An Exploration of the Affect of Representational Responses to Environmental Injustices in the Niger River Delta



this is still a draft!! but there’s some cool stuff here maybe


My paper seeks to explore environmental injustices revolving around oil production in the Niger Delta and identify justice movements against these injustices. I begin by discussing dominant conceptions of the Niger Delta as a place rocked by corruption and environmental devastation, hoping to investigate the political affect that these descriptions have on audiences interested in mobilizing resistance against systems of oppression and ecological devastation in Nigeria. I then try to historicize current justice movements by bringing into discussion Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, exploring the question of, “How do current justice movements go against and along with Ken Saro-Wiwa’s vision for an environmental justice movement in the Niger Delta?” That question also begs the question of representation, and if all justice movements ought to be geared toward international consciousness raising. I argue that MEND, a movement that operates violently through disruption of oil production, ought not to be centered representationally because of the metaphor by which the West understands violence… rather, artists that use environmentally sustainable, situated rhetorics, such as Zina Saro-Wiwa, offer a holistic form of environmental education that engages the ‘body, mind and soul’ of the audience. This engagement allows viewers to reconceptualize their understanding of and relationship with the environment in constructive ways that might open up space in the political imagination for new forms of resistance against the corrupt Nigerian state and transnational oil companies’ irresponsible ecological practices. Zina Saro-Wiwa’s art arguably brings a utopic future into existence by embodying that resistance through performance.


The Niger Delta, An Oil Wasteland?


In his 2010 book, Curse of the Black Gold: 50 Years of Oil in the Niger Delta, scholar Michael Watts states, “commodities define the modern history of the Niger Delta” (Watts 39). He sets the stage for his analysis of the effects of the oil industry on the region—its government, its people, its ecosystems—by painting a picture of the town of Oloibiri, the site where the first oil wellhead was drilled in 1956. He vividly characterizes the place as a “poster-child” for similar communities devastated by oil production, describing it as “a wretched, backwater […] rural slum home to barely 1,000 souls that might as well live in another century. No running water, no electricity, no roads, and no functioning primary school […]a bleak picture, a dark tale of neglect and unremitting misery […] a sort of fossil, rotting detritus cast off by the oil industry” (Watts 37). Clearly, Watts thinks the situation is dire. And, it seems that many locals agree: Watts quotes a resident of Oloibiri who describes their home as a “’useless cast-away snail shell after its meat has been extracted and eaten by the government and Shell Petroleum Development Company’” (Watts 37). The characterization of the Niger Delta as a hopeless, bleak wasteland drained of all its value by oil corporations has dominated international media and scholarly discourse for a while now. It is easy to become disempowered at the sheer magnitude of the devastation or lost in the sticky politics of oil, a resource that “anesthetizes thought, blurs vision, and corrupts […] kindles great emotion” (Watts 39). Unfortunately, the affective response of such a characterization typically does not inspire hope for change and a positive future, but rather a sense of melancholic despair, anguish, and inaction. The affect of oil needs to be explored, the way we understand and write about oil and its effects on the environment and how that affects social movements needs to be understood.  But, how did the situation get this bad? Hasn’t someone tried to do something about this?

Background of Environmental Justice Movements: Ken Saro-Wiwa and MOSOP

There is a long history of resistance to oil production in the delta, but the most widely known movement that tried to tackle the environmental injustice of oil production in the region was spearheaded by writer-activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and known as the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), most active from 1986 to 1995. Ken-Saro Wiwa and MOSOP both had a “commitment to democratic non-violence and […] condemnation of the ‘slick alliance’ of Big Government and Big Oil” (Watts 37). They used techniques such as disseminating writing as a way to raise international consciousness about the injustices they faced, as well as organizing non-violent protests and demonstrations to put internal pressure on the Nigerian government to put a stop to (or at least regulate) unjust oil production in Ogoniland. Ken Saro-Wiwa believed in the power of writing as a means of protest. In an interview, he stated “I’ve used my talents as a writer to enable the Ogoni people to confront their tormenters. I was not able to do it as a politician or a businessman. My writing did it… I think I have the moral victory” (Nixon 105). Through essays, newspaper articles, magazine columns, TV and radio shows, speeches, and direct action, he wanted to use discourse to “capitalize on […] international attention” and raise awareness of the ongoing “ethnocide by environmental means” happening to his people (Nixon 110). Peaceful demonstrations were met with violent responses backed by the government and corporate interests. For example, during a January 1993 peaceful protest, thousands of Ogoni were killed by the Nigerian military/police and dozens of villages were razed. Emails released from Chevron show that some oil corporations were guilty of conspiring with the Nigerian state, ordering around troops to quell uprisings against oil infrastructure. This “militarization of commerce” shows how sinister the oil-government alliance is (Nixon 107).

While Ken Saro-Wiwa initially ran into obstacles that made international consciousness raising difficult—Greenpeace ‘didn’t work in Africa’ and Amnesty International did not recognize ecological devastation as a humanitarian crisis—he eventually succeeded in gaining the support of The United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations by drawing parallels between numerous international struggles that had minority rights and environmental degradation at the heart of the issues. Throughout the late 1990s, he garnered more and more support from international environmentalist groups and was able to bring the Ogoni situation to the stage of global politics. The United Kingdom, the US, and EU all pressured Nelson Mandela to take the lead in opposing the Abacha regime’s corruption and negligence. South African diplomats took a quiet approach and attempted to dissuade Abacha’s hard-lined attitude, but Abacha responded by extrajudicially executing Ken Saro-Wiwa. He was put to death by hanging in November 1995.

There were both successes and failures within MOSOP, but the movement surely set the stage for the future of resistance against the oil industry. One major win was that the international outcry resulted in Shell removing themselves from Ogoniland. In court, the settlement reached was a $15.5 million payout to the Ogoni people—though, Shell has yet to apologize or admit any wrongdoing, and the settlement was framed in court as a “humanitarian gesture” (Nixon 126). That is despicable and overtly imperialist! Clearly, neither of these successes are sufficient reconciliations for injustices. Rob Nixon articulates some of these shortcomings:

“When MOSOP activists ejected Shell from Ogoniland in the 1990s, the company left without conducting any cleanup and continued to operate with environmental impunity in the wider, increasingly volatile delta area The costs of environmental reparation for the slow violence that has permeated the delta […] are incalculable: the WWF has put out a figure of 6 billion, but really there’s no telling” (Nixon 126).

The settlement was nowhere near enough to deal with the environmental damages wrought by corporate negligence. One cannot even come up with a dollar figure that would begin to repair it, let alone the psychological damage brought about by the trauma of witnessing the execution. Neither the government or oil corporations apologized or attempted to right their violence. No cleanup has occurred for Ogoniland, and the moratorium on oil production in their community only allowed companies like Shell to ramp up production in other parts of the delta…

In his book, Watts includes a hefty list of what would be needed to begin to address the situation. His proposals include,

“large-scale training programs and mass employment schemes, major infrastructure projects, and environmental rehabilitation […] resource control […] will need to address questions like corruption, the reform of the electoral commission, and transparency […] oil companies must radically re-think […] what passes as responsible business practice […] it will necessitate building new democratic institutions from below” (Watts 47).

His plan is a lot to chew on! Where to begin if the government is corrupt—its not like they’re going to reform themselves without pressure. Oil companies only care about profits. Business-as-usual politics is not working—legal institutions are resisting change and reformism is not going to cut it. What are some approaches contemporarily to put pressure on the government and oil corporations to do these things?

How has Ken Saro-Wiwa as a central figurehead of the movement against oil injustice helped and hindered further movements? How are current movements responding to his legacy?



After analyzing the statistics, Watts claims that Ken Saro-Wiwa’s worst fears were coming true. After the dissolution of MOSOP,

“conditions across the oilfields remained the same, only worse. Security forces still operated with impunity, the government failed to protect communities in oil producing areas while providing security to the oil industry, and the oil companies bore responsibility too […] MOSOP itself fell into disarray […] the non-violent struggle […] turn[ed] violent in the face of business-as-usual politics ” (Watts 37).

Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Legacy

Ken Saro-Wiwa’s funeral

“speaks to the risks and quandaries that attend the martyr-focused cause, as a political figurehead’s pragmatic leadership enters the realm of mythic potency through the manner of his death. The immortal corpse […] can become a powerful political asset but also stand dauntingly in the path of those who wish to take the struggle forward in new ways, for new times” (Nixon 123).

How has Ken Saro-Wiwa as a central figurehead of the movement against oil injustice helped and hindered further movements? How are current movements responding to his legacy? Ken Saro-Wiwa wrote in his journal that he knew his “writing would return to haunt his tormentors” (Nixon 104). Though he also asks in his essay The Coming War in the Delta,”Is anyone listening?” While MOSOP has dissolved, many people are still speaking out against the environmental injustice in the Niger Delta—I will discuss some of these artistic responses to the current humanitarian and ecological crises. Nixon focuses on the legacy picked up by Ken Saro-Wiwa’s son, Ken Saro-Wiwa Jr. who is using writing and politics to continue to challenge government corruption and oil production. Watts focuses on violent struggles against oil production, the most pertinent of which is known as the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). Groups have been pushed to violence because alternative methods of political change have been ignored or squashed with force. The current struggle against the oil industry in the Niger Delta takes many forms, but I would like to focus on MEND and Zina Saro-Wiwa’s responses to the legacy left by Ken Saro-Wiwa. I will juxtapose their different methods of engaging with oil corruption and environmental devastation and investigate how representations of violence offer and disclose different means of change.

MEND and the Spectacular

One response to the lack of accountability within state and corporate structures is violent action undertaken by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta. MEND was organized in 2005. It’s happened on a December day, in which insurgents damaged the major Opobo pipeline and destroyed the Forcados offshore platform.  20% of oil output was compromised in a day, and within a year, 1/3 of output was staunched. Violent action continued: “between January 2006 and March 2007 over 200 oil-worker hostages were taken and 42 attacks were made on oil installations” (Watts 38). But by 2007, oil revenues had fallen by 40% and Shell alone had lost $10.6 billion  in revenue (Watts 38). By the figures, MEND is quite a successful movement in terms of disrupting oil profits and production. However, because MEND’s operations are steeped in what most would recognize as “violence,” their actions led to the oil companies becoming highly securitized. Furthermore, their acts of property damage arguably contribute to environmental degradation (when you destroy an oil pipeline or rig, it causes oil spills) and can only act to put more pressure on the state to curb corruption and fossil fuel production.

Because reformism and peaceful protest have not yielded the desired outcome, I think MEND’s actions are justified and effective tools of disruption that apply pressure for change while also mitigating oil production and therefore imposing upon the colonial, anti-black, ethnocentric, late capitalist structures that oil is lubricant of. However, questions regarding representations of their movement within the international consciousness are still fraught. There is still need for international pressure to be put on Shell and the Nigerian state, and for enough awareness to be garnered, the justice movements have to be represented somehow in discourse. Due to dominant Western cultural metaphors in which violence is generally conceptualized and articulated, representations of MEND’s violence could potentially do more harm than good in terms of extending legitimacy to MEND’s actions in the eyes of a Western audience unaware of the histories of colonialism, racism, ethnocentrism, and environmental deterioration that led up to the spectacular violence represented in photographs of MEND operations.

A recent exhibition that focused on MEND provides an example of how representations of their actions serve to delegitimize their movement rather than the other way around. In 2012, Juan Orrantia curated the exhibit “Last Rites Niger Delta: The Drama of Oil Production in Contemporary Photographs” in Munich, Germany–the goal was a ‘representational intervention’ in the way that violence is depicted in the Niger Delta (JWTC). The exhibit received some criticism. In an interview with the curator, the Johannesburg Workshop for Theory and Criticism asked Orrantia if he could represent the situation justly having never been to the Niger Delta. Orrantia responds, “Do we still believe in the first encounter narrative authority?” and argues that we are all implicated in the transnational politics of oil production so there is value in taking images captured from someone physically being there, and remixing them to create new messages. Orrantia dismisses academic critiques that aestheticization of others’ suffering is appropriative and desensitizing, and promotes the aesthetic qualities of the images as ways to encourage new imaginative, alternative ways of viewing the situation. “Images of futuristic aesthetic qualities […] of situations  almost unimaginable—like people drying fish and living amidst gas flames, where the colours create an almost alternate reality” (JWTC). However, his statements sort of avoided the meat of the questions, and were met with criticism because it does not properly contextualize the violence in the Delta that it depicts. “One cannot write about energy culture in the Nigerian context without engaging the spectacle of violence it elicits, both in the public mind and the sphere of creative imagination” (Aghoghovwia 238). It shows spectacularly violent imagery (armed men holding others hostage, etc.) but does not illustrate the environmental degradation and sociopolitical disenfranchisement that led to the violence occurring, which subtly misinforms viewers and might make them more sympathetic to oil corporations’ causes.

MEND’s operations ask us to investigate the way we understand what violence is.

  • How do we understand ‘violence?’
    • “one cannot write about energy culture in the Nigerian context without engaging the spectacle of violence it elicits, both in the public mind and the sphere of creative imagination” (Aghoghovwia 238)
    • — the way we understand what violence is, is tied to systems of cultural production that illustrate violence as a specific image or performance.
    • Dominant understandings of violence conceptualize it as something spectacular. MEND is understood as violent because they are hurting other people, holding them hostage at gunpoint, engaging in property destruction.
    • Slow violence is less recognized by the world at large. It took years for Ken Saro-Wiwa and MOSOP to convince international organizations that the slow violence of environmental degradation in the Delta was a form of violence.
    • “Butler understands representation as an ‘operative term within a political process that seeks to extend visibility and legitimacy’ 1990;1” 239
    • — complicated this notion: “claims to legitimacy seem to be at odds with the modality through which it is made visible” 239
    • It is important to contextualize the violence MEND engages in within a history of state and corporate violence done unto the environment and minority populations like the Ogoni – but many aesthetic representations do not contextualize MEND’s violence properly which functions to delegitimize the movement in the eyes of Western audiences who only see their violence and not the violence that led to their reaction



  • Released and widely circulated as MEND propaganda
  • This obsession with photos like these — leaves out discussions of violent histories of slow violence that led up to their staging and capturing — the public mind thinks of Niger Delta as dangerous place like this now
  • How does the news cover things like this?
    • “Edward Said notes, ‘determine the political reality’ of a phenomenon” 241
  • These images “contaminate the youths’ moral claims for justive as they are made visible through the instrumentality of representation”
  • The slow violence of environmental injustice is further elided by the spectacle that characterizes the protocols of representation by which it is protested and made visible. And this spectacle tends to become the violence in itself.” because there is another form of representational colonialism in which these discourses begin to overtake the reality of what is happening in the niger delta — even a colonization of the mind in which people in niger delta believe that this is their reality. A cognitive colonization through the medium of representation.


In this dissertation, Aghoghovwia investigates cultural representations of oil and violence in the Niger Delta. He begins his analysis by historicizing current movements in a post-Ken Saro-Wiwa setting. He comments on Michael Watts’ and Juan Orrantia’s hyperfocus on oil as a tool for understanding the Niger Delta, and how this narrow lens overlooks cultural and ecological on-goings that are still present in the region. I would like to focus on the introduction and his way of historicizing representations of current movements, and offer Zina Saro-Wiwa’s artistic production as an example of artistic ‘oil-encounter.’


Ken Saro-Wiwa Jr. and Art

Nixon focuses on Ken Saro-Wiwa Jr. as a figure that is continuing his fathers’ legacy. He responded to the execution of his father and the broader crisis in the delta by giving humanitarian talks around an international circuit as a means to re-focus attention on what was becoming a forgotten moment of history, or a situation resigned to despair and failure. Ken Saro-Wiwa Jr.’s efforts led the way to the 2009 settlement of $15.5 million dollars, but he recognized that settlement wasn’t enough—didn’t set a legal precedent because they settled. If legal avenues of change aren’t working, and violence works as a material tactic but is not able to be represented responsibly enough in the international arena to generate solidarity with the cause for environmental justice, it seems that new avenues of change need to be imagined and brought into existence.

Lately, Ken Saro-Wiwa Jr. has been exploring art as a tactic to provide a rallying point for organizing and directly put pressure on institutions to change their business-as-usual politics. In a 2016 interview with Platform London, Saro-Wiwa Jr. explains that after the court settlement he focused his efforts to “make a huge media splash through an international art exhibition […] it needed to waken memory and commemorate the murders. It needed to call people to fight on for justice. It needed to be able to move, emotionally and physically. It needed to challenge power—both Shell and the Nigerian government—and do it provocatively” (Jane). The art exhibition included a bus and was eventually shut down. But it proved Saro-Wiwa Jr.’s pint that “Art is direct, it challenges the authorities, the power structure. It doesn’t seek to have any nuance. It just says what it is. […] and people rally around the directness of it because it speaks to power. […] can we be nuanced in the face of this power structure?” (Jane). Writing, giving speeches to international agencies, and legal procedure are so wrapped up in reformism and incremental change that all of the revolutionary spirit of change needed to rid ourselves of our dependency on oil ends up sucked out of the process. The way institutions are structured is to provide order and maintain the power of the status quo—the affect they produce is disempowerment and despair, resignation to the status quo. Institutions are structured by oil. Art is one means of circumventing that and tapping into the raw emotional force behind trauma. Art is “not an ego trip, its serious, its politics, its economics, its everything. And art in that instance becomes so meaningful to both the artist and to the consumers of the art” (Platform London).

Zina Saro-Wiwa and Art

Zina Saro-Wiwa also believes in art as a means of evoking change in the world. In a 2016 interview with Artsy Magazine, she explains that art “can point the way to what’s actually there in the world, we can change our value systems, we can create new industries, or the basis for new industries […] that’s what art and artists can do. And that’s what I’m trying to do in Nigeria. Getting people to think about their environment differently” (Artsy). Her art moves beyond language and its endless search for nuance and accuracy, moves beyond the disempowering sublime of endless accumulation of knowledge, and reaches into the phenomenal world as an untapped site of revolutionary power. She points to the space art allows her to create and then access as a source of inspiration to pave the way toward the material changes scholars like Watts agree are necessary, like new sustainable markets, bottoms-up democratic movements, and radical philosophical and psychological reorientations in the way we understand and relate to the environment. She designates herself as a “culture-worker” and explains that,

“at the root of all of this work is the empowerment of individuals and a refusal of the tired, tragic narratives imposed upon the Niger Delta […] “I’m going to think about this place differently […] I’m going to value women’s work, I’m going to value our history […] I’m going to see the fact that there are Edens here. No one else is going to do that, only an artist will do that.” (Artsy).


Zina Saro Wiwa’s artistic practice is intertwined with the legacy left to her by her father. She points to her work Sarogua Mourning as a turning point for her: “I think that was when I first became an artist […] when I shaved my head and immersed myself and explored performance as a route to catharsis” (Artly).

Sarogua Mourning

Sarogua Mourning “explores the rituals surrounding mourning, the choreography of grief and the role of performance in catharsis” (ZSW Studio). The eleven minute video is immensely powerful to me. Zina stares at the camera, therefore into the eyes of the viewer. She does not speak. The video is silent. There is pain in her eyes. Her lips are parsed. She looks guarded, aloof, sometimes coy or playful. Then, she breaks the silence to say “I have to talk.” She talks about holding onto pain. How she holds onto pain, and takes it out on her relationships with men. She gets upset with a guy, goes for guys that she knows will hurt her because deep down she is looking for more pain to hold onto. She uses relationships as something to project the pain onto, and then when things don’t work out, a little catharsis happens and a bit of the pain is released. She does this because the other stuff is too hard, never-ending. You’ll get over the guys, but a family member dying? You might not ever get over that. For her, mourning is about letting go and releasing so you can find joy again. But it is hard when there are years of pain built up inside you. She diverts her eyes from the camera, repeats, “how to have joy…” and when she looks back at the camera, her guard is has fallen and the real emotions come out. She sobs, breathes deeply, clutches herself, sobs more. Then she laughs and smiles. She soothes herself and then she sobs more. She seems filled with the deepest of darkness, and the brightest of light. She prays. Perhaps she laughs at the absurdity of it all. She finds joy in suffering, tranquility in disturbance. She reminds us that the lows give us the highs and that they are all intertwined and mutually dependent.

The video reminds me that the first step toward healing, toward reparation, is processing and recognizing the hurt, the pain, the trauma, the unspeakable. In this video, she mourns her father. I think it points toward a much greater death and a much greater mourning. I think it paves the way toward understanding how to mourn entire ecosystems, entire cultures, the thousands killed by Shell and the Nigerian state, by colonialism… how to mourn the fact even though so many gave everything for MOSOP, it was not enough. And doing so through language and writing and speaking is not enough—one must overcome the body/mind dualism and holistically process the violence in order to move forward to overcome it.

I relate to the video. Writing about it is one step, but I want to make a performative response to the video in which I mourn my Papaw, Glen, who passed recently. He worked in Port Harcourt for Baker Hughes for ten years, 1980-1990. Maybe through the performance I can begin to mourn him and come to a better embodied understanding of all his actions. Understanding him might hold the key for me to understanding my role as an artist deeply invested in community building, social justice, and sustainability.

Chaos Magic vs Oil Curse?

There is an element of magic to the work. In the description of the video, Zina mentions, “I recorded this piece on Sunday 9th October 2011. My grandmother would have been in labour with my father 70 years ago at that exact moment. I didn’t realise that at the time of shooting. The 10th October 2011 would have been my father’s 70th Birthday” (ZSW Studio). This synchronicity reminds me of chaos magic. Chaos magick works like this: one notices a coincidence and extends belief (a form of intuitive knowing with your mind, body, and soul together) and weaponizes that belief as a way to empower yourself to manifest your desires, dreams, wishes, and hopes. Art is one form of expression that allows you to access internal energies and bring them into the phenomenal world through creation. Even if it is a placebo effect, placebo is often just as effective as medicine, as shown in many pharmaceutical studies.

One might dismiss the magic potential of art as naïve or wacko, but the inexplicable is quite common even in the realms of policy-making and sociology, particularly when it comes to the way oil structures our lives. “The ‘oil curse’ […] indicates the government corruption, rampant pollution, and underdevelopment associated with the exploitative multinational corporations that come to mine” (Lemanager 40). The oil curse is a problem frequently studied sociologically—people collect data, conduct surveys, craft models and run simulations on oil, trying to track markets and CO2 emissions… Environmental policies are constructed to combat the oil curse, but seemingly to no avail… Under late capitalism, consumers’ addiction to hydrocarbons defies all rationality. Policy-oriented solutions underpinned by good sociological and scientific data is clearly necessary to manage the worst of government corruption and environmental devastation—to ensure cleanup, essentially do all of Michael Watts’ recommendations… But while it is necessary, it might be insufficient. Maybe fighting oil’s sticky magic qualities needs to be done with more magic!!!

Karikpo Pipeline

While Sarogua Mourning breaks down distinctions between suffering and joy through performative mourning as a way to pave a path forward, Zina’s video Karikpo Pipeline breaks down similar binaries between ‘Eden’ and ‘Hell’ by showing beautiful pockets of the Niger Delta

“In Karikpo Pipeline, Saro-Wiwa transposes the dancers’ performances over signs of oil infrastructure in Ogoniland: exposed pipelines, an old wellhead with pollution-soaking sand surrounding it, roads where pipelines had previously lined the landscape, roads where the pipelines still exist but are buried, and a rusting, decommissioned flow station. Faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles to self-determination, Ogoni performers here assert dance, shoring up a political and social argument for art under Saro-Wiwa’s direction. Karikpo Pipeline gives visual and embodied form to human relationships with environment, teasing out the physical and emotional dynamics that frame cultural value systems for Ogoni land” (Saro-Wiwa, Vimeo description).

Karikpo Pipeline embodies Zina Saro-Wiwa’s words from the Artly interview—it is all about thinking about the environment differently, empowerment, and seeing Eden where others do not. “Imagining Eden within a devastated landscape acts as protest, the revision of a hegemonic narrative,” writes Stephanie Lemanager in her essay Eden if We Dare (40). She argues that while sociologists like Michael Watts’ work is important, to an extent it reminds consumers about what they already know—that consumption habits are actively ruining ecosystems and killing people and their cultures. Zina Saro-Wiwa does not need to reiterate this point in her work; while she has stated in interviews that she is very grateful for the work scholars and politicians do, she would rather speak of “’what oil can’t understand’ about the Ogoni […] ‘what we have’ that ‘they don’t know about’—meaning what is generative in the culture and cannot be easily stolen, securitized, or seen. Seeing is sensitivity and an aesthetic form of knowledge, a knowing that resonates in the body” (Lemanager 43). “ The words and acts of these indigenous culture makers betray the seemingly inevitable infrastructures of oil as historical, even provisional” by reinjecting joyous celebration (Lemanager 40).

Karikpo Pipeline explores dominant notions of energy as tied to the fossil fuel industry. Lemanager offers Zina’s work as a new conceptualization of power, “power as the ability to generate sociability. Sociability means being together for the sake of being alive together, and it implies playfulness, creative and open thinking” (Lemanager).

A crowd always comes with to watch, which highlights the importance of considering who the target audience of the artwork is. It might be appreciated in the international art world as a piece of eco-art, but to the people watching it being performed live it could be something else altogether. Perhaps a form of queer utopia? Or, becoming-being in which, by performing or embodying queer performances, or disrupting normative categories of a stable subject positioning and their relations to objects, one actively challenges and disrupts the status quo, in effect ushering in some positive change for the target audience. In his article, Rademeyer cites Munoz when they argue we can envision a ‘then and there’ through utopia, which is a ‘critique of the here and now’ (Mun ˜oz 2009, p. 99) that can go beyond our current grids of intelligibility. Essentially, art can

“carve out new configurations of queer time and space which can ‘open up new life narratives’ outside of heteronormative scripts […] this means imagining a future. […] queerness exists only in the future, as the here and now casts queers as nothing. Queerness is ‘the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality. We have never been queer, yet queerness exists for us as an ideality that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future. The future is queerness’s domain […] utopias are ‘imaginative territories that map themselves over the real’ (p. 38). Utopia, through fantasy and imagination, can critique and denaturalise our reality, and open up possibilities beyond what is real. Utopia presents a ‘fantasy of an alternative society’ that exists ‘nowhere,’ which is, Dolan argues, ‘the most formidable contestation of what is’ (Ricouer cited in Dolan 2005, pp. 89 90). For Mun ˜oz and Dolan, utopia is not a finished product, it is not totalising like the present, but is rather a ‘possible futures-in-process’ (McKenna cited in Dolan 2005, p. 149). Mun ˜oz’s notion of a future and utopia does not have to exclude Edelman’s radical negativity, since one can argue a queer utopia can only be created through the destruction of the current social order and its codes of intelligibility.” (Rademacher 274).

MEND’s actions (if understood through a lens of performance) are an example of Edelman’s radical negativity. It is only when their performance is viewed by a Western audience, becomes commodified, represented, captured on image, that the representation of the performance becomes delegitimized. I do wonder if when it comes to art, Edelman’s form of queer radical negativity is possible to embody constructively at all. Zina Saro-Wiwa’s work could be taken out of context and played in a board meeting of an oil company who could respond with something like, “See? The pollution isn’t that bad—these people are dancing!” Which could potentially be used to justify the status quo. But I think if a Western audience situated Zina Saro-Wiwa’s work in context of history and behind good critical race theory, post-colonial theory, queer theory, and ecocriticism it would offer an effective criticism of the status quo and formulation of a kind of alternative way of being in the world for her community. Her role as a curator and creative organizer illustrate the potential for artwork to offer radical representational revisions that also have affects on material reality through people encountering the work.


Boys’ Quarters as Aesthetic Environmental Education

Zina Saro-Wiwa’s curational project, Boys’ Quarters, also is related to the legacy of her father. Even in terms of its site, which is the old offices of Ken Saro-Wiwa in Port Harcourt.

“Boys’ Quarters Project Space exists to explore the relationship between self and environment in radical ways. We understand that environmentalism means more than simply dealing with oil pollution, plastic detritus or melting ice caps and are seeking to uncover invisible ecosytems, emotional landscapes and establish deeper intersectional ecological truths that reveal how we are truly embedded in this world. These four works of art presented in Black Box come together to help us navigate this complex terrain. The works exhibited straddle and connect local Niger Delta concerns with wider international ones and encourage the definition of environmentalism from the perspective of the global south. Curated by Zina Saro-Wiwa. * A Black Box is a space of unknowing. An entity or object that has no immediately apparent characteristics and therefore has only factors for consideration held within itself hidden from immediate observation. The observer is assumed ignorant in the first instance as the majority of available data is held in an inner situation away from facile investigations” (Saro-Wiwa).


Nnamdi argues that figures like Zina Saro-Wiwa, “whereas governments have failed at local and international levels, poets and artists have stood in the trench for the crusade of eco-ethics” (Nnamdi 74). While standard education efforts have been effective in informing the public to an extent—Ken Saro-Wiwa Jr.’s  international talks, Watts’ scholarship, and countless other efforts to raise consciousness about environmental crises globally—Zina Saro Wiwa’s rhetoric creates an environmentalist form of knowledge production that “is one sure way of maintaining environmental sustainability […] aesthetic appreciation can prove an effective tool in sensitizing the diverse stakeholders to environmental issues. By aesthetic education we mean ‘education that recognizes the interconnectedness of body, mind, emotions, and spirit.’ It is such an education that would facilitate people’s capacity for sensual perception […] aesthetic education and eco-ethics go hand in hand […] humanity will come to see itself as a part of nature. This will also influence the policy of government in the long run” (Nnamdi 75). Rather than merely acting as a form of accumulation of knowledge, her art creates a way of knowing that engages the mind and the emotional self, which functions to truly rethink the way viewers of her work relate to their environment—physically, emotionally, and spiritually. It is this kind of holistic reframing of nature that alters the perception of the viewer to be more open to encounter, to new forms of imagining what environmentalism is and can do. It is a form of environmental education that inspires action, rather than discourages it or leads to a form of despair or cynicism. Nnamdi argues that the communitarian aspect of environmental education is crucial. “One sure way for aesthetic education to flourish is to cultivate the ecological values presented to the people as communal icons by the artists of the community; this should drive the people to demand the fulfillment of the social contract between governments and the people” (Nnamdi 75). This is similar to Rob Nixon’s articulation of the writer-activist as a champion of new media who can render slow violence visible through metaphor and the creative imagination.



The Niger Delta is a region that can be understood many ways: politically as a hub of oil production and a nest of corruption; ecologically as a diverse biome full of estuaries, creeks, plants and animals; culturally and spiritually as home to hundreds of diverse cultures with their own practices, customs, food, and religions. Tons of scholarship exists that explores the injustices of oil production in the region, and justice movements against it. Much of this scholarship, while undoubtedly necessary and helpful to the cause, produces an affect (for some) of hopelessness and despair, because of the dizzying scale and complexity of transnational oil corporations and a corrupt post-colonial state… let alone the massive trauma and spectacular violence that has resulted, both slow in the form of ecological devastation and concurrent displacement, and in the form of spectacular violence (be it Ken Saro-Wiwa’s execution, state violence against peaceful protest, or MEND’s current tactics to disrupt the oil state). Art can be a tool of resistance that is direct and offers people a rallying point against injustices of the state and oil corporations. Zina Saro-Wiwa’s situated artistic rhetorics thus operate as a tool of futurity. Through reconceptualizations of the environment, she is bringing into existence via performance a new utopic future in which bodies can be free and dance in the place they call home.



Annotated Bibliography


Aghoghovwia , Philip. “The Drama of Oil Production in the Niger Delta: An Obsession with the

Spectacular.” Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism, JWTC, 12 July 2012,

  • In this exhibition review, Aghoghovwia points out that the “Delta Remix” exhibition is problematic because it does not properly contextualize the violence in the Delta that it depicts. It shows spectacularly violent imagery (armed men holding others hostage, etc.) but does not illustrate the environmental degradation and sociopolitical disenfranchisement that led to the violence occurring, which subtly misinforms viewers and might make them more sympathetic to oil corporations’ causes, or delegitimize the struggle against them. It also invokes a romantic colonial myth of Africa as violent, filthy, and dangerous for foreigners. The review is legitimate because Aghoghovwia is a PHD candidate in eco-aesthetics. I would like to put this criticism in conversation with the interview of Juan Orrantia, the curator of the exhibition. I would like to use the author’s analysis to illustrate how Zina Saro Wiwa’s aesthetic strategy differs from Juan Orrantia.

Aghoghovwia , Philip. “Nigeria.” Fueling Culture: 101 Words for Energy and Environment. Szeman,

Imre, et al. Fordham University Press, 2017.

  • In this book chapter, Aghoghovwia analyzes two forms of representations of violence in the Delta: spectacular and slow violence. He characterizes representation as an operative term that extends or retracts legitimacy toward the thing depicted. Particularly, he analyzes the art exhibition “Last Rites: Niger Delta” and how they detract legitimacy from MEND’s actions by not situating their violence in the broader context of the slow violence of political disenfranchisement and ecological devastation that culminated in their act of insurrectionary violence. He argues forms of spectacular visual rhetoric become a form of ‘representational colonialism’ that becomes violent in and of itself in that it delegitimizes bottoms-up movements for justice. I would like to use this article to further criticize Juan Orrantia’s exhibition, put in in conversation with Aghoghovwia’s other review of the exhibit, and offer Zina Saro-Wiwa’s representational strategies as a viable alternative to ‘representational colonialism.’

Aghoghovwia, Philip Onoriode. “Ecocriticism and the Oil Encounter: Readings from the Niger Delta.”

Stellenbosch University, 2014.

