During the first two weeks of November, the United Nations held its annual climate change summit in Scotland. Conference of the Parties 26 (COP26) brought world leaders to the SEC Centre in Glasgow to devise an international plan for reducing carbon emissions. As part of the 2016 Paris Agreement, participating countries are required to revise and communicate their nationally determined emission targets every five years, making COP26 a pivotal moment for curbing global warming by 2030.
For Latin American feminist collective Zurciendo el Planeta (ZEP), COP26 became an opportunity to collaborate across borders. Since March, ZEP has been working on an international “Forest of Hope” embroidery project with colorful trees and banners designed by more than 150 women, culminating in a massive textile mural currently on display at gallery and exhibition spaces around the SEC Centre. Inspired by activists fighting extractive industries, the artists of ZEP are protesting half measures offered by global superpowers by channeling collective trauma into a communal artwork that continues to grow.
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The phrase “Zurciendo el Planeta” translates from Spanish to “darning the planet,” or mending holes in the Earth through needlework. Mexico City-based organizer Dora Napolitano founded ZEP as a local upcycling group in 2016, but a pandemic-induced shift to online workshops created space for conversations on shared environmental struggle and debates without judgment. Drawing influence from embroidered forms of protest art like the AIDS Memorial Quilt, Napolitano developed the “Forest of Hope” as a global survey of climate activism, with each piece ruminating on the theme of “stubborn optimism.”
“We spend so much time fighting about whether the rich countries are going to give the billions in funding they should already be giving every year, but these discussions are all wrong,” Napolitano told Hyperallergic. “We have two banners that say ‘Humans, let’s be like a forest’ and ‘Flourish for the common good’ based on new research about the collaborative nature of trees. They share nutrients, send messages, and support more organisms the larger they grow. It’s such a huge contrast from corporations, with all their money and resources, that grow larger and then actively make it more difficult for the common people to live and flourish.”
The “Forest of Hope” is its own ecosystem of art and politics, welcoming embroidery from artists across Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Canada, Spain, and elsewhere. Contributors range from age 9 to 87, including hospital cleaners, lawyers, service workers, and academics. Because their concerns are highly localized, the artworks themselves portray individual trees from each artist’s home country. The Lapacho Amarillo of Argentina appears beside the Pinus Sylvestrus in the UK and Araucaria Araucana in Chile. Displayed all together, their vibrant fruits and leaves allude to the biodiversity at stake in countries commonly exploited for their land and resources.
Napolitano and other Mexico-based artists embroidered Ahuehuete and rubber fig trees to draw attention to a recent increase in flooding, which threatens both plant and human life. Georgina Cortes points to Mexico’s status as a developing country that lacks the infrastructure to respond.
“The government and corporations (mining, logging, refreshment companies), both national and foreign, have dedicated themselves to looting our natural resources, which generates further deterioration of the environment,” Cortes told Hyperallergic over email. “As long as it is not understood that the deterioration is caused by voracious capitalism and our consumption habits, we will not achieve anything. What Zurciendo el Planeta has made me see is that shared art, the art in which we can all participate, brings us much closer to other people. When we know that we can participate, that our ideas will be taken into account, we become more creative and active.”
In Latin America, rising sea levels and torrential weather patterns endanger the well-being of communities and ecosystems exploited by multinational corporations. For those who cannot make the trek to Glasgow, the “Forest” allows their voice to be heard. María Angélica Puentes, a 65-year-old doctor in the Pampas region of Argentina, calls attention to a lack of drinking water across barrios and fires that open dried-out wetlands to speculative business interests.
“In this area, the soil has been over-exploited for soy production, and the groundwater is contaminated by the presence of agrochemicals,” Puentes said over email. “The Paraná River, near the city of Rosaria where my children live, has suffered the largest downspout of its channel in decades. The wetlands and the islands surrounding it have been plundered for livestock activity and were set on fire during the pandemic, causing the destruction of plants and animals. Still, the wetlands law is claimed and environmentalists’ activities are as intense as the economic power of agro-livestock groups.”
One portion of the “Forest of Hope” went up in the window of Glasgow’s Centre for Contemporary Arts, and another appeared at The Dream Machine, an experimental event space rented out by the COP26 Coalition. The latter was a collaboration with student activist organization Fridays for Future Mexico, which built an altar for murdered Latin American environmental defendants to commemorate Día de los Muertos. In the lead-up to COP26, Napolitano brought the “Forest” on a pilgrimage across Europe and the United Kingdom, making stops at an abandoned railway station in Paris and Exeter Street Hall in Brighton.
The recent Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) report, as well as the ongoing global refugee and migrant crisis, signal the interconnected nature of resource extraction and displacement. With wealthy government officials still debating how to reel in fossil fuel executives, many of whom are their own corporate donors, the artists of ZEP prove that when everyday people are left out of the conversation, their art can speak for them.