The stu­dents of Robin Wall Kim­mer­er (a pro­fes­sor of envi­ron­men­tal biol­o­gy and the found­ing direc­tor of the Cen­ter for Native Peo­ples and the Envi­ron­ment) were unit­ed in their love for the earth; this pas­sion was the rea­son they’d cho­sen to study botany. But does the earth love you too?’ asked their lec­tur­er. There was a long silence. They looked down, didn’t real­ly know what to say.
A bril­liant ques­tion, and one with far-reach­ing con­se­quences when you give it fur­ther thought. It is not like­ly that the earth feels much love for us humans at the moment. Robin Wall Kim­mer­er offers won­der­ful insights that could change this.
She describes the earth as a sys­tem with­in which all the ele­ments are posi­tioned in a cir­cle; each ele­ment is equal and is in a rec­i­p­ro­cal rela­tion­ship with the oth­ers. You should be able to see a plant as a per­son, which makes the rela­tion­ship between you and the plant go far beyond an object that you are study­ing using a name and clas­si­fi­ca­tion. Regard­ing a plant as a per­son does not mean an anthro­po­mor­phism like a Dis­ney-esque talk­ing cucum­ber but a plant being with plant char­ac­ter­is­tics, just as a stone is a being with stone char­ac­ter­is­tics. Kim­mer­er views plants as a gift from the earth and bear­ers of ancient knowl­edge. When we accept these gifts from the earth, the ques­tion aris­es of what we can give her in return. Where is that reci­procity?
In this way, plants can point us towards a dif­fer­ent way of liv­ing togeth­er: giv­ing more, tak­ing less. For with peo­ple, it’s crys­tal clear: if oth­ers only take and give you noth­ing, you pre­fer to stay away from them. A gift is some­thing that you hand over altru­is­ti­cal­ly, where­as a real present inspires a feel­ing of grat­i­tude, even love. A true present, per­haps one that some­one has put a lot of time into, like a piece of embroi­dery or a hand-made mug, is some­thing you car­ry in your heart and it cre­ates a con­nec­tion with the giv­er. But we take moth­er earth’s gifts for grant­ed, we don’t give much back. On the contrary.

I believe the earth loves the work of Agnes Warugu­ru (1994, Nairo­bi, Kenya). In her prac­tice, plants are both the start­ing-point and the cen­tre. Dur­ing the Rijk­sakademie Open Stu­dios, a piece of fab­ric hangs free in the space, like a star­ry sky stud­ded with sprigs of soft plant colours. The cloth is per­haps even more evoca­tive of a glimpse below the sur­face of the sea, a tinge of light blue with green spat­ters, smudges and smears like sea­weed, sea grass or kelp. The peace and tran­quil­li­ty in the space is salu­tary, an oasis amidst the hus­tle and bus­tle of the oth­er stu­dios, a haven for reflec­tion, a rest­ing place. But­ter­flies have land­ed on the floor and there are ceram­ic cal­abash­es below the fab­ric. On the left, against the wall, a plant has been placed under a drawing.

Ear­li­er, I saw the work The Sea was Too Cold and Not Blue (2022) above a big heap of loose sand. Water Mem­o­ries and Blooms (2022) hung next to it, con­sist­ing of two pieces of tex­tile above each oth­er: light blue spots stream down­wards on the upper piece and the low­er cloth resem­bles a green land­scape filled with plant struc­tures. (1)
The land­scape is impor­tant for Agnes Warugu­ru, not as an exact rep­re­sen­ta­tion but in order to con­nec­ta par­tic­u­lar emo­tion to a place. In my work, I focus on try­ing to under­stand myself, the world I live in, where I come from, and how my iden­ti­ty is influ­enced by all the places where I spend time and trav­el through.’ That emo­tion may be an intense home­sick­ness for her fam­i­ly and home­town, as she expe­ri­enced while she was a stu­dent in Cal­i­for­nia, USA. Or the emo­tion of a loss, the land­scape borne with­in the quest for the soul of a loved one.

