‘Not just a problem of science’: how the environmental crisis is also cultural

“I want people to understand that the environmental crisis is bound up inextricably in our cultural world and how we relate to each other,” Dr Wendy Nālani E Ikemoto is discussing Nature, Crisis, Consequence, which she curated for the New-York Historical Society. The show juxtaposes classics of 19th-century American naturalism with works by artists from communities largely left out of the historical narratives that these works have been central in enshrining. “It’s not just a problem of science and numbers, it is indivisible from the way we treat each other. How is the environmental crisis also a civil rights crisis?”

Running through 16 July, Nature, Crisis, Consequence emerged from a request made of Ikemoto to create a show to feature the NYHS’s 19th-century Hudson River School paintings. Among the Society’s most popular holdings, the Hudson River school works show a romanticized, pastoral version of well-known landscapes upstate from New York City, now thoroughly marked by human development and activity. “They wanted them back on view because they’re so popular,” said Ikemoto, “but I didn’t want to just put these paintings back on the wall.”

Ikemoto hit on the solution of contextualizing these classic American paintings by surrounding them with work made by groups who had largely been excluded from the histories told about these times and places. She also had the idea of making the show about the overlap between civil rights and the climate crisis. “I wanted to reshape this from an exhibition about the Hudson River school to an exhibition about the environmental crisis and its indivisibility from our socio-cultural relations. Our cultural world is bound to these ecological problems.”

Albert Bierstadt – Donner Lake from the Summit, 1873
Albert Bierstadt – Donner Lake from the Summit, 1873 Photograph: Oppenheimer Editions/Collection of the New-York Historical Society, Digital image created by Oppenheimer Editions.

One piece that exemplifies this approach is Albert Bierstadt’s monumental Donner Lake from the Summit, showing the afternoon sun shining over the rocky, forbidding Sierra Nevada mountains. “That painting was made to commemorate the transcontinental railroad, hailing the speed and ease with which we can now so easily traverse this rough terrain,” said Ikemoto. The curator surrounded this massive landscape with portraits of the communities most impacted by the building of the railroad – this included works by Oscar yi Hou, a contemporary painter of Chinese ancestry, as well as by Indigenous artist Ben Pease.

“Bierstadt is presenting a completely depopulated landscape, which is one of Manifest Destiny – a land that’s ripe for the taking – and I wanted to build people into that framework. The indigenous people displaced from their homelands and the Chinese migrant workers who largely built the railroad. I love it how all the figures in these portraits are looking at us, as if demanding that we hear their stories.”

In addition to writing counter-narratives back into to the historical stories told about the settlement of North America, Ikemoto’s curation also lets audiences examine striking aesthetic juxtapositions. Pease’s Ishbinnaache – Protector, Crow Scout Curley shows an Indigenous man wrapped in a blanket surrounded by a glowing golden background filled with diagonal dollops of white, the work at once radiating solemn gravitas and fractious energy. Yi Hou’s Far Eastsiders, AKA: Cowgirl Mama AB & Son Wukong offers a graffiti-like feel, bursting with symbols and featuring bold combinations of color and texture. These paintings feel very distant from Berstadt’s Donner Lake from the Summit.

Nature, Crisis, Consequence also delves into the controversial history of New York’s world famous Central Park, fitting as the New-York Historical Society sits just across the street from it. “It seemed vital to discuss Central Park and its challenging, complicated history,” said Ikemoto.

Jervis McEntee (1828–1891) View in Central Park, New York City, 1858
Jervis McEntee – View in Central Park, New York City, 1858 Photograph: New-York Historical Society, Gift of Mrs. Lyda M. Nelson

As Nature, Crisis, Consequence recounts, although long touted as a democratic park for the people, Central Park is in fact built on the razed homes and churches of middle-class Black, German and Irish communities. Freed Black people were able to establish a foothold in the middle class by building a community where Central Park now sits, when landowners John and Elizabeth Whitehead sold much of their holdings to Black individuals. Not only did this grant Black Americans economic power, it also gave them political power, as freed Black people could not vote at the time if they did not own substantial amounts of land. “Building Central Park meant the disenfranchisement of about 10% of the Black voting population in New York at the time,” said Ikemoto. “It’s important to know what we’re walking on when we walk in Central Park.”

To tell this story, the NYHS’s exhibition offers three paintings of Central Park celebrating its beauty, contextualized with multiple items, including maps naming the individuals who occupied the land that would later become Central Park. This includes rich stories like that of Elizabeth A Gloucester, who had to fight to receive the compensation legally owed to her and who then used that money to become one of the wealthiest Black women in the United States at the time and a major player in American history, funding the Underground Railroad. “She and her husband actually hosted John Brown on his way to Harper’s Ferry,” said Ikemoto.

The exhibition also includes materials used to justify the seizure of the land, including items from a campaign to disparage these middle-class property owners as squatters. “We have one piece saying something about the disreputable squatters, and we placed it next to a landscape painting by Jervis McEntee – sort of along the same lines, it presents this land as rocky and essentially uninhabited. This was painted the year after the seizure of the land and McEntee was the brother-in-law of Calvert Vaux, who was Frederick Law Olmstead’s partner in creating Central Park.”

Kay WalkingStick – Wampanoag Coast, Variation II, 2018
Kay WalkingStick – Wampanoag Coast, Variation II, 2018 Photograph: Collection of Agnes Hsu-Tang, Ph.D. and Oscar Tang Courtesy Kay WalkingStick and Hales, London and New York. Photo by JSP Art Photography

Ikemoto also sees Nature, Crisis, Consequence as connecting back to her identity: part native Hawaiian, she has seen her home state bear the brunt of climate crisis in the U.S, and she is aware of her responsibilities as a curator of color. “I think I’m pretty unusual in being an American art curator who is a person of color. I feel a responsibility to increase visibility and to teach that museums are educational spaces. Museums offer a platform to tell these stories and a chance to shift the ways we think about American art and American history.”

Ikemoto hopes that Nature, Crisis, Consequence will push audiences’ understanding further and help them connect the links between history, civil rights, and the climate crisis. She believes that, ultimately, filling out these stories is not only correctly serving NYHS’s public, but also offering a better understanding of our nation’s past and present.

“Omitting people from these stories is a misrepresentation of history. Ideally, a museum will reflect the public that it serves and our audience is not predominantly white, it’s diverse. Learning about a diversity of stories and intersectional stories, we can only enhance an understanding of American history.”

The Guardian