You can lead a cow to water but you could make us extinct

Women can transmit very strong and deep forces by coming together and doing things – like making carpets. Why did they disappear from the art world? Maybe because they were dangerous for those in power.
— Alexandra Kehayoglou

When we were young our parents would take us all on long walkabout journeys. We would travel for weeks … My generation is the last to go walkabout in this way. Now the young people jump in a truck or boat and get there in a few hours instead of a few weeks … Making art reminds me of things like going bush. Every time I work on my art it is an experiment.
— Mylene Holroyd

Based at the far ends of two continents separated by the world’s largest and deepest ocean — 14,110 kilometres apart, to be precise — one would not expect to find many connections between Mylene Holroyd in Pormpuraaw, Queensland and Alexandra Kehayoglou in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Yet as artists whose work is situated in landscapes that have been drastically altered, over centuries, by colonisation and industrialisation, and whose work critically engages with the environmental and social repercussions of those processes, they are linked by uncannily similar, simultaneous historical events.

In the mid-sixteenth century, Spanish conquistadors brought cows to Argentina, where they flourished throughout the pampas, or grasslands, and multiplied rapidly as wild cattle. As European immigration increased, these feral cattle were re-domesticated and converted, through mechanical and logistical innovations, into commodities like beef and leather for export. This became the region's first large-scale economic activity, before the importation of crops and trees. In the 1870s, facing global economic decline and civil war debt, the newly independent Argentine government launched the Conquest of the Desert to annex Patagonia and cultivate its land for agricultural profit, killing or displacing thousands of indigenous Mapuche and eradicating natural habitats in the process.

Ten years earlier, pioneers Frank and Alexander Jardine led a procession of 250 cattle from Rockhampton to Somerset, Queensland to establish a controlled food supply for the new Australian settlement. Along their journey, as the herd dwindled to fifty, the Jardines encountered many Aboriginal tribes: some they passed peacefully, noting only their fish-based diet and well-designed spears and boats, while the Jardines’ horsemen shot those who seemed aggressively defensive, as at the ‘Battle of the Mitchell’ near present-day Pormpuraaw. The cattle industry they founded would develop over the next century largely through the labour of Aboriginal Australians, who were barely compensated and rarely paid in cash. Over time, the ancestral link to subsistence fishing was eroded by displacement, community fragmentation, state provision of food, legal restrictions and industrial destruction of coastal ecosystems.

These episodes, more than a century old, may not seem immediately relevant to the problems we face today on a worldwide scale. In the West, crises such as global climate change, predicted species extinctions and marine pollution have been declared in the name of all humanity, using placeless language like the Anthropocene, global units like rising ocean levels, or universally symbolic bellwethers like melting ice in landscapes mostly uninhabited by humans. The more specific warnings of indigenous communities and subsistence-level farmers and fishers have been dismissed or misunderstood by consumer populations who do not see the implications of their resource-intensive lifestyle firsthand. Today’s environmentalism prefers the totalising rhetoric of oil spills and ocean plastic, things we view as poisonous and pervasive and thus easy to condemn. In comparison, the historical onsets of the Australian and Argentinean cattle industries make for unlikely cultural allegories. They force us to reconcile benign thoughts of food, animals, and plants with the bitter repercussions of colonialism and large-scale habitat alteration.

In an era of endless real-time image streams, cheap transcontinental flights and international news coverage, contemporary art is often asked to speak a language that everyone can understand. Indeed, the works of both Holroyd and Kehayoglou succeed on that level, due to their simple, figurative evocations of fish or fields, their use of everyday materials like plastic or yarn, and their familiar typologies — sculpture as toy or decoy, carpet as landscape painting or aerial satellite image. Both pieces work allegorically at sliding scales: Holroyd’s Pufferfish, 2017, could be any fish and Kehayoglou’s Santa Cruz River, 2017, could be any river, if we choose to relate to them as archetypes of twenty-first-century human experience for individuals of any gender, nationality, ethnicity, financial position, education, age and ability.