In Agnes Waruguru’s stu­dio, I see two loose sheets of paper: a draw­ing of a flower that is built up of sep­a­rate lines on the top piece of paper and, on the oth­er, flow­ers appear from tiny lines in yel­low, pur­ple and blue with these words beside them:
Flow­ers for Thogori
Even when the body is no more
It will be back.
I … I am still look­ing for you.’

A pho­to of a girl in a blue dress with white dots, her hands clasped togeth­er in her lap. She is sit­ting on the edge of a bed draped with a white bed­spread and is look­ing at the pho­tog­ra­ph­er with a melan­choly expres­sion. She is young. Gen­tle. Sweet.
Even if your body is no longer there, you will return.
I email Agnes Warugu­ru and ask whether it’s true that this work is an in memo­ri­am’. Could she tell me a bit more about it?
She responds with a detailed email that starts like this:
In the past two years I have been think­ing about how to cre­ate spaces that are med­i­ta­tive and could hold space to encounter a spir­it of some­one past. I want­ed to make a space that felt ephemer­al but also ground­ing and calm­ing. I asked many ques­tions about how to rep­re­sent an in between space where a spir­it might exist. The works can also be seen as an offer­ing or invitation.’

An art­work as an offer­ing, as part of a rit­u­al that began by wash­ing the cloths in salt water. I am moved by her quest to offer a space to the spir­it of the deceased. It is a giv­ing ges­ture: Dear soul, I will help you to look for a place for you to come to so we can be togeth­er again for a while.
How do we go on liv­ing after the death of a loved one? That per­son will nev­er leave us again. Present in our heart. In our thoughts. In our soul. Almost every­one who has lost a loved one knows that mixed feel­ing of the incom­pre­hen­si­ble dis­tance (nev­er again will there be an embrace, nev­er again a con­ver­sa­tion) that coin­cides with an unbear­able prox­im­i­ty, because the one who has left the earth is more present than ever before. This per­son dom­i­nates all our thoughts, grief flows through the body.
But some­times the grief is unable to leave the body, and every­thing stag­nates. When you walk through the city you see her or him or them appear in win­dows, in passers-by, in trees or reflect­ed in a pond. Their voic­es can be heard.
West­ern sci­ence often calls hear­ing the voice of some­one who has died a hal­lu­ci­na­tion. Hal­lu­ci­na­tions fol­low­ing a death are a nor­mal reac­tion to a loss. Some peo­ple see their loved one so real­is­ti­cal­ly that they talk to them.’ (4)
But sci­ence is very quick to label every­thing as obscure that can­not be explained. Maybe their souls real­ly are present in our every­day real­i­ty, I daren’t rule it out. Warugu­ru probes this pos­si­bil­i­ty with her artist’s imag­i­na­tion and explores what an in-between meet­ing place like this might look like. 

I inves­ti­gat­ed how water can exist as an archive and also a heal­ing tool. This idea came about after the pass­ing of a dear friend. I spent a lot of time pro­cess­ing that I may nev­er be able to talk to her again. I start­ed to embrace the idea of look­ing for signs of her in my day-to-day life. This began with an exer­cise of col­lect­ing sounds of wind from one win­dow in my house and while rid­ing my bike around the city, I was look­ing for a moment where I could catch a sound or mes­sage that I would have oth­er­wise missed. I con­nect­ed this with the ele­ment of water that I have always been invest­ed in. Where water nev­er for­gets and always remem­bers. The process is a rep­e­ti­tion, an offer­ing that transports.’

Artists Ellen Gal­lagher and Edgar Clei­jne also inte­grate the idea of water as mem­o­ry into their work Osedax. They refer to the many enslaved Africans who drowned dur­ing the Mid­dle Pas­sage, while cross­ing the Atlantic Ocean. These peo­ple were thrown over­board or jumped into the sea as the ulti­mate act of defi­ance. Their bod­ies sank to the bot­tom, and with them their sto­ries, their her­itage and knowl­edge were lost in the depths too. The water pre­serves their sto­ries and, in the work Osedax, these sto­ries are brought back to life. The voic­es of the drowned enslaved peo­ple res­onate in the Osedax. (5)
Water is more than the for­mu­la H2O.
There are researchers like Veda Austin who are of the opin­ion that water can store con­crete infor­ma­tion: water as a con­scious enti­ty, con­nect­ed with earth, con­nect­ed with nature. She con­tin­ues the work of the Japan­ese researcher Masaru Emo­to who inves­ti­gat­ed the reac­tion of water to music and emo­tion­al­ly charged words. In his opin­ion, water pos­sess­es a real mem­o­ry. His research is also wide­ly crit­i­cised and I under­stand that, because I’m not sure that an emo­tion­al reac­tion fits with the prop­er­ties of water. But the idea of water being more than a chem­i­cal for­mu­la is valu­able.