  • In this dissertation, Aghoghovwia investigates cultural representations of oil and violence in the Niger Delta. He begins his analysis by historicizing current movements in a post-Ken Saro-Wiwa setting. He comments on Michael Watts’ and Juan Orrantia’s hyperfocus on oil as a tool for understanding the Niger Delta, and how this narrow lens overlooks cultural and ecological on-goings that are still present in the region. I would like to focus on the introduction and his way of historicizing representations of current movements, and offer Zina Saro-Wiwa’s artistic production as an example of artistic ‘oil-encounter’

Grant, David M. “Toward Sustainable Literacies.” Rhetorics, Literacies, and Narratives of Sustainability. Ed. Goggin, Peter N. Routledge, 2009.

  • In this book chapter, Grant contends that the way language is used to represent (or ‘recreate’) nature affects the efficacy of environmental education movements, and that we ought to move away from rhetorics that bifurcate nature or use it as a metaphor, and toward more sustainable literacies. Or, we should at least use a combination of all three that recognize how language is situated in complex, dynamic social and bodily systems. He posits examples of ‘somatic’ rhetoric—which recognizes the intertextual continuity between physical and discursive worlds. Rather than writing ‘about’ nature, we should write ‘with and in’ the environment, and think about the relationship between our language and the environment, and how they mutually alter one another. The chapter is reliable because it strings together a many notable rhetorical scholars. I would like to apply Grant’s understanding of rhetoric to Zina Saro-Wiwa’s visual discourse, analyzing the way her art is situated in the environment it was created for/in. Somatic rhetoric also offers an interesting framework to analyze the way films like Karikpo Pipeline engage the body, mind, and community. I would like to synthesize this article with the Nnamdi one about aesthetic environmental education, because I think they are complimentary and both serve to help situate Zina Saro-Wiwa’s art in the context of sustainable environmental engagement.


Kashi, Ed, and Michael Watts. Curse of the Black Gold 50 Years of Oil in the Niger Delta. PowerHouse,

  • This article historicizes oil extraction in the Niger Delta and also offers a summary of events that have taken place after the death of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the relative dissolution of MOSOP, the non-violent protest movement. It describes and evaluates contemporary violent struggles against oil extraction (MEND) and how these tactics go against Saro-Wiwa’s vision for a protest against the corporations. Watts describes the Delta as summed up by commodities such as oil, and does great analysis on the corruption it causes. I would like to put this article in conversation with Zina Saro-Wiwa’s art that points out that certain narratives of the region cannot be accounted for through commodity analysis–local mythologies, masquerades, food, etc. I would also like to put Watts’ article in conversation with spectacular representations of violence such as those used in the Niger Delta Remix exhibition that was criticized for its aestheticization-of-suffering.


Kedmey, Karen. “Zina Saro-Wiwa on How Artists Can Change the Way People Think.” Artsy, 28 Sept.


  • This interview articulates some of Zina Saro-Wiwa’s views on why art is significant in the world. She argues that art allows people to think about the environment differently, and that performance can act as a form of healthy catharsis. She aims to empower individuals and uproot dominant notions of the Niger Delta as a tragic wasteland. She views herself as a ‘culture-worker’ and aims to value the land differently by savoring the “Edens” that are still present in the Delta. While not an academic article, I think this is a good source because it includes many direct quotes from Zina herself. I would like situate Zina Saro-Wiwa’s views on art within broader critical debates happening within the field of eco-aesthetics and affect studies, and argue that her optimistic, hopeful orientation toward the future is necessary to inspire people to make change in the world—especially when juxtaposed with Watts’ and Orrantia’s spectacular, sublime representations that might lead to disempowerment and despair.

Klein, Naomi. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. Penguin Books, 2015.

  • In this book chapter, Klein discusses ways to approach resistance against fossil fuel industries, while also building alternatives to fossil fuels. She points out that the Global South’s industrialization will have a major impact on the climate of the world, and steps need to be taken to address climate debts owed to the Global South by the Global North in order to ensure a more ecologically sustainable development pathway for post-colonial countries’ economies. She analyzes how fossil fuels like coal have historically supercharged colonialism and capitalism, which in turn contribute massively to global climate change which disproportionately affects post-colonial countries as well. She argues that we need to reformulate the way we think about historical legacy and reparations in order to extend help toward those our ancestors have wronged, because effects are still being felt today. I would like to connect this to my grandfathers’ complicity in the Nigerian oil industry in order to understand how I am situated historically in the environmental injustices going on in the Niger Delta.

Lemanager, Stephanie., “Eden If We Dare.” Zina Saro-Wiwa: Did You Know We Taught Them How to

            Dance? Blaffer Art Museum, 2016.

  • This article argues that Zina Saro-Wiwa’s art and aesthetic strategies provide counter-narratives to dominant notions that depict the Niger Delta as a despoiled wasteland beyond repair. By subtly including oil infrastructure imagery in her videos, but not centering them and rather focusing on traditions like masquerade and dance, Zina Saro-Wiwa’s art circumvents rhetoric that might invoke a feeling of despair and hopelessness in viewers, rather than a sense of hope and agency necessary to mobilize resistance. I would like to take this notion further by analyzing it through a lens of utopian performance, and argue that by performing these utopic visions, she is bringing her counter-narrative into existence and giving the power back to the people.


Nixon, Rob. “Pipe Dreams.” Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor.  Harvard University

Press, 2013.

Nixon, Rob. “Epilogue.” Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Harvard University Press,


  • I would like to draw from the last section of the epilogue that discusses future strategies for representing the scale of slow forms of environmental degradation and social violence. I will utilize Nixon’s idea that new media is replacing writing in general as a form of activism that adequately captures the scales and intricacies of environmental problems. He also points out that representation is only part of a wider battle that will fall upon the shoulders of coalitions of activists–human rights campaigners, scientists, local movements, etc. This relates to my paper because I think Zina Saro-Wiwa is an example of an artist-activist that uses new media to create new representations of the Niger Delta by circumventing dominant environmental narratives of the region as a spoiled wasteland beyond recovery. I think she also is sewing seeds for a wider movement using spaces like “Boys’ Quarters” which occupy her father’s old office space in Port Harcourt.


