Finding Kindred, Beyond Blood or Border

Curator Zoe Butt reflects on her bonds of unity with creators, colleagues and friends to dimension the power that lies in cultural work, and how knowledge is articulated as a lived experience to nurture the struggle and survival in a wounded world.

I surround myself with makers from disparate locales across this unfathomable globe. Creators who are invested in showing us the value of interdependence—between human and non-human; between what once was and now is. It’s a necessary study. A critical study. A collaborative study. A comparative study. A spiritual study. And it all started before COVID-19, though this pandemic has made it all the more urgent, for human consumption is on trial in our hearts as our minds turn towards what was (be)fore. Trying to locate that (be)fore. (Be)fore lust for materiality began to dominate the loins of conquerors. (Be)fore the world of language and its written form monopolized our relation to Nature. (Be)fore the earth’s substance was deemed something to possess and was categorized (valued), divided (owned), plundered (removed), traded (profited from), and consumed (re-distributed) accordingly. I say (be)fore because cultural memory provides evidence that, as humans, we once did have great respect for the cyclical and seemingly invisible forces of Nature (hence the existence of diverse traditions, spiritual rituals, and social bonds of collective initiation that were grounded in a different measure of night and day) prior to the propagation of the Western-centric obsession with progress.

The makers that I have surrounded myself with come from various contexts and modes of living. Their ears are attuned to oral histories, to structures of everyday kinship, to the building of expertise in ways that do not detach them from knowledge as a lived experience. They are anchored in struggle—in the experience of disenfranchisement—and thereby constantly renew historical conscience and the need for repair. I am learning about the inherited memories of water-dwelling farmers whose rivers are now dammed; of mountain and jungle spirits whose bellies have been mined and deforested; of teachers whose students conceive of the world from enforced confinement in refugee camps; of displaced ethnic minorities who mine for precious stones that the wealthy believe will bring them good fortune; of the myriad dialects that we must recall and reinvigorate to reorder our relation to hegemony and all its political (linguistic) falsities. And so much more.

These makers embrace irony and contradiction as factors of the human condition. They do not approach humanity with nostalgic or sentimental excuses, but rather with experiential witness of trauma, endowed with agency and trusting in the power of inherited cultural memory; empowered by a conscionable need to attend. It is to this notion of “attending” that I am committed as a cultural worker. For to attend is to take responsibility, to be present, to amplify voices, to address the discomfort of injustice, to articulate relations to presence and thus endow them with meaning (which is then to offer possible cause for redress).

Culture, for me, is the last grey zone of human production that can apprehend our terrifying discomfort with difference, that can deter our need for control, that can reintroduce wonder to the unknown as a means of trusting, of being in solidarity with the systems of the planet we inhabit. For this pandemic crisis has acutely revealed that a society’s “democratic” right to socialize and work (despite the rising human death tolls) seems to take precedence over regard for communality. This attitude reveals again the violent arrogance with which people dismiss the idea that their “rights” to socialize and work contribute to the irrevocable destruction of the global material balance—material as human first, and then non-human. I say human first because it is only by establishing respect and integrity among our own Being that we can come to acknowledge our impact and dependency on others (as “Others” and others in all things useful and non-useful, animate and inanimate).

Respecting our own materiality begins with acknowledging our communality (our interdependence aids our survival), and thus, I believe, it is friendship and mentorship that must be rekindled, as we struggle to reassess, revalue, reword, and rebuild our world.


A Wh*tsapp message arrives from LIR, a curatorial duo (Mira Asriningtyas and Dito Yuwono), from Yogyakarta. They will be late for our Z**m meeting. Mount Merapi is threatening to divulge his volcanic insides. Evacuation procedures are poised and in place, replete with face masks and social distancing measures. An image pings through of them with artist Maryanto, Mount Merapi in the distance. They have just returned from field research beneath this looming explosion. LIR and Maryanto have been inspired by the fictional tale of Barata[1] (a local ancestral figure), an elephant hunter who lived below Merapi, who realized the arrogance of hunting and how it decimates community, and thus took up a calling to protect all forms of life. I smile at the stream of other images pinging through—of them trekking to particular villages and various waterways, exploring Merapi’s previous wrath; of how local superstition has provided resilience, a means to socially reconnect to the land in the face of the rising tourist industry and corporate greed for sand extraction. Landscapes and communities are in constant shift. They are apologizing for what will be an inevitable delay in the work for our (The Factory’s) Pollination project,[2] of which their research forms a part.

