Among the reeds of the Tigris River in southern Iraq, the Ma’dan people built villages of floating thatched houses so dense that the region became known as Mesopotamian Venice. Wetland draining and frequent droughts forced many of the Ma’dan away, yet, gradually, their way of life is being resuscitated as it becomes clear that floating, sustainable islands will be needed once again, as sea levels rise.

The Ma’dan are one of the striking communities profiled in the current Barbican exhibition Our Time on Earth, until the end of August. Other craft and design exhibitions exploring how traditional ecological knowledge can rebuild a sustainable earth have included the recent Gaining Ground show at London’s Craft Council Gallery, and the Bio27 design biennial in Ljubljana, Slovenia, which runs until the end of September. Such is the currency of these ideas at present. This year’s edition of the Venice Biennale showcased more art from indigenous communities than it has ever done before.

The Nordic pavilion contained work by Sámi artists, highlighting their struggle against a changing climate and the dispossession of their land – the latter caused by dam building and mineral extraction. Weavers using indigenous techniques filled the Philippine pavilion, and within the main exhibition the psychedelic paintings of the late Macuxi artist Jaider Esbell, from Brazil, sit among the Colombian Delcy Morelos’s fragrant installation made of cacao, earth and spices.

All of these artists depict humanity as one small part of a broader ecosystem, and see their work as an active agent in the expression of their own cosmologies, rather than passive reflections of the world.

Hilma af Klint, “Untitled #1”, 1915, oil on gold on canvas, private collection

At the Venice Biennale, indigenous artists are put in conversation with 20th-century women artists such as Leonora Carrington and Ithell Colquhoun, whose work’s exploration of mysticism is revealed in opposition to the appropriation of indigenous culture, which many of their male Surrealist counterparts are now accused of. This was also made clear at Tate Modern’s recent Surrealism Beyond Borders exhibition: here, Carrington’s investigation of Mexican indigenous culture is treated sympathetically, unlike the core Surrealist group’s inclusion of indigenous artefacts for its 1936 exhibition, Surrealist Objects, in Paris. The Tate show pointed out these works were “included for their perceived aesthetic value within a European context, [and] were stripped of place, maker and their original meaning”.

It is clear that magical thinking (with overt references to indigenous culture) is taking hold. Also currently on show in Venice, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection centres the occult interests of the Surrealists as a departure point in its Surrealism and Magic: Enchanted Modernity exhibition. The past decade’s rewriting of the story of abstraction rightly crowned the Swedish spiritualist innovator Hilma af Klint, born in 1862 – toppling Kandinsky – and the subsequent interest in mystical artists was also seen in the Hayward’s 2020 touring show Not Without My Ghosts: The Artist as Medium, where the visionary Victorian artist Georgiana Houghton, among others, was at last given her due.

Last year’s Momenta biennale in Montreal placed a similar emphasis on exhibiting indigenous artists, with the community garden built by T’uy’t’tanat-Cease Wyss taking centre stage. Wyss is an interdisciplinary artist and ethnobotanist, of Squamish and Hawaiian descent. Her garden aimed to raise visibility for indigenous ways of living – one example being the influence of Dish With One Spoon Wampum; a traditional law used by indigenous peoples of Turtle Island, as a Nation-to-Nation agreement to peaceably share harvesting territory.

At the Baltic Centre in Newcastle last year, Abel Rodríguez (Mogaje Guihu), an elder from the Nonuya ethnic group of the Colombian Amazon, had an exhibition. His artistic practice emerged from his ancestral understanding of the indigenous plants of the Colombian Amazon. Following his family’s displacement during the Colombian conflict of the 1990s – amidst the growth of cocaine plantations and the subsequent US-sponsored, highly toxic fumigation campaign to eliminate them – he was asked by a conservation-focused NGO to portray the rainforest as he remembered it, so researchers could draw on his knowledge. Despite never having made art before, Guihu did so to support his family. What has emerged decades later is a visual language that transcribes the values of his people on to paper in a way that is more emphatic than words; employing, for example, a taxonomy that does not correspond to conventional Linnaean classification.

Mogaje Guihu, Territorio de Mito, 2017, acrylic on paper

Territorio de Mito (2017) is one example of Guihu’s work: a chagra – a piece of land cultivated on a traditional cycle of seeding, harvesting and abandonment – is shown as part of the life-cycle of the forest, together with the dwelling. His approach evidently reacts against early depictions of the flora and fauna of the region by famous Spanish botanists such as José Celestino Mutis. Guihu’s work doesn’t commoditise nature, but brings it into communion.

Given the urgency of the climate crisis, the burgeoning art world interest in indigenous work should come as no surprise. In an open letter, We are the Earth, written this year by two indigenous activists from Brazil, Sônia Guajajara and Célia Xakriabá, they state: “We, the native peoples, represent 5% of the world population. However, our way of life protects 82% of the world’s biodiversity. The earth is our collective home and our inner home. It is our breath and the heart that pulsates within us.”

The letter is one of the many exhibits currently on view at the Barbican, in Our Time on Earth. The exhibition also touches on a central issue as indigenous communities gain prominence: how to ensure this exchange is equal and not exploitative. As one of the organisers of the Barbican exhibition, Julia Watson, comments: “We need to avoid a situation where we’re simply extracting their technologies from them.” The novel solution the Barbican has come up with to safeguard intellectual property is to take an oral “Oath of Understanding”, which is then translated into unalterable smart contracts, encoded on public blockchains and thus installed in cyberspace, immutable.

But it is more than environmental angst that is bringing these voices to the fore. Chief among the concerns of these artists are the post-human, the transcending of capitalist values and a return to ritual and magical thinking – and a desire for art to be more than decoration.

The return of magical thinking speaks of a culture in which a rationalist, modern worldview is no longer associated with progress but the plunders of capitalism, patriarchy and ecological disaster. No one disputes that industrialised, technologically advanced, productive societies produced incredible results by extending life expectancy, raising many out of poverty and enshrining liberty globally. We now view these same societies, however, as extractive, overly dominant and totally unsustainable.

The floating thatched villages of the Ma’dan people in southern Iraq,
c1978, many of which were later destroyed by Saddam Hussein © Nik Wheeler/Corbis/Getty. They construct island houses on top of living reeds, which naturally filter pollutants from the water

This clash of values is seen everywhere, notably in New Zealand in the controversy surrounding an open letter published in July 2021 by academics at the University of Auckland (the so-called Listener Seven), who argued that Māori traditional knowledge “falls far short of what can be defined as science itself”, within the context of a discussion around whether to place it on a par with “Western” science in the New Zealand school curriculum. Magical thinking in art isn’t exclusively drawing from the pre-modern: it also looks to the future. The “New Mystics” group, whose work fuses technology and numinous perspectives, is currently presenting a series of events at Somerset House in London which “merges magic and technology to explore the interconnected topics of sound and ritual, myth-making, ecological futures, and more-than-human narratives”.

There is a less attractive side to magical thinking. In his 1947 Theses Against Occultism Theodor Adorno observed that “the tendency to occultism is a symptom of the regression in consciousness”. Adorno looked at palm-readers and newspaper horoscopes, seeing them as a desperate attempt by many to feel in control and see reason in a society they viewed as unintelligible, as capitalism had obscured the mechanisms of power. However, where the current interest in magical thinking diverges from previous forms of more decadent occultism (as personified by the notorious 20th-century mystic Aleister Crowley) is in its genuine attempts to provide answers and inspiration for new ways of living, derived from the old. And that inspiration often comes from indigenous voices.

Max Lunn is a journalist based in London

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