patricia kaersenhout: Of Palimpsests & Erasure

patricia kaersenhout, Of Palimpsests & Erasure #2, 2021. Digital print. Commissioned by the Centraal Museum Utrecht, Netherlands. Courtesy the artist.

Of Palimpsests & Erasure
patricia kaersenhout

June 4 – July 15, 2024
Curated by Su-Ying Lee

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

Palimpsests are writing materials, such as parchment, that have had text erased so that the writing surface can be reused, but continue to hold traces of previous inscriptions. Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (The Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname), a book of illustrations of insects with their host plants, self-published by Dutch naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian in 1705 is the point of departure for patricia kaersenhout’s Of Palimpsests & Erasure.

kaersenhout’s images resemble an open book; however, the side-by-side pages represent the recto (front) and verso (back) of the same illustrated page. A response to how the artist experienced Insectorum Surinamensium—Merian’s illustrations on the recto, perceptible on the verso. Selected drawings by the naturalist have been shaded over by kaersenhout, whose pigments complicate readings of the original images, dulling the beauty that has distracted from the ugly realities that Merian’s achievements stand upon. On the page representing the verso, a faint earth toned version of the same insect and host plant is joined by a figure of a woman, that is decidedly not Merian. The artist explains “The bodies of the women ‘disrupt’, as it were, a dominant history and thereby at the same time claim a place in a history that has actively wiped them out.”

It’s unclear whether Merian was given or purchased enslaved people, but she enjoyed the benefits of extracting physical labour hand-in-hand with Indigenous and African ethnobotanical knowledge, developed over generations before Dutch arrival. The women imprinted onto kaersenhout’s versos likely share resemblances with those whom Merian referred to as “my Indian” and “my slave,” diminishing their identities in the notes written alongside her visual studies. The women she tasked with the toil of creating a path for her research received no additional recognition. To privilege Merian’s achievements without laying bare her extractive methods and the individuals who contributed to her success, is to reproduce historical harms. The uncompensated women would however achieve acts of agency against enslavers, such as Merian, through their complex understandings of reproductive health, racial capitalism and ethnobotanical knowledge.

For the full curatorial statement, visit the Blackwood website.

patricia kaersenhout, Of Palimpsests & Erasure #4, 2021. Digital print. Commissioned by the Centraal Museum Utrecht, Netherlands. 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 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

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. Shading over select drawings by the naturalist, kaersenhout complicates readings of the original images with her pigments, revealing the realities that Merian’s achievements stand upon: labour and knowledge extraction of enslaved Africans and Indigenous peoples.

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 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 Tracy Qiu.

Overseeding Public Programs

A discursive program series expands 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 2, Tracy Qiu will facilitate Plant Provocations: Uncovering Hidden Stories Behind Common Plants on Saturday, June 8, 1-3pm (UTM campus, Kaneff Centre/Innovation Complex, room 108). This workshop will explore stories about people and plants from a decolonizing and decentering perspective. Participants are invited to bring a plant and share their story in relation to it. Collective storytelling will be accompanied by an art-making activity about plant/human interactions.

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.