I’ve been trying to reach Kittima Chareeprasit, the Thai co-curator from Chiang Mai who is also involved in Pollination. I’ve been wanting more information on her hunter, the folk figure Ta Jung Kung Dang Daeng. Legend has it that his anger at the river merchants for scaring away his prey propels his desire to dam the Mekong river. However, he is eventually thwarted after the prayers of local fishermen to a deity results in his death. Artist Ruangsak Anuwatwimon and Kittima have also just returned from the site of this folk tale, researching in the upper Mekong border region of Thailand and Laos. Here, Ta Jung Kung Dang Daeng is metaphorically reincarnated as Chinese greed. Indeed, the over-damming of this critical water source has resulted in tremendous and violent repercussions (picture Vietnamese fishermen whose boats are mud-moored, with no livelihood; imagine rising salinity levels and the ensuing suffocation of all underwater river life). However, Kittima can’t be found. We think she is in protest-mode in the streets of Bangkok. Conflict is ever-present, there are numerous battle fronts. Such disaster (natural, corporate, environmental, political) is all taken in stride among interdisciplinary communities activated by historical conscience.

I have been reading the curatorial research reports for Pollination and studying particular images—a previous artwork by Maryanto, haunting “scratched” paintings of abandoned oil mines in East Java, the earth’s insides raped, blackened, and expunged. The painting is near photographic in its detail, the grafitto technique of digging away at the surface of the paint to produce the image powerfully evoking the effect of dirt under nails—hands digging for oil. A previous art work by Ruangsak Anuwatwimon, a grave-like installation composed of small piles of ash, the burnt remains of 270 plant and animal species collected in Thailand; in it, he begs his human audiences to grieve, to acknowledge their consumer complicity in the rape of all things forest. Despite the violence of these stories, I am grateful to have such images, such perspectives, such acknowledgement in my midst. The Pollination[3] project is crucially compelled by the impact of the hunting and gathering that has dotted our human history: the hunting that has caused multiple extinctions and the irrevocable destruction of habitats and the gathering that has bolstered elitism, racism, and social prejudice, promoting fear of the other and the demand for borders.

In their research for Pollination, LIR and Kittima, and through them, their artists, together question the definitions of ecology and sustainability, renewing the power of a local embodied knowledge[4] as a means of fighting and surviving the ongoing assault of the earth in all its conscious and conscionable actions.

Pollinating across borders, across cultures, mentored by specific intergenerational experiences and interdisciplinary expertise, in collaboration with artistic institutions beyond presumed centers of display, with differing audiences and providers of care, this is what Pollination is all about. Connecting and producing cultural knowledge in a way that reflects our context, our needs, our strategies. Seeding ideas. Giving birth to artistic encounters (as artwork, as texts, as performances, as spoken-words, as exhibitions, as publications, etc.). Encouraging critical comparative thinking. In partnership.

Enabling friendships, despite this pandemic, via the exploration of shared artistic inquiry is heartening. Witnessing the resilience, flexibility, commitment, patience, understanding, and the will to continue, to fathom possible solutions, to persist, and ultimately to stay connected and informed and critical—this is what makes this cultural work rewarding.

Another online “gathering” has also been sustaining me, this one spanning across six time-zones (with participants dialing in from North Carolina, Eindhoven, Stockholm, Lisbon, Amman, Dubai and Ho Chi Minh City), with the unique quality that not many of us have met in person. We are a group of eight, hosted by Walter Mignolo, cofounded with Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti, whose informal platform Tents of Thought[5] invites us to share our present coping mechanisms, our questions, our anxieties, and our unique strategies for rebuilding value and meaning and purpose in the necessary process of relearning our minds and our communities. We are all differing cultural workers (philosophers, teachers, artists, curators) and what we share in common is a desire to speak, act, and create in ways that reorient our relationship to systems of presumed power and knowledge and its distribution.

When our gatherings began, I was in awe, intimidated by this new little community I found myself to be a part of. But now, after a year of regular chatting, there is a shared camaraderie, a willingness to be barefaced and bold. And this is followed up with care and generosity and thought-provoking honesty. Under this virtual tent, there is a generosity in understanding how our words codify and can render “things” subsumed, controlled, spoken for. There is a critical awareness of how context shifts the meaning of our phrases and thus there is a sensitivity and patience around speech, which, within this group, is linguistically brilliantly diverse.

