I’ve started filming videos with my reflections and explanations of my pieces as I finish them, over on my instagram, which I’ll insert at the bottom of this post. I’m finding speaking about my work right after completion is more enjoyable for me and a good muscle to keep working. But for accessibility, I’m going to make the format of these posts into a sort of transcript, so people who can’t or don’t want to listen to the videos, can read all the same insights here. There’ll be a few amendments, to remove ums and errs, etc.
This is my personal visual response to the research that I did around iguana, specifically green iguana. This piece is about invasive species and more broadly, more deeply it’s about how we should apply discernment and critical thinking when we are listening to conservation stories, and always asking ‘who does this narrative serve? Who benefits from people believing this story?’
This is another piece that has come from my time in Costa Rica in January at the Art residency there. I knew I would see iguana, and there were lots of black iguana living on the house and in the drains, so I had a lot of opportunity to observe them (you can see some of that video if you want to, in my story highlights on instagram). In Costa Rica there’s the black iguana and also the green iguana, the two native species.
I love reptiles. As I get older I feel like I’m just really drawn to them. I love making them and had a lot of fun making this piece. I’m really pleased how it’s come out, I’m really happy with the way that it’s been realised.
I initially discovered that the green iguana is a protected and endangered species in Costa Rica however elsewhere in the Americas they are in fact an invasive species. Iguana as a genus are amongst the world’s most endangered animals. They face threats such as severe habitat degradation, threats from other invasive species – dogs, rats, pigs, mongoose; competition from livestock for food, human settlements etc. But the green iguana in Central America has been a traditional food source for over 7000 years. The traditional name translates to ‘the chicken of the trees’. So it’s got a very long history with the indigenous population of Central America, as well as in South America there are iguana gods in Peruvian Moche mythology.
I found out about a Dutch-run and lead conservation foundation in Costa Rica, where hunting iguana is now illegal and doing so by the local indigenous population is threatening the remaining endemic populations. Part of the work that the Foundation does is educating children to prevent that practice from continuing. I’m going to come back to that.
So endangered in its native home, and amongst the world’s most threatened animals as a genus. However in Florida is an example of where the green iguana has become a huge problem as an invasive species itself. Iguanas bought as pets, or as stowaways on ships to Caribbean islands particularly, have exploded their populations. They have caused huge imbalance to occur in those native ecosystems. For example in Florida the green iguana population grew to such an extent that the over consumption of an endangered plant they were feeding on caused a species of butterfly to actually go extinct.
Part of the response by the Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission was asking the public to kill iguana if they saw them on their property. PETA criticised the Wildlife Commission for giving the public cruel and ineffective advice by not properly informing them of humane methods. PETA called for better regulation of their possession as pets. I found out that in 1995 alone 800,000 green iguanas were imported into North America for the pet trade. Hobbyists are often not aware of the care and space needed for iguana to thrive. Iguanas can live for over a decade or longer, and so were being released into the wild. They thrive in the climate in Florida so it caused the massive population explosion.
What got me interested in this story and inspired this piece was going back to the idea that green iguana themselves are not under threat as a global population. In fact they can thrive pretty easily – females can lay up to 80 eggs, they’re pretty adaptable. In Panama – just over the border from Costa Rica – they’re even farmed, to supply the pet trade. However there’s a belief amongst the native people in Costa Rica, that everyone is entitled to kill one iguana a year. This is a 7000-year-old culture of eating iguana, so way before the Americas were colonized by Europeans this was a native practice and the species have remained intact and survived all that time. So to me it seems like a very myopic view that once again seeks to place indigenous cultural practices and beliefs in the crosshairs of Western criticism around conservation practices, but doesn’t adequately acknowledge or address the larger, often capitalist white-supremacist influences at hand – for example the nearly 1 million Iguanas imported every year for pets into North America.
Going back to what I started by saying – whom is this narrative serving?
Habitat loss is glossed over again and again when it comes to looking at some of these really marginalised species populations, really holding onto these scraps of ecosystem. When you look deeper it often reveals a Western capitalist drive for, let’s say for example, expensive tropical hardwoods like rosewood or ebony (you could also say palm oil industry, tourism, monocrops etc). Logging has occurred, and habitat fragmentation. So habitats get smaller and smaller, less able to support a large population of whatever animal you like… and so who does the mainstream conservation narrative blame?
The Millennia-old indigenous cultural and life practices of hunting and living in a very sustainable way. Who does that serve? Because what I would argue is that just serves to prop up the agenda of destruction, of extractive capitalism, of taking resources from countries. It serves a colonial agenda.
I don’t know the answers. There are species with just a few individuals left that have traditionally been hunted by local communities. I am not advocating that nothing should be done to conserve these species. I don’t know the answer to that. This is my visual response to my research.
What I will say is that I believe in 2020 you must question and practice critical thinking, practice discernment when you are reading about these conservation stories. Because frequently terms like ‘bushmeat’ when used to criticise indigenous life, are actually dog whistle racism terms to prop up back door colonialism, suppressing more and more indigenous cultural practices and sustainable ways of living from communities of land and biodiversity defenders that have been extant on these lands for millennia, and it really helps to divert your attention away from the larger more important issue that we all need to be working to dismantle which is the patriarchal white-supremacist, colonialist systems of oppression.
Now I’ll talk about the aesthetic choices. This orange background – I had this orange drill cotton in my stash and when I pulled it out the first thing that hit me was it really reminded me of the colour of the clothes that inmates are made to wear in some prisons and it helped to ground the colour palette of green and orange. Then I discovered that when threatened or in conflict or stressed, green iguana flush orange. So I really enjoyed this contrast. I think it really ties the narrative.
The two eyes are just to say there’s two ways of seeing things, there’s more than one way of seeing something, and it all ties in with the title of the piece We Will Suppress You. I really wanted to to introduce ambiguity for you the viewer asking the question ‘who is speaking?’ Who is the ‘we’ and who is the ‘you’? Is the iguana the suppressor or are you the viewer? Is the iguana being suppressed?
This was yet further emphasised with this experiment that paid off, having the foot come out of the frame. Again I want to introduce this idea of suppression, coming out to suppress you because it doesn’t belong here, or the victim of being placed in a world it doesn’t belong in. The humans will suppress the natural world, and one agenda will suppress other narratives.
Finally, the framing itself, which was really intrinsic to the overall success of the composition. I was a bit nervous choosing such a thick black frame but I wanted to have the aperture very tight to suggest not enough space, not enough room. That the subject is being contained, and yet with the foot motif, there is this idea of the tension between invasion and suppression.
As always, I’d love to know what you think and what the piece says to you.
You can also read about me and my work in the current issue of Stitch magazine! Get a copy at stitchmag.co.uk
Here’s the original video about this piece: