Amazon Rainforest

Abel Rodríguez: The Namer of Plants

Trained since childhood by a family member to be a “namer of plants,” Abel Rodríguez uses his works as a way of translating subjectivities of the Amazonian ecosystem. His illustrations show the life processes of the forest and, at the same time, the processes of its death.

Thus began a relationship that would also determine his insertion into the art universe. Carlos, whose last name Rodríguez adopted when he chose his Western name, encouraged him to draw to keep his memories alive. This encouragement increased after a traumatic diasporic process: in the 1990s, Rodríguez had to leave his native region to flee the armed conflict that had taken hold of the country and was devastating the region’s natural resources. Since then Rodríguez has been living with family in a peripheral region of Bogota, although he still maintains contact with the forest.

It is difficult to find equivalent works by others that at once accurately convey information about a given ecosystem and bring awareness to a broader audience through their artistic value. Even in well-known examples in the West which combine scientific value with literary writing, the big difference from Rodríguez’s work is that they are clearly approaches from a white perspective.

Especially in botany, a science that was born with a connection to colonial imaginary, an important debate has begun recently about scientific or popular classifications and nomenclatures of species from the plant kingdom that are laden with racial, patriarchal, or religious prejudices (“wandering Jew,” “Adam’s rib,” and “shameless Maria” are a few of the popular examples). This debate was the basis for the Botannica Tirannica (Tyrannical Botany) exhibition, for example, held last year by artist and researcher Giselle Beiguelman at the Jewish Museum in São Paulo. Using images made with artificial intelligence, she created new possibilities for combinations that question the standards of nomenclature, generating, in her words, a kind of “ecosystem of a wandering science, where hybrid beings flourish.”

It is in this sense that Abel Rodríguez’s role as “namer of plants” gains symbolic importance: he reclaime a role that was taken away from Indigenous peoples. At the same time, the very idea of a grand purpose is something that goes beyond his worldview. In a documentary directed by Fernando Arias in 2014, shown at an exhibition at the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in the UK in 2020, the Indigenous artist gave the best response when asked about what his drawings mean to him: “Well, nothing. I only show a simple image.”

Similarly, writer and activist Ailton Krenak reformulates the best-known Biblical phrase about the origin of the world in his most recent book, Futuro Ancestral (Ancestral Future, 2022), by stating: “In reverse, we could say that in the beginning there was the leaf. Other narratives will say that in the beginning there was the word.”

If the plant kingdom has its own vocabulary, we should say that Abel Rodríguez is merely a translator of what plants mean. And often they may not mean anything.

Nathalia Lavigne is a researcher, journalist and curator.

Translation: Sara Hanaburgh