Munir refers to us as a Mujaawarah, an Arabic term for the most basic building block of a community: people who choose to be together. We discuss the presence of orphan images in art, refugee objects whose stories of kinship have been denied by the colonial lust to control material possessions; we discuss the right not to belong in a capitalist media ontology that identifies, categorizes, divides, and rules; of the need to understand the impact of internal and external forms of migration on concepts of indigeneity and ethnicity; of the need to heal, to nurture, to offer different modes of renewal in the idea of psychological soil, cultural soil, spiritual soil; of the inherent need to return to a hospitality that is as essential as breathing. What we all find ourselves committed to is the need for learning as a process that begins beyond the definitions of language, in the field of relation, in observation, with respect to differing modes of time and space. It’s an attitude. As Walter might say, it’s the necessary de-learning of (the de-linking from) Time.

It is sadly ironic, that in this pandemic moment, many of us have found solace in knowing we are not alone in our experience of social isolation. Many have found psychological comfort in such solidarity, despite the fact that this predicament is ultimately the calamitous result of human disrespect and divisiveness. As someone who curates and guides, as a leader and a friend, whose primary everyday mode is speaking and writing, I am struck by the current exhaustion that abounds from such daily deliberation over words. I mourn the loss of a full-bodied everyday. In this viral moment where loved ones and collaborators afar are relegated to the virtual world of the verbal, there is an urgent and daily need to fully recalibrate the senses. It is the sharing of such diverse images and the particularities of stories that jolt my senses. For in their hopeful articulation of struggle my imagination is nurtured; in their creative reasoning (offered with laughter and affability), I am reminded of how finite our planet is and that it is in this difference that we interlock, innovate, and thus repair.

(Saigon, November 30, 2020)


  1. See: Elizabeth Inandiak, Merapi Omahku (Indonesia: Babad Alas, 2010)

  2. Initiated by The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre (Ho Chi Minh City) in 2018, Pollination provides emerging curators and artists in South East Asia the opportunity to co-produce and collaborate, to mutually benefit from this region’s private arts infrastructure—platforms recognizing the value of sharing (pollinating) their critical ideas and activities. Aiming to set up a regional community of producers linking talent to network, space and opportunity, Pollination seeks to nurture artistic practice via curatorial enquiry, with the view that deeper connections between artists and curators enable critical reflection, writing and dialog—a discourse greatly needed as an intra-regional comparable accessible resource. Pollination is envisaged as a long-term collaborative exercise between different institutions/community groups across Southeast Asia, with the aim of offering emerging curatorial and artistic talent the chance to work with other like-minded entities in their region. As one of the first private/non-governmental initiatives of its kind, Pollination aims to develop and nurture the skills and relationships between artists and curators interested in working (and questioning) institutional structures of display in Southeast Asia. See here for more information.

  3. The third edition of Pollination is organized by The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre (Ho Chi Minh City); co-funded by SAM Funds for Art and Ecology (Jakarta) and MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum (Chiang Mai), with the support of Selasar Sunaryo Art Space (Bandung). Project period January 2020 – May 2021. The exhibition Of Hunters will take place at MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum in April 2021; followed by the symposium The Gatherers at Selasar Sunaryo in May 2021 (this latter event also to launch the project website ‘www.ofhuntersandgatherers.com’, with the generous support of the Grey Center for Art and Enquiry, University of Chicago). Curatorial advisors for the third edition of Pollination include Agung Hujatnikajennong (Bandung), Vipash Purichanont (Bangkok) and Zoe Butt (Ho Chi Minh City).

  4. Local embodied knowledge is here understood as local wisdom within the Indonesian context; or as local spiritual knowledge within the Thai context. Both these attempts at translating local words kearifan lokal and ไทย into English are, however, insufficient. In short, local embodied knowledge refers to the practice of learning whereby the body receives practice in specific sites, with specific rituals. It is understood that the experiential knowing of knowledge and its continuous presence in community—via oral storytelling, spiritual or religious ritual, folkloric superstition—are undervalued or little taught within the dominant cultural memory of both countries. In the context of Pollination #3, local embodied knowledge is particularly explored in relation to ideas of human ecology and its natural environment”. Excerpt from curatorial report by LIR and Kittima Chareeprasit, September 2020.

  5. Tents of Thought is hosted by Walter Mignolo, co-initiated with Sandi Hilai and Alessandro Petti, with members Charles Esche, Munir Fasheh, May Al Dabbagh, Liliana Coutinho, and myself, Zoe Butt. The initiators state Tents of thought is a temporary gathering space in which many languages of people and memories that have been ostracized and downplayed by western modernity began to take a front stage. We, Sandi, Alessandro and Walter, choose to initiate tents of thought in order to be in conversation with people that, from a completely different prospective and geography, have similar urgencies. We aim to build alliances between parallel struggles that suffer from the same regime of oppression and to challenge and reduce the universalistic notions produced by western civilization. Tents of thoughts is a place of collective living and learning in the joy and beauty of thinking together.” (May 2019)


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