In her essay “Building Radical Soil,” Puerto Rican historian and poet Aurora Levins Morales claims that her own family has stood against tsarism, monarchy, colonialism, and imperialism. “We have inherited a long view and are less likely to have an all-or-nothing response to the ups and downs of our movements,” she writes, referring to her blood relatives as well as her comrades and political ancestors. Morales grounds her analysis in the metaphor of soil – how rich and fertile traditions can establish “strong, stable roots” despite intergenerational contradictions:
Soil is more than a collection of mineral molecules. It is organic and alive, composed of rotting leaves and underground runners, fungal threads and billions of bacteria, seeds dropped by birds and dust blown from the other side of the world. Clay, sand, rock, and plant matter, local weather and regional climate, latitude and season, all interact with each other and are changed. Soil is not a list of ingredients. It’s relational, and so is our sense of history.
At NYU’s Latinx Project, a new group exhibition takes up Morales’s call to action, exploring how Latin, African, and Asian diaspora artists promote sustainability beyond borders. Building Radical Soil features nine artists meditating on ancient and contemporary methods of conservation – from urban farming and solar power to decolonial cartographies. Archival documents from community organizing events accompany site-specific murals and installations, which are worked into the gallery infrastructure, positioning collective art-making as an antidote to political domination.
Curator Sofía Shaula Reeser-del Rio focused on spatiality in the small Noho gallery, embedding artworks into each corner, pillar, and window. For Michelle Hernandez Vega’s “Schematic for Solar Powered Elsewhere” (2018), an overhead projector placed on the floor casts an image of a sunlit window against a gallery corner, making the blinds appear warped and crooked. Below the projector base, a large platform divided into sections holds a can of air freshener, pieces of fruit, and tiny fake eyelashes. Vega addresses her experience of contacting family members in Puerto Rico during a post-Hurricane Maria blackout through the compartmentalization of memories.
A similar organizational principle guides Cinthya Santos Briones’s embroidered cyanotypes. For “Herbolario Migrante” (2021-22), the artist adapted products from a series of workshops she held with migrant women into dark-blue strips containing tiny leaf samples sewn with technicolor threads. Below these, in blue accordion booklets, are written memories collected from the women volunteers of New York’s Mixteca Organization. Together, the works ground herbalism in Indigenous Mexican traditions. Colorful linework on each threaded leaf makes them look almost like feathers, blurring the line between collection, classification, and preservation.
Colombian artist Lina Puerta portrays food justice as a public health and labor issue. Her gorgeous tapestry “Broccoli Crop Workers” (2017) shows spectral figures in blue, pink, and orange shirts from behind, representing the faceless masses of agricultural labor in the United States. They stand together within a forest of black lace and other textiles, Aztec embroidery, and small hummingbird-shaped pins. Below, a quote from an NPR article is squeezed into the space of a banner: “Improper exposure to pesticides harms 10 to 20 thousand agricultural workers every year. The people who harvest America’s food. ”
Beside this piece, Glendalys Medina’s gold-embossed print “Bank Statement (Levels)” (2012) brings to mind the economic colonialism imposed on developing nations by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank; around the corner, Nyugen E. Smith imposes a different form of colonial trauma, through a fictional map based on the Caribbean. Smith composed the “Isle of Tribamartica” (2017) with Trinidadian and Zambian soil among other materials on paper, stitching pink and gold thread between slipshod huts. Groups of “bundle houses” are arranged by shades of red and blue, while the threading demarcates borders – though the spacing between stitches results in dotted lines, hinting at impermanence.
The built environment of a large city contains its own ecosystem, from which it grows a diversity of public art. Photographs from Maria Gaspar’s “City as Site” (2010-22) engage with the streets of Chicago as part of a citywide arts project. Artists and students in the photographs blend in with colorful flora and painted street markers, camouflaged by or immersed in their environments. Gaspar encourages young artists to assume the role of infrastructure in her work, positioning their physical existence as foundational to the urban sprawl.
Through it all, Building Radical Soil posits that resistance begins at the ground level, and that truly progressive traditions will outlast the neoliberal era. This is perhaps clearest in the gallery window, where Justin Sterling’s glass terrariums bridge the divide between city and earth. Translucent window frames filled with soil and plants hang from chains, appearing rusted and dilapidated compared to the sleek Manhattan skyscrapers outside. A tension is apparent between new and old, timeless and ephemeral. This decayed display, in which the new life continues to grow, feels as though it will outlive us all. It is a poignant reminder of our short time inhabiting this world, and how a sapling that is small in one generation can grow to be tall and mighty in the next.
Building Radical Soil continues at the Latinx Project (285 Mercer Street, Noho, Manhattan) through May 5. The exhibition was curated by Sofía Shaula Reeser-del Rio.