From April 15, 2020, Telling the garden, reflections on a workshop with medicinal plants, a conversation between Minia Biabiany and Antoine Aupetit about her school residency in Wittersdorf, available online as part of the program Windows (18 rue du Château).
Minia Biabiany participated in the collective exhibition Le jour des esprits est notre nuit in 2019. On this occasion, she produced Qui vivra verra, Qui mourra saura, an installation conceived as a space of reflection around knowledge, memory, and our relationship with the social construction of the Guadeloupean case and its garden, one of the first forms of territorial appropriation and construction for the enslaved in Guadeloupe.
Building on Minia Biabiany’s work and its focus on knowledge sharing, we invited her to participate in a pedagogical residency at a neighboring school, École de Wittersdorf.
The residency, which was structured around workshops with the artist, made intelligible the transformation of a work through its creation, exhibition, and deployment within a pedagogical environment. Minia Biabiany was welcomed by the children and their teachers Isabelle Steffan & Célia Binder, in a school surrounded by leafy hills and fields, a few kilometers away from the art center.
Your installation Qui vivra verra, Qui mourra saura questions our relationship to history, and memory more specifically. Before meeting them, you asked the school students to create a series of drawings depicting the space of the installation. How does this relationship with space and memory work for you?
For me, space is a container that participates in the coming together of elements of various natures. To move within space while observing an installation creates a specific kind of somatic attention because several senses are solicited at once. I try to elicit this feeling in the body, to generate a personal observation, something precise. But this kind of attention is not systematic in the viewer, I see it as a perception that is “interior,” one’s own, it’s a space in which one needs to enter.
The installation Qui vivra verra, Qui mourra saura came together from the encounter between my own lived experience in the space of the créole garden and a theoretical description of its structure and disappearing magic-religious significance (See Catherine Benoît’s Corps, jardin, mémoires*). I employed both approaches to determine how to organize the installation. Generally speaking, every time we remember something that memory is altered. As I was not present during the children’s visit to CRAC Alsace, I asked that they draw certain parts of the installation so as to create an experience of shared attention, so we could exchange over their memories of certain parts of the installation. I sought to channel what they remembered, at least partially, using it to work and recreate this garden (now a trace) together.
You prompted the children to bring medicinal plants to school, how did you work on this plant-based knowledge together with them?
The idea was to address the medicinal plant as a living character within a story constructed from their experience, not necessarily the créole garden. Bringing plants from home engaged their curiosity about their own environment. Once we were together, I started inquiring with the older students as to what they knew about these plants, if they could share their properties with us, later organizing a session in which we touched, observed, smelled the plants that were brought. We watched a short video about a school experiment in which the growth rates of two plants were compared: one that received compliments and another that received insults. We spoke about emotions and developed short narratives that involved a plant, a character, an emotion, and a place. I showed them drawings of herbaria (plant drawings) from the Middle Ages, as well as symbols of natural elements such as water or fire, organizing a writing and modelling session around their histories. With the younger students, we discussed emotions with a short meditation on the image of tree growth from the seed’s germination. They composed their stories through clay modelling.
With the use of clay, how did you want to engage the children’s senses?
Clay modelling allows for the transformation of paper drawings into matter, into volume, so as to implicate touch in our storytelling.
School being a collective site of initiation, how do you conceive of your practice as an artist alongside these notions of learning and the discovery of the commons?
What interests me, in understanding what happens when we learn, is the relationship to the body, to emotions more specifically. “To discover the commons” is not necessarily “learning the same,” but rather bringing out that which is your own and getting to know each other. I understand the discovery of the commons—that which we share—as being the environment, history, emotions. Although learning isn’t usually understood as being tied to the body, certain works from pedagogical science, such as Francisco Varela’s, present emotions and the body as an integral part of learning regardless of what is being learnt. When I think about the relationship between workshops and my work as an artist, I make from what I feel, from my own assessment of what I observe or want to make observable in the body or in space. In workshops I often try to create variable intensities, contrasts in the type of attention that is required. You can also find this interplay of perceptive intensities in my work with installation and video. Transformed, but present nonetheless.
Qui vivra verra, Qui mourra saura deploys the idea of a créole garden in Guadeloupe. Since your stay in Altkirch, have you found connections with the relationship to plants in the local Sundgau territory?
First and foremost, to speak of the créole garden as a singular space for our relationship with plants is to speak of a positive connection to the land, an attachment to the earth and to magic-religious beliefs that are our own, going all the way back to the plantation system. This is culturally evident for our elders, yet completely erased in younger generations. This connection to the earth has been transformed in both Guadeloupe as it has in the Sundgau territory (aromatic plants played an important role in daily healing practices). The workshops encouraged kids to question their parents, often for the first time, about the benefits of plants. Unless one is lucky enough to grow up with people who are conscious of this wealth, it’s increasingly rare to acquire this vernacular knowledge during childhood, to have this urge to discover plants and their medicine.
* Catherine Benoît, Corps, jardins, mémoires. Anthropologie du corps et de l’espace à la Guadeloupe , Paris, CNRS Éditions / Éditions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme, 2000.
Translation: Thomas Patier