When the Government of Canada launched the New Frontiers Research Fund in December 2018 to support emerging researchers in an interdisciplinary, fast-breaking and high-risk research, Sheila Colla and Lisa Myers wasted no time working together in this new opportunity that will support research collaboration among non-traditional partners. As a conservation biologist, Colla’s research deals with the conservation of at-risk species including native pollinators and wildflowers. Myers is a curator of Anishinaabe and mixed European ancestry from Beausoleil First Nations whose artistic practice considers the relationship between geography, food, and memory. Their research, which they dub “Finding Flowers”, focusses on pollinator conservation through ecology, art and pedagogy and aims to take a biocultural and interdisciplinary approach to investigate plant-pollinator biodiversity in Canada, while also expanding Indigenous art history and curatorial practices.
“The value of biocultural approaches in conservation are only recently being recognized in mainstream science but play a critical role as it considers governance structures and promotes inclusive ways of knowledge gathering from diverse knowledge systems,” says Colla. “There has not yet been any research examining the changing relationships between humans, pollinators and pollination, given the recently documented declines in North America.”
Indeed, the rapid decline of insect pollinators, particularly bees and butterflies, has been documented globally and has significant implications on the sustainability of natural ecosystems and food crop production. “We will use ecological methods and citizen science to create networks of understanding for plant-pollinator relationships across various sites,” explains Colla. “We will also co-produce various types of knowledge with our students and collaborators to enrich our understanding of the relationships between humans, plants, insects, land and culture,” she added. The team, along with artists/curators, ecologists and native plant experts, as well as Indigenous elders and knowledge holders in the country, will work with pre-existing gardens created by the late Mi’kmaq artist Mike MacDonald, asserting Indigenous philosophies that recognize and respect interconnections of all living matters, not separating humans from nature. Among other initiatives that engage indigenous gardens, the team has replanted the late Mi’kmaq artist Mike MacDonald’s Medicine and Butterfly Garden at the Woodland Cultural Centre and newly planted this same garden at the Kitchener Waterloo Art Gallery. Multi-event community engaged art projects would activate and animate the various garden sites on the grounds of art centres and galleries across Canada. Similar in-situ events will be held at Mount Saint Vincent Art Gallery in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Walter Phillips Gallery at the Banff Art Centre, in Alberta, Canada and other locations.
“We will use these gardens as gathering spaces for multidisciplinary approaches of Indigenous curatorial practice and art practices. MacDonald’s gardens are sites of indigenous knowledge and spaces of contemplation that emerged from his critique of capitalist and colonial impositions related to resource extraction and land disputes” says Myers. “We will consider the history and context of each site, for example Brantford and Kitchener, participants will build understandings of the history of the Haldimand proclamation and ecosystems of the Grand River region. I am working to invite Indigenous artists who make artwork related to land, food, medicines and land-use to gather at these sites. Offering extremely poignant changes to space, these gardens re-inscribe indigenous plants of the region over grassy lawns and concrete built environments.” she elaborates.
Notably, the growing of gardens is part of a contemporary art practice that has burgeoned into ecological and eco-art genres with potential for art practices addressing shared colonial histories of food, land use and medicines. The gardens will provide spaces for ecological research and socially-engaged arts programming to also share knowledge of pollinators, plant medicines and land rights.
Further, the bridge between social and natural science disciplines with arts-based approaches and artistic expression will foster novel and creative approaches to tackle the pollinator crisis in culturally-sensitive ways. Combining art, pedagogy, science and traditional knowledge will create a model for future collaboration in Canada and abroad. The project is an innovative example of a biocultural approach to insect conservation while understanding animal-plant-human relationships. For more updates, follow the project on Instagram @findingflowersmedia.