Multimedia Installation – Art Residency – Curator Dr Hassan Arero – ACE – Visiting Arts – MLA – 2007
Indigenous to South America, the cassava plant (Manihot esculenta) while domesticated over 9000 years ago today has a global reach as the world’s third most important crop for over 500 million people. Within the Caribbean and diaspora communities cassava provides us with equally complex economies. Whether as a local Amerindian subsistence economy or a burgeoning global heritage currency, we find associated bodies of knowledge, processes of reconciling conflicting identities and concepts of homeland and ancestral worlds.
The Horniman Museum’s exhibition From the Amazon to the Caribbean draws from the museum’s collections of Amerindian Waiwai artefacts obtained by the botanist Nicholas Guppy during the 1950’s in the southern rainforests of Guyana.
The residency and installation Cassava Culture focused on the Museum’s collection of Waiwai artifacts used in the cassava plant’s cultivation to ritual consumption and pushed existing understandings of the role of the cassava plant, not only as a vital local indigenous subsistence economy, but central to social remembering, identity and perceptions of heritage within the Caribbean and diaspora communities.
Drawing from discussions with Nicholas Guppy on this collection and unpublished fieldwork photographs, and work with UK Caribbean diaspora communities, including the Pepper Pot Day Centre for BME Elders, the residency and installation Cassava Culture examines how cassava articulates a powerful currency of cultural identification mediating between generations through shared substances, memories and histories.
Cassava Currency – ©SALT glass Studios Discussion with Amerindian Community (Santa Mission, Guyana)
Exploring this major discovery of the Amazonian world as one historically serving as a vital source of subsistence and trade in many regions of the Caribbean and lowland South America, the cassava plant envelops a world of Amerindian social memory, iconography and ritual associated with the plant’s cyanide-rich tubers and purification cycle, from the nutritional, medicinal and spiritual.
Renowned by earlier colonial writers as the southern tribe of the territory, the Waiwai were famous for their preference for cassava processed into white tapioca and according to Guppy were called the ‘Indios do Tapioc’ and considered as the legendary ‘… wild and beautiful… White Indian[s]…’ (Wai-Wai: Through the Forests North of the Amazon, Guppy,1958,4,41).
Based on a thorough knowledge of the environment and the bitter cassava plant’s toxicity for centuries Amerindian societies have devised complex technologies, systems of knowledge and cultural practices encompassing this subsistence economy. As a principal staple carbohydrate in the form of breads, tapioca, beer and cassareep, the bitter cassava plant requires an essential detoxification process to render it edible. This conversion is made possible through the production of artifacts, including wooden troughs, mortars, graters, fermenting vessels and an array of woven receptacles, transforming the contaminated and impure, into the culturally-infused and human, and is a precondition of nourishment, whereby the various stages of separation and reconstitution of vegetable properties, is acknowledged as a purification ritual by many communities. As the anthropologist Reichel-Dolmatoff has acknowledged, the intervention of cassava culture is one of the major discoveries of the Amazonian world and is of crucial significance to our understanding of the interrelation of the human, social and natural worlds (1997).
Departing from a scanning exercise in the correlation of data as passive archive, the installation Cassava Culture of video/sound projections depends on different levels of interpretation and multiple readings, revealing a shifting mnemonic landscape engaging the sensory and imaginary world of the cassava plant and its associated cultures which serves as a focal point fostering further dialogues with the museum visitors.
Cassava Culture – Still – Multimedia Installation – Art Residency with GOIP – SALT glass Studios©
Finbarr Whooley, Director, Curatorial Public Engagement. Horniman Museum
Dr Fiona Wilkes’ art installation Cassava Culture at the Horniman Museum considers the important local/global nexus of cassava culture within Diaspora/Caribbean cultures, as one articulated through shared substances, memories, and histories, which permeates the present.
Cassava is a native Amazonian food crop which is intricately linked with the culture of the indigenous Amerindians of South America and the Caribbean. It is nowadays consumed widely throughout the world. The production and consumption of cassava forms a very important part of an Amerindian’s life. This is also reflected by the number of material culture items that are made and used in the production, processing and consumption of cassava. In the Caribbean Antilles, cassava is also widely consumed albeit with different ways of processing the crop.
Despite its importance, little detailed study of the ‘cultural importance’ of cassava has been done. During The Amazon to Caribbean exhibition at the Horniman Museum. cassava features as one of the key themes. However there is a need to engage the public and especially the Caribbean community (among others) in more elaborate discussions on the importance of cassava as a representation of a cultural way of life.
The art installation, Cassava Culture, is a result drawn from an artist in residence and integrated community and collections-based research work providing a much-needed focus on this subject. The project also include the ‘voices’ of the Caribbean people in London through their memories and experiences of their culture – with cassava as a key strand.
The project also bridges the art/anthropology dichotomy bringing together these two elements. It will thus appeal to both academic anthropologists and art sectors and attractive to a wider audience, including young adults.
The project compliments the Amazon to Caribbean exhibition and highlights the importance of the ‘hidden’ but very important cultural memories of the production and consumption of cassava among the Caribbean communities here in London.
