. Her work has been featured in Art News, Art New Zealand, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Mascara, PhotoForum, Poetry New Zealand, Prairie Schooner and Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, among other publications. She identifies as Hong Kong Chinese after living in Hong Kong for nearly 25 years. She now lives in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Madeleine grew up in New England, in ‘The Pine Tree State’ of Maine, where there was an open field behind the home (since redeveloped) and a patch of woods across the street (largely felled). These were the playgrounds of her youth. Fast-forward several decades to her Wairarapa home, with a timber factory at the beginning of the road, a dairy farm next door, and a forest park at the end. Her contributions for this exhibition project reflect these dichotomies, depicting the glory of the tree, yet its containment and marginalisation. The images and poems also speak to her cultural heritage / whakapapa, spanning Asia, Aotearoa, North America and Europe.
Sarah Slavick is a professor at Lesley University’s College of Art and Design. Numerous awards include a grant in painting from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and artist residencies at Baer Art Center in Iceland, the Millay Colony and the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art. Exhibition highlights include Big Bang! Abstract Painting for the 21st Century at the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park and Dix Artistes Americaines in Strasbourg, France. Her work has been featured in The Boston Globe, Hyperallergic and journals of contemporary criticism, art and literature such as Diacritics and Posit 9. Slavick engages with the larger regional community as a union leader, activist, artist, gallery director, curator, critic, juror and teacher.
In producing oxygen, the trees above ground are critical for human survival. In her Elegy to the Underground series, Sarah Slavick is particularly drawn to what happens below ground, especially the recent discoveries concerning latticed fungi or mycorrhizal networks. Through sharing resources and working together in complex and infinite pathways, alliances and kinship networks, trees reach enormity, increasing their chances of survival and ours as well. These new insights into the hidden life of trees offer new strategies for protecting our own home and species. Fearing and mourning their heartbreaking loss, her watercolors and paintings constitute elegies, alternately acting as tributes and memorials to trees. sarahslavick.com
Susanne Slavick is an artist, curator, writer and the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Art at Carnegie Mellon University. She studied at Yale University, Jagiellonian University in Krakow and Tyler School of Art in Rome and Philadelphia. Her traveling curatorial projects include When the Bough Breaks (2019), Marx@200 (2018), Unloaded (2015-19) and Out of Rubble (2011-15). Recent exhibits include those at University of Virginia, Gettysburg College, McDonough Museum of Art, Chicago Cultural Center and Accola Griefen Gallery (NYC). Honors include multiple grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and distinguished teaching awards from the College Art Association and Carnegie Mellon College of Fine Art.
Susanne Slavick’s work pursues empathic unsettlement, combining images of incomprehensible destruction and the possibility of recovery, however elusive. For example, ‘Tree of Life’ carpet designs are painted over images of environmental devastation, from diverse cultural and environmental locales. These trees do not lie down; instead, they stand up in persistence. Whether inflicted by logging or global warming, deforestation knows no borders. The creative impulse motivating the painting, weaving and planting of trees is necessary for a global crisis that needs global solutions. More here.