But, as artists, Holroyd and Kehayoglou speak in multiple registers. While initial readings of their work may only bring up abstractions, further engagement with it reveals a sense of specificity gained through lived experience, personal investment, field research and situated knowledge. Holroyd’s Pufferfish gestures to the interdependence of marine lifeforms and land-based humans, framing the shape of a fish out of the synthetic artefacts of agricultural and industrial development. Chicken wire and steel cables evoke enclosure and fencing off; plastic and polystyrene allude to the ubiquity of capitalism, which Russian-born poet Joseph Brodsky described as ‘winning … through overkill, through grapeshot’.1 In Santa Cruz River, Kehayoglou recreates in elaborately tufted fibre the Patagonian plateaus threatened by flooding due to the construction of two hydroelectric dams in an Argentinean-Chinese commercial venture. The change in the waterscape would not only drastically alter the ecosystem, but erase the archaeological traces of the indigenous Aónikenk or Tehuelche communities.

Thus, the split-screen late nineteenth-century events in Patagonia and Queensland — emerging from the same alchemy of colonisation, pastoralisation, indigenous massacre, financial markets, technological infrastructure, patriarchy, transplantation and cows — are implicitly embedded in the practices of both artists. They inform the particular choice of reference, material, process, message and intent in each work, reflecting the position of each artist in relation to the field of human-led environmental devastation. And both take a position that reveals the revisionist hypocrisy of universal understandings or movements.

As Kathryn Yusoff says in A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None, long before ‘the exposures of environmental harm to white liberal communities’ were made palpable by the recent discourse of the Anthropocene, those harms were ‘knowingly exported to black and brown communities under the rubric of civilization, progress, modernisation, and capitalism’.2 Having a head start of several hundred years on the race to apocalypse, these same communities are already suffering disproportionate effects of the climate crisis and environmental destabilisation. While we watch simulations of a flooded New York, entire islands in the Pacific have disappeared beneath the surface; while we make uneasy jokes on social media about unseasonably warm winters, smallholder farmers experience crop cycle shifts as direct disruptions to their already subsistence-level incomes.

In using their work to talk from indigenous experience or through solidarity with and activism for indigenous communities, Holroyd and Kehayoglou shine a light on those communities that have already seen death, habitat destruction, flooding and displacement, and that are most threatened by those effects in the future; that are least responsible for environmental destruction, yet whose voices are absent from conversations organised by and featuring the guiltiest perpetrators. The irony of suppressing the situated knowledge and beliefs accumulated over tens of thousands of years by indigenous communities, whose very survival is proof that their world view is viable, has colonial roots.

For example, in an 1865 report on the Queensland expedition, John Jardine contrasts his sons’ “extremely arduous and toilsome journey…over country which…may be termed barren”, “an absolute desert” or a “flooded state”, with indigenous populations who are “true observers of the weather”, “living in comfortable huts”, eating fish and “cultivating yams, bananas, coconuts, etc. in considerable quantities”. Yet he insists that “the wonders seen among the white men would…promote friendly feelings towards us”, solving the “great obstacle” of inducing the local people to work on the colonial settlement and castle station, thereby maintaining an outpost from which the “country can be ‘ridden’ over without obstruction”.3 At the same time, General Julio Argentino Roca was preparing to lead Argentina’s military campaign in Patagonia, declaring that “our self-respect as a virile people obliges us to put down…this handful of savages who destroy our wealth and prevent us from definitively occupying…the richest and most fertile lands of the Republic.”4

The reference to virility is also telling in its gendered connotations. In their assumed entitlement to own something and appropriate its past (mineral or fossil fuel), wealth and future (crop and livestock) profit, the colonisers in these histories were also enacting a regime of patriarchy. In that light, it is significant that Holroyd and Kehayoglou eschew expensive materials. Plastic, certainly, has environmental costs, but Pufferfish salvages its parts from the remnants of already disposed objects. In particular, its incorporation of a ghost net (a commercial fishing net discarded by vessel crew in the sea, where it could continue to catch fish and other species pointlessly and at random, rather than through the designated disposal channels on land) is a poignant detail, making the fish use the instrument of its death. At the same time, by using commercial fishing nets as a primary material in her work, Holroyd reclaims the act of making nets as a deeply ingrained cultural practice – one that the colonisers noted with admiration, even as their assertion of power and manipulation of the territory made that practice endangered and obsolete.

