Southern Perspectives? With Merian to Suriname and Back

As a historian of early modern history, I do research, but not field work. I converse with archivists and librarians as guides to the material, but not with eye witnesses or activists. In writing, I am also bound to certain academic genres and formats. If I experience the phenomenon someone has called „felt presence“ in texts and objects, I can speculate, but the material is rarely eligible for re-construction and analysis in my publications. At the Merian conference 2017 in Amsterdam in June, with its focus on „intersections“, two artists from the fields of literature and visual arts presented work about and with locals and covered terrain that neither the academy nor popular science, with its traditional focus on colonial exploration and adventure narratives, usually tread on.

The poet Cindy Snow from Massachusetts, US presented poems from a series in progress that is based on intensive examination of Merian’s illustrations. Snow read a memorable poem imagined from the perspective of a fictional Arawak woman working for Maria Sybilla Merian during her stay in Suriname. An „informant“ in the lingo of the history of science and knowledge, the Arawak person became an individual woman with the specific experience of abortion that made her avoid the peacock bush, hardly able to provide the sample she was repeatedly asked and reprimanded for.

The Dutch visual artist Joos van de Plas has based her ongoing revisitation of Merian’s work on her own research in Suriname, and her artist’s laboratory with caterpillars, pupae and butterflies. Van de Plas spoke of her „lifelong fascination with the process of metamorphosis, both in the literal and the metaphorical sense“. In the photographs accompanying her talk and artwork, black and brown people collect samples in the field, sketch, and interpret their findings in the office or lab. It was a mosaic of photographs with Surinamese locals in the position of researchers and experts, yet they did not speak at the conference. Also, the artist showed a film of her trip to a plantation mentioned by Merian, guided by a local man knowledgeable about the history of the place. It is deep in the woods today, and he had excavated a few objects from the Dutch past in a kind of post-colonial archaeology. His was the only Surinamese voice to be heard during the conference.

Many materials relevant for the history of science today were collected in the global South in the 17th and 18th centuries and have since been preserved in the spaces of arts and science within Europe. Research is rarely re-oriented and conceptualised including a Surinamese perspective, for example, or the perspective of women of colour, sometimes for lack of written records and unfamiliarity with other source material. So, in this context, it was refreshing to at least hear about different practices and alternate stories stemming from the historic objects and to reflect on different cultures of knowledge.

Where to go from here? Art provides a chance for the re-imagination of academic endeavours as shared history. Reflections on visibility and representation should be the first step towards future project and workshop designs developed together with researchers from Suriname, for example, or connecting historians of science with heritage specialists and activists in public history.

(First published 10 August, amended 23 August 2017)

Program of the Maria Sibylla Merian Conference 2017 
About the work of poet Cindy Snow 
Website of artist Joos van de Plas