Co-Creation of the Project

Stories from the Production Team

Alexandra Gelis


I was conceived in a dark room, where my parents developed photographs, hence my fascination with cameras! My story is a mix of postcards, moving images, bright colors and smells.

I was born in Caracas, Venezuela, and my childhood memories carry the smell of the Caribbean Sea between Puerto Rico and Cartagena, Colombia, where I spent my childhood. It was a women’s house, with my great-grandma, my grandma, my aunt and my mom. This gave me a female perspective on life based on solidarity, intimacy and affection, far from the “normalization” of what a woman should be in an openly macho society in South America.

In my home there was always shelter and food for anyone who dropped in. As my grandmother would say: “Here there is always food for everyone, we just add some more water to the soup.” I especially remember the smell of coconut rice, fish in coconut sauce, sweet “cocadas” or even a home-made coconut tanning oil on my skin at the beach. Life tastes better with coconut! Food was also fruits: in the patio of my house I played in fruit trees of tamarind, guava and mango. But the best smell was the one that emanated from the fruit bowl of Mrs. Maria, who woke me up every morning with her songs: “Avocado! Banana!’ I would run to the door to help her lower the heavy metal basin from her head. From San Basilio de Palenque, 40 minutes from Cartagena, she brought caimito, guama, custard apple, delicious fruits that are scarce today because they’re not part of the commercial market.

My great-grandmother made me avocado juice with milk every morning, although that red juice with a strange name in English, “kool-aid”, was already trendy among my friends, seemed to make them cool, and give them higher social status. I never understood their taste nor their fascination with kool-aid and soft drinks.

Cartagena has now become a city for tourists. Between the beach and the bay where I grew up, it has become impossible to eat fresh fish. They are more expensive and only come frozen; the best catches are for tourists. Fishermen are allowed to bring their nets to certain beaches far from tourists, where they only catch small fish, because the bigger ones have been taken by the large multinational fishing nets.

I have had a nomadic life, in constant migration from one city to another. I became a woman traveller with a camera in my hands, sometimes into dangerous lands, capturing and reframing humans and non-humans usually absent from the media. Other times I would bring the tools (DIY technologies) and cameras into communities for self-representation workshops or collaborative creation projects.

In my life of constant movement I was ‘called’ by the plants, and became interested in the relationship of plants and people. Plants that ‘supposedly’ don’t move are the ones that taught me most about the politics behind migration. I started exploring how native, non-native, invasive and “migrated” plants are connected to the forced and non-forced migration of people and colonization of territories. The bio-political presence of plants to control people and territories has been my main concern in the last ten years. My work deals with botanics as a form of resistance: plants that are used as territorial control technologies (TCT), both by those in a position of control and by subaltern resistances to those controls.

Since 2009, I have worked on two main projects: “Corredor” is an ongoing project exploring the elephant grass planted as a living barrier around the Panama Canal by the US Army during the Vietnam war. It was brought from Vietnam to control the Canal Zone and to keep Panamanians out of their military bases..

I initiated the second project, MAT: Medicinal Plants and Resistance, in San Basilio de Palenque, an Afro-Colombian town, known as the “First free town of the Americas.” I investigate the history of seeds, medicinal and ritual plants, that were brought by runaway slaves, often hidden in their hair. Used to reshape the new free territories, these plants are today growing all over patios, land and sidewalks.

Smells of the fruits of Mrs. María, all my childhood memories with my aunties (my mom’s best friends historians, educators, artists, women leaders who shaped the ethno-education law in Colombia and the declaration of San Basilio de Palenque as a UNESCO Heritage site) brought me back to the town in 2011 with an invitation to give a media workshop. To access memories of the plants, I started an art-based collaborative research and creation project working with elders, who had the memories, and with youth, who were no longer interested in traditional knowledge.

We used media technologies as a connection device; cameras became the main tool for intergenerational communication, youth framing the plants with cameras while elders explained the visible and the intangible aspects of the stories of the plants. Over several years we captured hundreds of stories, recording for new generations the images and voices of many abuelos who are no longer with us. Rather than write a book that the youth would not be interested in reading. I created an online platform to gather the complex plants-human narratives, stories told in layers where the drum, colors, dance, the way of moving, the palenquero language, and their animistic beliefs became a unit. This project became the base for my doctoral research: “An Arts-Based Inquiry into Plant/human relations in Equinoctial America: A case study of San Basilio de Palenque, Colombia”.

When I began my PhD in Environmental Studies at York University and met Deborah Barndt, my supervisor, the Legacies project was just being born. I have been able to bring both my research interests and my multi-media skills into this collaborative project as a co-director of the video documentation and part of the core production team. I am deeply convinced that at this moment we need to experiment with the arts and the senses, to radically disrupt dominant ways of knowing, and to learn other ways to see, feel, and know.

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