Meanwhile, Santa Cruz River gains its strong presence not from its soft, simple yarn but from the considerable amount of time and collective labour it took to make it. The mindful planning of a nevertheless uncertain result, and the patient repetition of the threading motion allowing minuscule incremental progress, while common to traditions of collaborative craft by groups of women, are rarely found in contemporary art, and Kehayoglou questions that bias consistently. Her carpet-making is not just a political act, but also part of the legacy of her Greek ancestors, who emigrated from Turkey to Argentina several generations ago. In the context of Santa Cruz River and its emphasis on indigenous vulnerability, and the complementary experience of migration and the way it transforms situated knowledge or local materiality into aesthetic mnemonics and oral narrative, will arguably be even more prevalent in times of unevenly distributed environmental crisis. But mobility is easily weaponised against those who are less mobile — namely women and indigenous people — and Kehayoglou's consistent focus on her current surroundings reveals her commitment to social engagement through her art.

In fact, both artists use their practice as the basis for social bonding and political action. Through her preparations for making Santa Cruz River, Kehayoglou came in contact with an activist who would facilitate connections to trans-disciplinary networks including biologists and archaeologists; at the same time, Kehayoglou welcomed the activist into an embedded role in her studio, challenging the expected priorities of making over thinking and art over action in a creative practice. Meanwhile, Holroyd plays an instrumental role in the Pormpuraaw Art & Culture Centre, where individual artists among the town’s roughly 800 residents can come together to support one another and develop their practices as linked elements of a cohesive and culturally conscious movement. For instance, the use of the ghost net has become a signature technique of the group rather than a single-author innovation, thus enabling the artists to give this new, industrial material without indigenous origins a collective meaning through mutual learning and experimentation in multiple directions. The indigenous art label can create tension between recognised aesthetics, creative freedom and cultural representation; Holroyd and other Pormpuraaw artists have embraced industrial materials and found objects as the untraditional raw matter for their work. Today, they are making art that belongs to the synthetic present and which simultaneously critiques it in light of the traditions that were abandoned or estranged.

Pufferfish and Santa Cruz River stake a claim for the impact and importance of art at a time of ecological volatility. For the most part, national governments, multinational corporations and international organisations either minimise the urgency around environmental issues, or promote techno-utopian solutions that maintain their top-down power hierarchies. Their visions of the future are not the only options, however. There are other voices — particularly those of women, indigenous peoples and citizens of the global south — that deserve to be heard, and all the more so after centuries of being silenced as their labour was appropriated for the benefit of a privileged few. These voices resonate through contemporary art. Giving such narratives a platform, Holroyd and Kehayoglou pursue creative expression as a communal, contextual and critical phenomenon, responding to the exigencies of the present through frameworks of accumulated knowledge, material sensitivity, social accountability and inclusive imagination.

  1. Joseph Brodsky, ‘Spoils of war’, VIII, in On Grief and Reason: Essays, Penguin, London, 2011.
  2. Kathryn Yusoff, ‘Preface’, in A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None, University of Minnesota Press, Minnesota, 2018.
  3. Frank and Alexander Jardine, ‘Somerset’, in Narrative of the overland expedition of the Messrs. Jardine, from Rockhampton to Cape York, Northern Queensland, J.W. Buxton, Brisbane, 1867.
  4. David Maybury-Lewis, ‘Genocide against Indigenous Peoples’, in Annihilating Difference: The Anthropology of Genocide, ed. Alexander Laban Hinton, University of California Press, California, 2002.