The interventions created by Deborah Small (USA, 1948) for three different editions of INSITE (1992, 1994, and 1997) not only continue to be pertinent today—perhaps more so than ever—but also provide a distinct and evolving model of artistic activism from decolonial and feminist perspectives. Small employs immersive strategies, often involving collaboration with other artists or specialists in other disciplines, that bring into the present, through multisensorial stimuli, registers of history (or more accurately, herstory) that have been rendered invisible, relegated to the sidelines, or even demonized. At the same time, her re-narration and interweaving of images, words, objects, and sounds foreground the complexity of the relationships between gender, race, class, and culture that are present in the historical events she evokes, aspects that have undisputable relevance for contemporary society. Through the sensorial and cognitive processes that it articulates and provokes, her work aims to play a role in changing our ways of understanding and confronting both cultural memory and present social interactions, in the light of the intellectual and creative tools available today for naming and analyzing the dynamics of power relations.
She contributes to the creation of counternarratives with respect to hegemonic versions of history that are constructed not as seamless stories but as composite evocations that echo the collage-like model of Aby Warburg’s Atlas Mnemosyne. Combining fragments from different sources, her inventions allow viewers to construct their own narratives based on their affective response to the formal and conceptual associations presented in the work. Small’s creations also place women, generally erased or marginalized in conventional histories, at the center of the investigations underlying her pieces, which are enriched by her broad knowledge of both social and literary history, as well as visual culture. At the same time, Small’s vision of women’s history avoids an idealized essentialism, clearly articulating the dynamics of power between women of different social groups within the umbrella of patriarchy.
Earlier in her career, Small had carried out collaborative political interventions through art that involved direct action. Among them were the creation in 1989 of a billboard criticizing the San Diego city government’s decision not to name its convention center for Martin Luther King, Jr. and the “NHI” (No Humans Involved) project in 1992 that combined a billboard, an exhibition, and a performance to draw attention to the murders of forty-five women and to criticize the handling of the cases by the San Diego Police Department.
Ma-con-a-qua/Frances Slocum was presented in IN/SITE 92 at the Boehm Gallery at Palomar College, San Marcos, and the Linda Moore Gallery of San Diego in the context of a series of exhibitions focused on the medium of installation. Through the selection and combination of elements drawn from literature, art, and documents from earlier centuries in a quilt-like configuration, the piece links the relationship of contemporary and historical issues, highlighting the conflicted relationship between settlers and Native Americans in the state of Pennsylvania (an area where Small lived as an adolescent). Its point of departure is the life of Frances Slocum (1773–1847), who was born a colonist in Pennsylvania but who was taken from her home in 1778 by the Delaware tribe, and lived most of her life among the Delaware and Miami peoples, where she was given the name Ma-con-a-qua. At an advanced age she was discovered by her white family but was by then so adapted to the native cultural environment that she did not want to return. The words she purportedly pronounced when it was proposed that she return to her original family (they had to be translated because she had forgotten her English) are included in the center of Small’s work: “I am an old tree. I was a sapling when they took me away. It is all gone past. I am happy here…. I should not be happy with my white relatives. I am glad enough to see them, but I cannot go.” They are embedded in a visual collage of elements referring to the forest and wildlife, including dried tree branches, and images drawn from late nineteenth-century engravings and the paintings of John James Audubon (1785–1851), a renowned ornithologist and naturalist.
The installation emerged from Small’s research on the captivity narrative (of which Slocum’s story is an example) as well as on the history of the Pennsylvania colony and the conflicts it embodied. On the side panels of the piece, Small reproduces representations of William Penn’s utopian, conciliatory vision of the colony he founded, created by Edward Hicks, a self-taught painter and Quaker preacher. They are combined, however, with documents of the colonists’ declaration of war on the native tribes and their violent displacement and murder that bring to the fore the complex underpinnings of a continued history of racism and injustice.
The symmetrical configuration of the tripartite installation suggests that of an altarpiece, with a fragment of wood at its center—a symbolic portrait of the figure of Slocum, suggested by the abovementioned quotation—within a semiabstract composition of natural elements in tones of green, black, and reddish brown that suggest the integrated context of the forest. The side panels, on the other hand, in which tones of red and black predominate, contrast scenes of an idealized colony with those of the domination of the natives by the colonists, creating a visual testimony of conflict and contradiction. The viewer is invited to participate in the composition and identify with Slocum, by sitting on a tree stump that is in dialogue with the branches in the central panel.
In a similar conceptual fashion, but with a more sophisticated technological apparatus, the computer-generated installation, Metamorphosis, presented during inSITE94 in the Timken Museum of Art in San Diego, unpacks the story of Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717), a German-born entomologist and painter, renowned for her studies of the metamorphosis of caterpillars and the plant hosts of insects, who traveled to Dutch Surinam from 1699 to 1701 to document the local flora and fauna. The piece counterpoints the findings of Merian, recorded in her book Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, with the context of the brutal conditions of a society based on slavery, underlining the fact that while as a white European woman she was clearly considered subordinate in a patriarchal system, she was nevertheless a race-privileged artist whose work was sustained by social injustice and racial violence.