Lis­ten­ing to water, to the plants, the riv­er. What can we learn from them? Lis­ten­ing to the voic­es of the depart­ed, sim­ply for the sake of hear­ing their voic­es again, to pick up the con­ver­sa­tion again.
Agnes Warugu­ru: I made ceram­ic cal­abash­es as an end result to my exer­cise of col­lect­ing sounds. The work came from look­ing at my own trib­al (Kikuyu) rit­u­als sur­round­ing death. I want­ed to make some­thing that reflect­ed the way Kikuyu peo­ple are buried. Kikuyu peo­ple were tra­di­tion­al­ly buried in a foetal posi­tion fac­ing Mount Kenya, usu­al in a fam­i­ly farm. The round­ness of the cal­abash and its direct con­nec­tion with sound is what led me to make these ceram­ic sculp­tures. They are named Ngo­mi (Song), which trans­lates to the eter­nal­ly sleep­ing ones’ and is the word for some­one who has left the earth­ly realm or passed on in Kikuyu.
When one becomes a nNgo­ma, one qual­i­fies as an inter­ces­sor of kith and kin to the Gĩkũyũ peo­ple. Agnes Waruguru’s instal­la­tions brought me into con­tact with the con­cept of fleet­ing’, the con­tin­u­ous move­ment that char­ac­teris­es all of life. Even a stone con­tains a times­pan that is stored away at the time of its cre­ation. The flow­ers, the moments on the fab­ric, the pho­tos of the girl who comes back again. The atten­tion for every­thing that is alive. All her work exudes tran­sience, tem­po­ral­i­ty, grat­i­tude in the form of beau­ty. I sense a per­spec­tive on the world that cor­re­sponds to Wall Kimmerer’s ideas.

The process of mak­ing these instal­la­tions and works is a remem­ber­ing rep­e­ti­tion and cleans­ing. Held with care and slow­ness. Wait­ing,’ says Warugu­ru.
If I inter­pret her work as a gift to me and the rest of the world, what is the reci­procity between me and the work? How can I lis­ten to the work? What can I give back?
I am guid­ed by her words: Care and slow­ness and wait­ing. As an observ­er, I should be able to trans­late these con­cepts as tak­ing your time’. Atten­tive obser­va­tion. Being open. But I also think of grat­i­tude. And being moved. In this way, I become enthralled by the gen­tle­ness of the space that Warugu­ru has suc­ceed­ed in cre­at­ing. The beau­ty.
The col­lec­tion of three sheets of paper is prob­a­bly an in memo­ri­am for Thogori, and yet it is not nec­es­sary to know more about this woman. The work forms part of an oeu­vre that exudes tran­sience, a plea to live mind­ful­ly and to allow our life to flow like water.
Agnes Warugu­ru:

To sweep dust from dust
To try and catch the wind
To inher­it a curse and birth it.

To lis­ten to all the sounds the world had to offer, to all the peo­ple who inhab­it­ed those spaces the oth­ers could not see.

 — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

Ver­tal­ing: Kathryn West­er­veld

(1) Chap­ter 5IVE, het Hem, Ams­ter­dam. Guests: Samir Ban­tal & Rem Kool­haas. Sat 7 May, 2022 – Sun 25 Sept, 2022.

(2) Emanuele Coc­cia in an inter­view, The Plant, issue 20, 2023 – 2024

(3) Her­man Hesse, Sid­dhar­ta, De Bezige Bij, 2020

(4) EOS weten­schap: https://​www​.eosweten​schap​.eu/p…

(5) From a text I wrote for a brochure to accom­pa­ny the work Osedax by Ellen Gal­lagher and Edgar Clei­jne, Fries Muse­um acquisition