Installation view of Residue from the Critical Membrane series
Heather Davis looks at the work of Sonia Mehra Chawla, as part of her look into Four Figures of Climate Change for Theo Westenberger Estate, July 2017.


Published by Theo Westenberger Estate in 2017

Mangroves are the membrane between the land and the sea. The roots slow the movement of tidal waters, making them essential for the prevention of flooding and the potential devastation of storms. For over five years artist Sonia Mehra Chawla has been studying, in collaboration with the Chennai-based MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF), the effects of climate change, deforestation, and changing agricultural patterns on the mangroves of Ernakulam, Kerala, and the Muthupet wetlands of Tamil Nadu. The project is a multi-layered approach to the forests, depicting the devastation of decaying and dying mangroves through overlapping photographs and etchings on plexiglass with the carefully photographed microcosmic worlds of bacterial cultures that are unique to these forest ecologies. Critical Membranes is an investigation with the entangled ecologies of humans and plant life, revealing our co-dependence and co-production of these forests.

When I had the chance to discuss the project with Chawla at the Yinchuan Biennale, I was fascinated with her descriptions of how the forests might be revived. From her detailed research with MSSRF, she relayed how the mangroves had developed in relation to the Indigenous fisherman of the area. When people were allowed back in to fish in otherwise depleted forests, the forests revived. The forests needed these fisherpeople. Elizabeth Povinelli argues, in her book Geontologies, for the importance of paying attention to particular places. She says, following from the teachings of her Aboriginal collaborators, that as humans stop paying tribute, visiting and caring for particular sites, those waterways, forests, or rocks turn away from humans, changing their arrangement of existence. But this turning away is often very bad for human kin. Chawla’s work offers a turning toward the mangroves, showing the veins and the details and the beauty of their liveliness amidst the grief of their death. The installation reveals the necessary entwinement and entanglement of humans and our other-than-human kin. To recognize these world-building capacities offers different models from which to think what environmentalism might mean in the twenty-first century, ones where humans and mangroves might engage in mutual care, a turning toward that involves daily and rhythmic recognition of our inevitable and humbling enmeshment, much like the roots of the mangroves.
Heather Davis is a researcher, writer, and editor from Montréal. Her current book project traces the ethology of plastic and its links to petrocapitalism. From 2014-2017 she held a Mellon postdoctoral fellowship at the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at the Pennsylvania State University. Heather explores and participates in expanded art practices that bring together researchers, activists, and community members to enact social change. She has written about the intersection of art, politics, ecology, and community engagement for numerous art and academic publications. She is the editor of Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies (London: Open Humanities Press, 2015) and Desire Change: Contemporary Feminist Art in Canada (MAWA and McGill-Queen's UP, forthcoming 2017).

© sonia mehra chawla