In 2017, Art Licks produced a special issue of its magazine with artists in Colombia. We revisit Issue 21 and interview Bogotá-based artist Felipe Arturo on his contribution, 'El Robo de las Semillas / The Theft of the Rubber Seeds'.
Holly Willats, Art Licks: For Art Licks #21, you presented 'El Robo de las Semillas / The Theft of the Rubber Seeds.' When and how did this project first begin?
Felipe Arturo: In 2008 I was conducting an artistic journey across several cities and towns along the Amazon Basin, that took me through Colombia, Peru, and Brazil. Before this trip, I had spent about a year in New York reading different stories, while I was doing a MFA at Columbia University, about the rubber boom at the turn of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Century, and the human and environmental impact and consequences in the region.
My idea for this Amazon trip, was to confront information I had discovered from several sources with a vivid experience of the same places, doing some kind of “rubber route” with almost 100 years of distance. The four month journey was incredibly influential on both a personal and artistic level. I have continued to work with ideas and encounters from this time until today. For example, the piece Agua del Pacifico, presents a collection of photographs that used water from Amazonian tributaries as a photographic lens; it is only this year, twelve years after it began, that I will complete the project with a book of the images.
During the trip you coincidentally crossed paths with a British traveller, Rebecca, who then joined you for part of the journey; what did this chance meeting offer to the project?
I spent most of my travel looking for rubber seeds but it was only when I met with a community of rubber gatherers near the Tapajos River that I found some. This was a natural reserve called Maguarí, near Fordlandia, a city established by Henry Ford in his failed attempt to create massive plantations of rubber in Amazonia. I had in my mind the tale of the 70,000 seeds from the region that were taken in 1876 to London, and I was thinking how that contraband of biological species changed the history of the Amazon Basin and its communities. The rubber plantations in Asia that were made with those stolen amazonian seeds softened the pressure on Amazon migrants and indigenous populations to gather millions of tonnes of latex from rubber trees under conditions of extreme exploitation.
When I came back from the reserve to Alter Do Chao I met Rebecca and we became friends. We took a boat together from Santarem to Belém, the city where the Amazon River meets the Atlantic Ocean. My idea was to transport the seeds and follow the same route the historic seeds took on their way to Kew Gardens, tracing the last length of the Amazon River; instead of then sending the seeds to Liverpool, I was planning to send them to my home in Bogotá by post, where I would plant them.
During the three-day boat journey, Rebecca was practicing a special weaving technique with a very nice thread. I told her about my idea for the seeds, and we decided that the best way to re-enact the thievery was in the form of a seed necklace using her thread; this way, we could smuggle the seeds without alerting the authorities. We took some photographs of both myself and her wearing the necklace on the boat but the photo of her, wearing the rubber necklace with the Amazon River behind her was much better, and her English presence gave some kind of historical serendipity to the whole thing.
How did you feel at the time, retracing the path of the rubber seeds? It must have felt like you were living with a historically charged object.
I don't think that I had a specific objective in mind when I collected the seeds. They were very beautiful and were a living testimony of historical trauma and survival. Retracing the journey of the seeds and re-enacting this forced migration was a way of inserting my experience and creating a new narrative, like our encounter with Rebecca.
Rebecca was in the region as she wanted to pursue some ecological and cultural research, visiting various alternative projects to learn about environmental protection and cultural activism. I became a vegetarian when I met her and remained so for several years after. I think we were learning from history.
Where do you feel the work sits: with the journey itself, or the documentation?
That is a very good question that I don’t quite know how to answer. At the time, I didn’t consider the experience as a project in itself: I wanted to plant the seeds in Bogotá and doing something with the little trees was going to be the project, but since that didn’t work out, I considered the whole thing as a failed project. Then I met you and Lily in Bogotá and the conversation around the project begun again for the magazine. I thought about creating some kind of narrative in relation to the sequence of images I had, so I think now that the work navigates through memories, narratives, and images.
Just today I was looking back at the documentation and I think that the photograph of Rebecca and the seeds speaks for itself.
Felipe Arturo is an architect and artist based in Bogotá, Colombia. His work departs from the migratory history of plants and the cultural economies they provoke. For the 2019 Lyon Biennial, Felipe looked at the migration of Coffee from Ethiopia to Colombia through a sequence of cultural appropriations across 1,000 years. Felipe’s work also considers material narratives and temporal approaches to architecture. He is currently developing a series of collaborations with artists from the Cubeo, Wounaan and Tikuna communities in Colombia.