Inyang Essien: Our Rice

Inyang Essien, Untitled (from Our Rice), 2020. Courtesy the artist.

Our Rice
Inyang Essien

May 1 – June 3, 2024
Curated by Su-Ying Lee

Cycle one of Overseeding: Botany, Cultural Knowledge, and Attribution, a three-part lightbox exhibition on UTM campus

Inyang Essien’s photographic series Our Rice is the first in a sequence of image sets that comprise the exhibition Overseeding: Botany, Cultural Knowledge and Attribution. Essien’s images visualize a pivotal moment in Black history and the relationship between rice and the African people that have had an enduring co-existence with the grain. Rice, already cultivated by some African communities for millennia before European arrival, carries the DNA formed from being nourished by ancestral lands, relations that refused to be severed by the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

On an otherwise brutal oceanic journey, trafficking kidnapped African people to the Americas, rice was a passenger secreted aboard, ornately wrapped for secure transport, kept nestled in the soft warmth of women’s crowns. Our Rice brings into view the strategy developed by African women, deftly braiding rice and other grains and seeds into their hair to prepare for enslavement. The women’s act of agency provided a way to sustain their bodies and, despite the distance wedged between them and their homelands, hold the cultural foodways that arose there.

In the colonial history of botany, the contributions of women are diminished and the contributions of Black women, all but erased. Essien positions the women centrally in her photographs. They are incontestable. The survivance[1] of Maroon communities today is a direct benefit of the women’s braiding strategies. In turn, some of the women continue to be known through the cultivation of rice varieties that carry their names, honouring how they carried seeds to freedom and ensured the preservation of lives, agricultural diversity, culture, and histories: Sééi, Yaya and Paánza, Tjowa of the Matawai, Sapali, Ana and Bapi of the Aucans.

For the full curatorial statement, visit the Blackwood website.

Inyang Essien, Untitled (from Our Rice), 2020. Courtesy the artist.

About Overseeding: Botany, Cultural Knowledge, and Attribution
A three-part lightbox exhibition on UTM campus

Artists: Inyang Essien, patricia kaersenhout, Lifepatch with Kawan Pustaha
Curator: Su-Ying Lee

Overseeding: Botany, Cultural Knowledge and Attribution uncovers contributions that racialized people have made to botanical knowledge, previously obscured by European colonialism. Overseeding is the practice of spreading grass seed for the recolonization of lawns, land that would have had its own botanical communities. Turning the settler practice back on itself, the exhibition seeds over monocultural understandings of the origins of agricultural, botanical, and herbal knowledge, returning pre-imperial ideas and diverse authors to the space.

Cycle 1: May 1 – June 3, 2024

Commencing the series, Inyang Essien’s Our Rice visualizes the strategy that African women developed for braiding rice, seeds, and grains into their hair, preparing for being trafficked by the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The women’s actions would preserve culture and ensure the endurance of Maroon communities. African rice would also produce a highly profitable plantation crop, influencing cuisine in the American South, without benefitting those who brought it to fruition.

Cycle 2: June 4 – July 15, 2024

The second series, patricia kaersenhout’s Of Palimpsests & Erasure lays bare at whose expense Dutch naturalist and enslaver Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717) achieved success and authored her most lauded book Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (The Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname), a volume of illustrations of insects with their host plants. Shading over select drawings by the naturalist, kaersenhout has complicated readings of the original images with her pigments. Merian’s research was dependent upon the labour and expertise of enslaved Black and Indigenous women. Although uncredited, they would achieve acts of agency through their complex understandings of reproductive health, racial capitalism, and ethnobotanical knowledge.

Cycle 3: July 16 – September 2, 2024

The final set of images by Indonesian artist-researcher collectives Lifepatch and Kawan Pustaha were informed by their joint research into pustaha, illuminated manuscripts authored by Datu or spiritual leaders from Indigenous Batak communities in North Sumatra. Volumes of the books were taken from their communities during Dutch colonialism and are now kept in museums in Europe and elsewhere. The artists’ rematriation project resists colonial values, instead prioritizing flows of knowledge back to community.

Beyond instances of theft and injustice, Overseeding: Botany, Cultural Knowledge and Attribution brings forth the equally compelling parallel stories of how plants and racialized communities evolved alongside one another with plants supporting the preservation of cultural foodways, acts of agency and survival of ancestral wisdom.

Courtesy of Chef Bashir Munye.

Overseeding Public Programs

A discursive program series will expand on the exhibition’s themes through three workshops on decolonial food practices with Chef Bashir Munye, colonial histories of plants with Tracy Qiu, and contemporary wellness with Madelyne Beckles.

For Cycle 1, Chef Bashir Munye will lead Nomadic Supper: Decolonizing Culinary Arts on Wednesday, May 15, 6-8pm (92 Isabella St., Toronto, ON). This workshop will engage attendees in a discussion about strategies of survival, sustenance, and resilience through seed and food sovereignty. Participants will have the opportunity to taste a selection of light dishes made with African diasporic ingredients, enhancing their understanding of the historical context.

RSVP required; register on Eventbrite.

The Blackwood gratefully acknowledges the support of the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council, and the University of Toronto Mississauga. Proudly sponsored by U of T affinity partners. Discover the benefits of affinity products!

The Blackwood
University of Toronto Mississauga
3359 Mississauga Rd.
Mississauga, ON L5L 1C6
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Please note: Overseeding is FREE and open to the public, and accessible 24 hours a day in four outdoor lightboxes across UTM campus. Some movement throughout the campus is required—ramps and curb cuts are in place.

[1] The word “survivance” is borrowed from White Earth Anishinaabe writer and literary theorist, Gerald Vizenor who coined the term. Vizenor, Gerald Robert. Manifest Manners: Narratives on Postindian Survivance (University of Nebraska Press, 1999), vii.