Merian’s journal and her publication on Surinam are cited in Small’s piece, in excerpts that denote both her hierarchical colonialist vision and her anthropological sensibility. She not only documents the local names and uses of plants, but also—in describing their uses—reveals the dehumanizing living conditions of the local inhabitants and slaves: “The seeds of this plant are used by women who have labor pains, and who must continue to work, despite their pain. The Indians, who are not treated well by the Dutch, use the seeds to abort their children, so that their children will not become slaves like they are.”
As in Ma-con-a-qua/Frances Slocum, Small’s critical reading of Merian’s writings in conjunction with other historical documents and testimonies leads her to place them in dialogue in an immersive environment. The installation, in which the intensely colored enlargements of Merian’s engravings of Surinam flora and fauna acquire somewhat surreal proportions, engulfs the viewer in the gallery, both enticing and terrifying, while through smaller wall panels and audio her words and images are juxtaposed with William Blake’s little known representations of slavery; accounts by eighteenth-century missionaries and Dutch officials of the colonial practices; and oral testimonies by twentieth-century Saramakas (natives of Surinam and French Guiana) regarding persistent racism and abuse. Through a transhistorical experience, the public is invited to reconsider historical relationships between art, science, gender, and race in colonial society, and in the present. The archival sources are actualized, and the feminist principle of politicization of the personal is activated.
The multimedia installation, Rowing in Eden, created by Small in collaboration with musician William Bradbury, actress Dana Case, and gardener Patricia Mendenhall for INSITE97, takes up on the passion for herbal remedies and ethnobotany that Small had begun to explore in Metamorphosis, but here it becomes the central focus of her investigations, which has continued to be a fundamental aspect of her work and teaching. The piece, with a title inspired by a poem by Emily Dickinson (1830–1886), who had a profound love of gardens and often used them as metaphors, explores the historical relationship of women and plants, focusing on the herbalists, healers, diviners, and wise women who often became known as “witches.” The transdisciplinary nature of the installation goes further here than in the previous two INSITE projects. In the Santa Fe Depot train station in downtown San Diego, Small filled a three-room space, painted in bright royal blue, with pots of plants commonly found in the San Diego area that are medicinal or nourishing, dried herbs hanging from the rafters, and snakeskins lining a central pillar. Complemented by music, poetry, and multimedia computer imagery, the piece highlighted the ways in which patriarchal culture and religion have sought over time to stamp out women’s relationship to plants, while also celebrating the knowledge, power, and wisdom it represents, from a perspective tied to ecofeminism and feminist spirituality. As in the case of her previous INSITE pieces, Small’s work foregrounded distinctive, documented historical cases of the persecution of witches, including the case of astronomer Johannes Kepler’s mother in the seventeenth century, while also inviting the participants to admire and experience corporeally the abundance and richness of herbalists and healers’ knowledge: “Something to look at, something to think about, AND something interesting to touch,” as journalist Diane Burdick Gage noted.
In various ways, however, Rowing in Eden also represents a turn in Small’s practice. As art critic Robert L. Pincus pointedly observed in a detailed review of the piece, it is “far more mystical and lyrical than … any other installation by Small, [but] nevertheless continues her exploration of the ways women have been represented and misrepresented in centuries past. And the artist underlines as well that the importance of the mystical quality in the work does not bely the fact that, “On a deeper level, this work is political. I think of it as political in the same sense as Rachel Carson’s writings or Thoreau’s ‘On Civil Disobedience’ and ‘Walden’—works that offer a devastating critique of society but a sense of the cosmos, too.” In addition, a more sophisticated technological platform in Rowing in Eden allowed for “a flow of pictures rather than … static panels,” lending an immaterial quality to the historical images and verbal testimonies (the latter performed by Case) that are integrated with the plants and music in a harmonious, carefully orchestrated collaboration, that Bradbury likened to that of filmmaking. The result is a piece that envelopes the viewer more fully; as Pincus comments: “Those elements of the installation—plants, voice, image, music and sound—are part of a kind of theater involving all the senses, a contemporary variant on the Wagnerian dream of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art.”
The three installations presented by Deborah Small in INSITE during the 1990s chart her increasing involvement over the decade with digital media as a vehicle for cognitive immersion, and an ever closer link to direct involvement with indigenous cultures and their relationship to nature as a source for conceiving more sustainable political models for humanity, in a sense close to what feminist theorist Donna Haraway has outlined in her book Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Small’s teaching practice, working with her students to “help protect native lands, document cultural practices, and learn the native plants so essential to indigenous cultures as well as to the many species who share this particular part of the planet” reflects the ways in which she has learned from the lives of the women, both past and present, that she has studied and represented through her works, and linked the personal to the political in an integral manner. Her trajectory can be located within the broader history of ecofeminist art that has recently been explored by art historian Monika Fabijanska in her exhibition and research project Ecofeminism(s), in which she notes that:
The historical perspective gained over the last fifty years reveals how revolutionary the work of pioneer feminist artists was, and how relevant it remains, whether for women’s rights or the development of social practice. The most remarkable, however, is their voice regarding humanity’s relationship to nature. […] Their recognition that Western patriarchal philosophy and religions have served to exploit both women and nature is particularly resonant in the era of the #MeToo Movement and Climate Change.
Undoubtedly, Deborah Small’s evolving artistic and social practice represented in her three interventions in INSITE—characterized by her subtle and nuanced readings of the past in a critical dialogue with the present—forms a significant part of this chapter in art history.