Amerindian Heritage – Dr Hassan Arero, Keeper of Anthropology, Horniman Museum
Indios do Tapioc – Installation Still – Botanist Nicholas Guppy (writer, environmentalist, explorer, founded of Survival International)
When Nicholas Guppy collected the WaiWai objects from Guyana in the 1950s, little did he know of their future significance to understanding memory and culture among the Caribbean people of London. The Amerindian world, both on the Islands and on the South American mainland, is interwoven through complex mythology. The material objects that are produced such as woven basketry, water vessels such as canoes, the huts and grand meeting houses such as the famous Umana Yana of the WaiWai and their landscapes, carry meanings that are embedded within these age-old mythologies.
Cassava and its uses form a very central component of Amerindian life. It is a central economy that acts as the engine that drove the production of numerous material paraphernalia linked to the harvesting, processing and consumption of the poisonous type of cassava. Its significance as a stable nourishment is clear and well documented. However, it was the cultural significance that tended to be overlooked. Cassava is interconnected with an Amerindian and generally Caribbean way of life. Its production and consumption formed important part of these peoples cultural and social memory. The memories that such substances evoke are part of important intangible heritage that needs to be acknowledged. The memories are part of a knowledge base that needs to be presented to different generations.
This art project exactly does that by using cassava as the main cultural thread that inter-connects peoples of the Caribbean Islands and their relatives on the South American mainland. It uses a well-known food substance and positions it within a complex landscape of knowledge, memory and identity. It in essence asks us to look deeper when seeking answers to the complex questions of identity, especially in the Caribbean.
This project is particularly significant here in London especially in raising issues around the multi-layered nature of identities, such as that of the Caribbean. It also serves as a vehicle for relaying the important Amerindian legacy to the Caribbean and the world.
Cassava Culture – Dr Fiona Wilkes
Amerindian Doll Cassava Spree – Tourism Heritage Market –Guyana – Dr Fiona Wilkes – SALT glass Studios©
Indigenous to South America, the cassava plant (Manihot esculenta) while domesticated over 9000 years ago today has a global reach as the world’s third most important crop for over 500 million people. Brought to Africa by Portuguese colonists and now a major agricultural crop in Indonesia and Southeast Asia, we find cassava’s relevance; from ethanol fuel in China; a binding agent for Latin America’s paper and textiles industries; to a potential cure for cancer within the biomedical arena.
Within the Caribbean cassava provides us with equally complex economies. Whether as a local Amerindian subsistence practice or a burgeoning heritage currency, we find associated bodies of knowledge, processes of reconciling conflicting identities, and concepts of homeland and ancestral worlds. Posing the question as to how within different Caribbean localities and generations cassava contributes to a sense of identity, the art residency and installation Cassava Culture considers this local/global nexus as one articulated through shared substances, memories, and histories.
Drawn from discussions with Nicholas Guppy on his collection of WaiWai artifacts and unpublished photographic archive of fieldwork during the 1950s in Guyana, the installation works closely with Caribbean diaspora communities revealing a lexicon of imagery, voices and temporalities articulating cassava as a powerful currency of cultural identification mediating between generations and cultures.
A major discovery of the Amazonian world and one serving as a vital source of subsistence and trade, for centuries Amerindian societies have devised complex technologies and cultural practices, based on a thorough knowledge of the environment and the bitter cassava plant’s toxicity. As the staple carbohydrate the cassava plant requires an essential detoxification process to render it edible as breads, tapioca, beer, cassareep and pepper pot. Challenging the common misconception of the eradication of Caribbean indigenous cultures which has characterised the region’s colonial history, the residency readdresses cassava as a revered and celebrated economy articulating concepts of sociality and personhood. Cassava (also called manioc and yucca) continues as a range of products, from the restored demand for traditional Jamaican bammy bread to cassareep or the Guyanese pepper pot dish, we find established networks of recurring imagery occupying a central position in Caribbean thought and memory.
Wai Wai Amerindians – Cassava Fertility Ritual, Guyana – Dr Fiona Wilkes – SALT glass Studios©
The residency included worked with the Guppy Collection (cassava artifacts) and recorded discussions with the botanist Nicholas Guppy on his memories of the Shodewika Festival, documented in his book Wai-Wai: Through the Forests North of the Amazon (1958). This research informed the installation incorporating a sound projection making reference to the Guppy Collection and discussions, juxtaposed with a video projection of the Shodewika, which evolves around the ritualized consumption of tapioca beer.
The residency conducted Interactive Audio Video Projects (IAVP) working with organisations and communities including the Pepper Pot Day Centre for BME Elders to develop a dialogue with differing age groups and backgrounds, documenting participants memories, views and ideas.The resulting IAVPS formed the principal subject for the video installation.
The Residency gained a greater understanding of cassava culture’s role within UK Caribbean diaspora communities as a powerful currency of cultural identification and memory mediating between generations and cultures. The culminating installation moved beyond authoritative explanations, extending a different kind of response which reveals a lexicon of imagery, voices and temporalities articulating multiple pasts, identities and shared memories. The installation was uniquely positioned to develop dialogues on a local, national and international level appealing to the Museum’s broad audience.
 The term cassava is commonly used in Guyana, for both the Manioc plant and its processed by-products. The main species cultivated are the bitter and sweet varieties. The bitter variety contains a toxin which once exposed to air, forms a cyanide acid.