Natural Histories – Nature, Race and History

Here is the first in a series of posts on the current Natural Histories exhibition, written by Nicole Smythe-Johnson. We welcome your comments on this post, the exhibition and our current direction at the NGJ.

374px-Linnaeus1758-title-pageCarl Linnaeus (1707–1778) was a Swedish botanist, physician, and zoologist, who laid the foundations for the scheme of binomial nomenclature (scientific names of plants and animals) that is still used today. He is known as the father of modern taxonomy (or classification), and is also considered one of the fathers of modern ecology. He is less well known as the first to articulate a scientific theory of race, a development that contributed significantly to justifications of the colonial project and is at the foundation of eugenics, the pseudo-science of race that reached its height in the early 20th century.

In his seminal book Systema Naturae, Linnaeus subdivided the human species into four varieties based on continent and skin colour: “Europæus albus” (white European), “Americanus rubescens” (red American), “Asiaticus fuscus” (brown Asian) and “Africanus niger” (black African). In the tenth edition of Systema Naturae he further detailed stereotypical characteristics for each variety, drawing on the concept of ”the four temperaments” from classical antiquity, and changed the description of Asians’ skin tone to “luridus” (yellow). Additionally, Linnaeus created a fifth category “monstrosus” for “wild and monstrous humans, unknown groups, and more or less abnormal people”. These are the links between nature and race that works by artists like Hope Brooks and Shoshannah Weinberger illustrate and challenge. Linnaeus did not merely classify people, he assigned particular traits to the races. Of course, this assignment of characteristics was heavily biased toward Europeans, positioning that race as the civilized pinnacle of man’s evolution.

Hope Brooks in front of her Slavery Trilogy triptych, April 28, 2013

Hope Brooks in front of her Slavery Trilogy triptych, April 28, 2013

These parallels between the study of nature and race also indicate the extent to which natural history methodologies and epistemologies were central to Modernity itself. Without colonialism, trans-Atlantic slavery and texts like Systema Naturae and Darwin’s The Origin of Species modernity as we know it could not exist. From late nineteenth century French sociologist Emile Durkheim’s “organic solidarity” which compared societies to organisms with various individual components that serve particular functions, to Spanish American castas paintings which documented and classified the various races and racial mixtures in colonial Latin America; nature and its study has shaped the modern world in crucial ways.

Shoshanna Weinberger - Collection of Strangefruit, gouache & mixed media on paper, 18 panels, ea. 51 x 42 cm

Shoshanna Weinberger – Collection of Strangefruit, gouache & mixed media on paper, 18 panels, ea. 51 x 42 cm

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3 thoughts on “Natural Histories – Nature, Race and History

  1. I love this move to be more explanatory about the art works themselves — the text panels @ the exhibit — and the idea behind the exhibit with such complementary posts as these. They facilitate a different kind of involved engagement. I can’t wait to return to the gallery and steep myself even deeper into “Natural Histories”.

  2. Even though this exhibit covers ground already covered in the literary wolrld – Caliban et al – it still remains relevant in our little neo-colonial world where” things ” cannot / would NOT be named … ( not because words cannot ‘name’ our visual experiences – I beg to disagree with Kei Miller ) but because we cannot see the world with our OWN eyes. The artists indeed help us to see the unspeakable with fresh images…

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