For the Kamilaroi people of Australia, certain trees are more than simply tall plants. They represent ancestors and are treated like family members. They embody a wealth of knowledge, which their human descendants can draw upon.
A part of such a tree was acquired by the Museum der Kulturen Basel (MKB) from an Australian museum in 1940. Like many others, it had been “removed” from its original home. In December 2022, representatives of the Kamilaroi performed a ceremony at MKB to re-establish the tree’s connection to its original community.
Bruno Manser’s diaries
The said tree serves as an opener to the exhibition which deals with the relationships of humankind with its co-world, that is, with mountains, rivers, animals, plants, fungi, spirit beings, and ancestors that make up our shared world.
165 exhibits help to show that, for many cultures and peoples in the world, the earth is a living entity. They share their co-world with sentient and thinking beings which are deemed equal and cannot be exploited at will.
The diaries of the Basel environmental activist Bruno Manser provide insight into the forest world of the Penan in Borneo and their struggle to save it from ruthless exploitation by logging companies. For the first time, MKB presents 20 original diary pages.
Spirit beings in vegetables
Likewise, images from indigenous South America reveal an equal balance of give and take. Before going on a hunt, men ask the prey’s animal parents for permission, while fishermen only catch as much as they need for living.
In the Caribbean, spirit beings are responsible for the cosmic equilibrium; often they are featured in the paintings of inspired artists. In Mexico, vegetable spirits influence the yield of the crop. To gain their favour, growers create paper cut-outs to represent the said spirits. When unfolded, the power of the spirits is activated.
Fungi in films
Australian bark paintings depict a wide range of beings, including lightning and water spirits as well as the famous Rainbow Serpent. They show that all forms of existence are interdependent and that every single thing, every being, is connected with one another.
Two outstanding examples include bees and fungi. In Slovenia, beekeepers showed their gratitude to their charges by decorating the beehives. The exhibition also features excerpts from the films “More than Honey” by Markus Imhoof and “The Mushroom Speaks” by Marion Neumann.
Offerings to Mother Earth
The elements of earth and water enjoy special status and reverence in Oceania, Africa, and South America where Pachamama, Mother Earth, is honoured with offerings placed on special altars, so-called mesa. In Ecuador, Pachamama is even considered a legal person, just like the Whanganui River in New Zealand. In Mali, Mama Wata, the Mother of Water, is featured in beautiful reverse-glass paintings.
The exhibition encourages viewers to think about alternative ways of togetherness and coexistence. In addition, they themselves can become part of the mesh of life by adding to the giant, many-rooted woven tree which was inspired by drawings in Bruno Manser’s diary and created especially for the exhibition by the Basel Institute of Textile Research.
The exhibition “Alive” comes with an accompanying publication in German and English, available at the museum shop or in bookstores.
ISBN 978-3-7757-5623-5 (German)
ISBN 978-3-7757-5624-2 (English)