African Oil Palm & African Rice

Elia Nurvista and Rubiane Maia exchange artistic research processes that bring them into closer proximity with the politics of plants, labour, and ecologies that produce our most common food stuffs and comodities; rice and palm oil. Each fosters long term research that considers the ways lives are enmeshed in the oppressions of the plantations and considers artistic methods to rekindle other relations with plants.

Elia Nurvista, African Oil Palm 

I am interested to see palm oil closely, not only because Indonesia, the country where I am from, is known as the biggest producer of palm oil, but also because we are so distant from this plant and the plantation, even when we consume it everyday. I have never been to a palm oil plantation, though my father came from Kalimantan island, home of a massive plantation. Still, I have used countless products containing palm oil for my daily consumption, consciously or not.

Palm oil or Elaeis guineensis is a native plant from West Africa. In the 15th century the Europeans “discovered” the usefulness of these plants and brought them to Europe through slavery. But long before that African people already had the knowledge to process it into oil, wine, medicine, for firing, and fiber. By the seventeenth century, palm oil was commonly available as medicine in England, and by the late eighteenth century palm oil became a staple ingredient in soap and candles during the Industrial Revolution.

The story of the first palm oil tree in Southeast Asia began some time before with four seedlings that came to Java’s Buitenzorg (now Bogor) botanical gardens in 1848 from Bourbon, Mauritius via Amsterdam. But it wasn’t the success story of palm oil as a fruitful industrial crop yet. It takes around 40 years of trial and error by European scientists to find the best formula for this plant to be a perfect commodity, from the soils, seeds and pollinators. Long story short, in 1911 the first big scale plantation was born in Deli Sumatra, the predecessor for the ultimate and unstoppable monoculture plantation in Indonesia.

Rubiane Maia, African Rice 

Through the lens of my Book-Performance project (a series of performance based on autobiographical texts started in 2018), I followed the rice on its fantastic story of migration in the hair of African women during the transatlantic slave trade. 

Despite finding more information about North American plantations, my focus was on Brazil, where I was born and where rice is one of the main foods. Opting for artistic research that went beyond studying and reading, I wrote and performed a new text, titled ’The tongue bends whenever it faces what is unquestionable or what has been cursed’, chapter VI at the 35th São Paulo Biennial. During the presentation I embodied important aspects of care and healing connected to the tongue and language, highlighting many contradictions in historical and botanical narratives in the colonial centuries.

Soon after, I had the opportunity to visit for the first time a rice plantation in Japan, getting closer to rice seeds and plants. Recently, ‘Becoming Rice’ turned into the title of this expanding research, which has no predicted ending.