Mehdi-Georges Lahlou, A Botanical Conversation

Mehdi-Georges Lahlou, video still from A Botanical Conversation, installation at SPACES Gallery

“Globalization begins at home.” – Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture, 1994

For 60 years academics across disciplines have been exploring culture and histories through the lenses of sex, gender, race, class, nationality, and sexual orientation. In the 1990s, post-colonial studies emerged; theorists such as Homi K. Bhabha and writers like the Salman Rushdie show the ways in which “hybridity”—a condition that occurs when people of different languages, religions, social customs, and belief systems share and/or adopt pieces of one another’s cultural practices as they live together, thereby creating a blending of the two, whether wittingly or unwittingly. This theory was a cornerstone of “post-colonial studies,” which burgeoned as a field of theoretical study at the end of the 20th century.[1]

In the 30 years since Bhabha’s trenchant analysis of “post-colonial” citizenry, and the 36 since Rushdie’s literary expression of the theory, in the lyrically beautiful, yet highly controversial and award-winning novel, The Satanic Verses was published, the global citizen emerged with expanding internet access, social media, and instant-messaging apps that connect us, and—also divide us. The global COVID-19 pandemic only underscored just how linked we are, as a contagious flu allegedly first identified in Wuhan, China, spread rapidly, human body-to-human body over the span of a few months.  

Mehdi-Georges Lahlou, video still from A Botanical Conversation, installation view at SPACES Gallery

Mehdi-Georges Lahlou is a Franco-Moroccan artist of Spanish origin, who was in residence at SPACES November 24, 2023 – January 14, 2024. His exhibition, “A Botanical Conversation,” on view January 12 through March 1, is rooted in these theoretical frames and contemporary historical realities, as he and collaborators Dr. Lady J, CHIMI X Nature, and Diwe Augustin-Glave explores the fluidity of “nature” in relationship to the nuances of human experiences within it. Paradoxically, however, the “natural” is, in fact, tamed, pruned, and manicured for public consumption at the city’s Botanical Garden. There, the artist’s exploration of the Arecaceae family-palm tree is further complicated as specimen in an official “city garden” context, where the palm tree’s existence is as “natural” in region as the elephants and their habitat at the Cleveland Zoo. In both sites viewers of the palm tree, cactus, camel, or elephant must suspend rationality to engage with “the natural,” so there’s a layered analysis going on in these works that remind us of the diaspora wrought by white, elite European imperialism and colonial rule.

Medhi-Georges Lahlou, video still from A Botanical Conversation, installation view at SPACES Gallery

 “The Buried Wonders” is a video work featuring CHIMI X Nature performing a song that Mehdi-George Lahlou previously commissioned Swiss critic Simon Njami to write. CHIMI X Nature sings the lyrics deliberately; their body sways and the character of their voice is slow, strong, and deliberate. CHIMI X Nature sings lyrics—“And canopies made us bolder” and “look straight ahead,” as truths of humanity’s long history with the trees, the ground, the oceans, the mountains—are nuanced, unknowable, sacred. CHIMI X Nature stands rooted on the ground, which is present, albeit many feet below theirs, under the manufactured floor of the Botanical Garden. Across the expansive gallery from “The Buried Wonders,” is “Herbarium,” a video featuring Diwe Augustin-Glave personifying the Arecaceae family-palm and the tree’s connection to slavery, resource exploitation, and environmental destruction. They sing lyrics as History lesson, sharing facts that provide a picture of the diaspora of the plant: “Just before the First World War, I started to be cultivated in plantation in Southeast Asia,” they sing, giving voice to the white European incessant hunger for more. In the contemporary context, the second largest contributor to deforestation in the Amazon Rainforest in South America is palm trees, which are planted on ground that was once blanketed with indigenous plants and home to animals.[2]

In a video work featuring Dr. Lady J, scholar/drag performer and gender theorist, discusses gender and nature and she meanders joyfully about the garden in an electric-colored, structured skirt and bountiful bra-top, which is wonderfully comprised of faux flowers. Hair and makeup done to her unique version of perfection, she converses with viewers on essentialist notions of gender. In drag, Dr. Lady J reminds us of the tenuousness of gender, its fictions. She does so in the space of the Botanical Garden, where “nature” is curated, groomed, and made spectacular for scores of visitors and Garden members. As the Dr. reminds us, we must reconsider gendered, patriarchal institutions such as heterosexual marriage, and eschew binary thinking that continue to perpetuate oppression and harm among queer, transgender people.

Mehdi-Georges Lahlou, Microscopy, installation view at SPACES Gallery

Mehdi-Georges Lahlou’s video works are subsumed in a sea of black marks on the walls of the entire gallery. Titled Microscopy, the artist reproduces an image of the cell of a palm tree and abstracts it on to the space. The tissue he used is from a washingtonia robusta-a palm tree, which grows in California. By making the cell not only visible but enormous, Mehdi-Georges Lahlou, honors a plant of this species that was growing for him in France, but eventually died.

The overarching ethos of this work is one of unity, reverence, and collaboration (both globally and locally). The artists involved insert empathy and emotional intelligence beyond the human world and give the palm tree a voice. In doing so, they unpeel layers of human history and—as is typical, the greed that makes palm trees—even still, as cash crop of global capitalism.

Mehdi-Georges Lahlou: A Botanical Conversation

January 12 through March 1, 2024

SPACES Gallery

2900 Detroit Road

Cleveland, Ohio 44113

[1] Bhabha and Rushdie often focused on India in their work; both have connections to India, the former born in 1949 into the Parsi community of [then] Bombay, the latter an Indian-born British-American who was born in 1947. (Note that British colonial rule in India was 1858-1947; Rushdie writes about being born in India in the very year of the country’s 89-years of occupation and rule by the British.)

[2] Amazon Front Lines, “Palm Oil: Unhealthy for You and the Amazon,” (accessed February 11, 2024). The biggest contributor to the destruction of the Rainforest is land clearing to raise cattle for meat consumers. Industrial farming of animals for human consumption is also the number one contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.

The opinions expressed on CAN Blog are those of the individual writers. Art is somewhat subjective. Well, somewhat. But yes, everybody's a critic.

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