In April 1994, the people of Rwanda suffered a tragedy of momentous proportions – while the world stood by and watched it happen. Over the course of only 100 days, a stupefying 1,000,000 innocent fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, aunts, uncles, grandmothers, grandfathers, young and old alike were slaughtered. They were hacked to death with machetes and nail-studded clubs. They were shot dead with guns. They were beaten, tortured, abused and left to die. Many of the women and girls who were not killed were forcibly and violently sexually assaulted by HIV+ men as part of a systematic rape campaign which used the deadly potency of the AIDS virus as a tool of slow death.
The situation for survivors of the Rwandan genocide today remains dire. Many survivors are homeless as the perpetrators of the genocide have moved into the homes of their victims. Many survivors carry the scars and wounds of genocide and a number are HIV+. More genocide orphans are being created all the time as women who were raped during the genocide die of AIDS. Children are being left to fend for themselves and many look after even younger children. Few survivors or their dependents are able to afford to go to school so the chances of them securing a brighter future for themselves are slim.
I was part of a panel discussion at the CAA Conference 2021 – Biodegradable Art: Towards Regenerative and Circular Systems
“In this session for the CAA Conference, artists and educators using biodegradable materials are invited to present their work and their process. The focus is on artwork made with materials grown in-house or locally, or obtained through waste collection or foraging, that can be composted in personal or municipal facilities.”
The panel was chaired by artist Nichole van Beek and the other artists on the pane were:
Gelatine bioplastic is an interesting material because of its biodegradability and organic make-up. Gelatine is bodily, it is made from pig collagen sourced from skin, bone and connective tissue.
Gelatine Bioplastic is transparent, ephemeral and malleable, and easily made in a home kitchen. It has a ghostly quality, that can physically embody something that is missing, barely there.
Bioplastic is biodegradable and slowly breaks down (just as bodies do) becoming part of the surroundings.
Evaporation also has ghostly qualities; moisture is held in the air as it evaporates but remains unseen. References to the ‘unseen’ act as a metaphor for the unseen in society, the lonely, the homeless or outsiders that many unidentified people inevitably were.
Clothing and shoes directly and indirectly represent both people’s bodies and their identities. We choose what to wear each day, to both fit in or stand out. These are conscious decisions that define us and determine how we are perceived to others.
Items of clothing are also used to help with the identification of an individual and are listed within the entries on the missing persons database. Clothes are often kept after the death of a loved one, clothes and shoes are vessels or containers, acting as reliquaries that remind us who they belonged to.
Shoes particularly embody the idea of transience or movement from one place to another, from one city to another, from life to afterlife, from existence to no longer existing. The saying ‘If the shoe fits’ refers to something being the truth about someone and of course Cinderella was identified because of a shoe!
Each is listed with a generalised location, description and any potential identifying features and/or belongings. Images are included if these are available/possible. These items and details are often incredibly poignant but not necessarily complete enough to enable identification, but the belongings do often show a small picture of the end of that life.
By conceptually exploring the unintended final resting spaces of the unidentified dead, I am looking for a liminal presence. Some of the remains listed on the database are discovered after bodies have been skeletonized and, as explained here in an article about human decomposition, in The Guardian ‘A decomposing body significantly alters the chemistry of the soil beneath, causing changes that may persist for years. Purging releases nutrients into the underlying soil, and maggot migration transfers much of the energy from a body to the wider environment. Eventually, the whole process creates a ‘cadaver decomposition island,’ a highly concentrated area of organically rich soil. As well as releasing nutrients into the wider ecosystem, the cadaver also attracts other organic materials, such as dead insects and faecal matter from larger animals.’ (Costandi, 2015)
Through this idea of a ‘decomposition island’, I began to consider the surrounding plant material from sites where human remains have been found. Without preservation, our bodies become nutrients, feeding the soil and nourishing plants that often begin to flourish because of the raised nutrient levels. Plants here appear to be the observers of these deaths. The conceptual absorption of decomposition continues indefinitely within plant material. As plants die back they enrich the soil once more.
Water too is an important aspect of this process. Our bodies are made up of more than 70% water. Water has always existed on earth in the same quantity, continually recirculating. Water has been a fundamental part of everyone who has ever existed, so it is in essence all the people who have been before us. The water and nutrients within our bodies become part of the surrounding environment, the decomposition island. This circular process of renewal creates a physical continuation of presence within space.