- Circulating Undercurrents
Istrive to amplify invisible, suppressed stories shrouded in the geopolitical shadows of colonialism-induced migration through site-responsive installations, participatory and lecture performances, trilingual publishing, and experiential technologies. My research-creation process connects me to scholars, scientists, and community advocates to collectively address the skewed politics of the archive within and beyond institutional walls. I am fascinated with the relationship between Asia and the Americas, between diaspora and indigeneity, and the oceanic circulations that connect islands to islands, continents to continents, and cultures to cultures. I attempt to capture memory, affect, smell, social imaginary—intangible undercurrents whose pervasive interconnectivity threads our humanity. This essay delves into the thought processes and multiplatform artistic practices of my most recent projects: Aromérica Parfumeur, Mannahatta VR, and Rhunhattan.
In August 2016, I opened Aromérica Parfumeur, an exhibit that passed as a perfume boutique in a Chilean shopping mall. The installation sought to expound on settler colonialism through an aromatic archive on social botanical history. I made up the word Aromérica to combine aroma and América to draw out how the foundation of the Americas was borne out of a search for spices as conquistadores were, first and foremost, spice hunters. Aromérica's "fragrance line" boasted of "eau de Colón" (Cologne), which is a play on the Spanish pronunciation of Columbus; "Blanc Le Colonial" (Colonial White), which was nauseatingly sugary; "El Picante" (The Spicy), which references "El Dorado" and was shocked with sharp notes [End Page 194] of nutmegs and cloves; and "Oro Negro" (Black Gold), Malabar pepper. The conceptual and physical properties of perfume represent the ultimate alienation of plants from native origins, as analyzed by visual culture scholar Daniela Bleichmar (2012). The process of removing "exotic" plants from their natural habitats in order to distill them for their olfactory properties mirrors the caste systems that categorized colonial human subjects, visualized through Miguel Cabrera's caste paintings. The project sought to resist the fading historical memories that haunt like a repulsive perfume while underlining a parallel between how the imaginary, systemic violence and smell are invisible yet omnipresent.
One scent of colonialism that I have been tracing for the past few years is that of nutmeg, a spice that was once worth its weight in gold that I perceive as "the petroleum of the seventeenth century." I do this through my multiplatform project, Rhunhattan, a tale of two islands at [End Page 195] the birth of globalization when atrocities were committed out of lust for sugar and spice. During the spice wars, Dutch Nieuw Amsterdam was captured by the English and renamed "New York." By 1667, the Treaty of Breda resulted in the Dutch relinquishing their claim to the colony in exchange for Rhun (also known as "Run"), the first and only British colony in the Banda Islands of present-day Indonesia, thereby gaining monopoly of the lucrative nutmeg trade. This exchange led to the near complete decimation of the Bandanese and the Lenape people's deepened dispossession of Manaháhtaan (original Lenape name of Manhattan). While Manhattan has risen to unprecedented financial success in the last four centuries, Rhun has faded into obscurity despite having been the colonial empire's crown jewel. After the British lost the colony of Rhun, they moved on to colonizing India, and the Dutch received territory ripe with sugar plantations in South America.