Nnamdi, Basil Sunday, et al. “Environmental Challenges and Eco-Aesthetics in Nigerias Niger Delta.”

Third Text, vol. 27, no. 1, 2013, pp. 65–75., doi:10.1080/09528822.2013.753194.

  • In this journal article, Nnamdi et al. discuss aesthetic components of environmental justice movements in the Niger Delta. They argue aesthetics are important to empower communities to overcome the repressive state apparatus that disempowers them. They argue for an overhaul of environmental rhetorics that empower people rather than disempower them; and posit artists and poets as crusaders for eco-ethics that fill in gaps of responsibility where the state and corporations fall through. They argue in favor of an aesthetic environmental education that recognizes the interrelation of mind, body, emotions and spirit; through embodied, sensually engaging education, participants can reframe their relationship toward the environment, recognize humanity as part of nature, and put pressure on the Nigerian government and oil corporations to rethink and overhaul their unsustainable practices. The article is reliable because it is peer reviewed academic scholarship. I would like to situate Zina Saro-Wiwa’s art and curation as a form of aesthetic environmental education, and use it as a stepping-stone to discuss the Rademacher article as a conclusion.

Powell, Amy L., “Food Is Ready.” Zina Saro-Wiwa: Did You Know We Taught Them How to Dance?

            Blaffer Art Museum, 2016.

  • In this book chapter, Powell argues that Zina Saro-Wiwa’s art offers reimaginings of engrained conceptions of environment(alsims), self, and production of knowledge. She argues that Zina is paying careful attention to the ineffable — that which cannot be explained by oil, that which escapes easy representation: folklore, food, pop aesthetics, masquerade, spirituality. She discusses Zina’s use of imagination and play as an alternative form of ‘energy’ that is a possible escape from the cultural system built by and reliant upon oil. She discusses how Zina’s curatorial work is an example of ‘social sculpture’ that utilizes art as a form of coalition building and mobilization against injustice. I would like to provide counter-interpretations to Orrantia’s exhibition and Watts’ claims that Niger Delta is summed up by oil, and use this article as a warrant to the affective claims I make that Zina’s work is oriented toward a hopeful future.

Rademeyer, Philip. “Embracing Dis-Ease: Imagining Queer African Performance.” South African Theatre

            Journal, vol. 26, no. 3, 2012, pp. 270–279., doi:10.1080/10137548.2013.800673.


Saro-Wiwa, Zina. “Boys Quarters Manifesto.” (

Saro-Wiwa, Zina. “Karikpo Pipeline.” Vimeo. (

Saro-Wiwa, Zina. “Sarogua Mourning.” Vimeo. (

“Delta Remix.” JWTC, Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism, 10 July 2012,

  • In this interview, Juan Orrantia is questioned about the exhibition he curated, “Last Rites: Niger Delta.” The interview asks questions like, “Can you create an accurate, truthful, responsible representation of a place you’ve never been?” as well as if it is appropriate to represent the violence and suffering of another place, or if it risks some kind of aestheticization of suffering. Orrantia is confident in his artistic production and argues that the exhibit transcends and rethinks geographical and temporal boundaries regarding oil production. Questions of ownership of the representations also are explored in the interview. I’d like to draw parallels between the “Last Rites” exhibition and Michael Watts’ scholarship, as well as synthesize this interview with Aghoghovwia’s critiques of the art exhibition.



?, Jane. “‘Art Is Direct, It Challenges the Authorities, the Power Structure’ Ken Saro-Wiwa Jr, 1968 –

2016.” Platform London, 29 Nov. 2016,





Eco-Theatre, Performativity, and Engagement with the Non-Human Other


Background: What is Eco-Theatre?


Una Chaudhuri, in her 1994 article, “‘There Must Be a Lot of Fish in That Lake’: Toward an Ecological Theater” argues that, in order for theatre to become more ecologically responsible and promote sustainability, theatre as a whole needs a ‘transvaluation’ away from its ideological roots in Western liberal humanism. She offers alternatives to traditional theatre, pointing out that “the unattended garbage that accumulates on the margins of the realist stage is one of the sites for a possible ecological theatre,” (Chaudhuri 24). Realism and naturalism as aesthetic strategies have historically been complicit with capitalist industrialization’s bifurcation of the world into the realms of the natural and the social, so Chaudhuri points toward authors who subvert or alter naturalism in their works as examples of where dominant modes of theatre have failed to capture life experiences adequately. “The countertradition of modern drama,” she proposes, “(including Surrealism, Epic theatre, Absurdism) makes its case against 19th-century humanism by setting its explorations of the human condition […] within a recognition of the insistent claims of the natural world” (Chaudhuri 24). Some theorists like Marvin Carlson argue that these counter-traditional playwrights create space and landscapes with the language used itself, or “langs-scapes […] created for the imagination” (Carlson 147).  Playwrights which adhered to the tenants of those styles understood that not everything can be articulated through dominant rhetorical strategies nor even language, and that at the end of the day not everything is intelligible. Ruptures of meaning within ‘counter-traditional’ drama styles (non-sequiturs, babbling, prolonged silence) all point toward or draw upon the same aporia between dualisms of nature/culture, human/non-human, subject/object, self/other, word/world. As Giorgio Agamben puts it, ’the open wound that is my life’ […] the existential trauma of life caught in the caesura between human and animal’ […] ‘the central emptiness,” of unspeakable trauma, too-muchness, the postmodern or scalar sublime, overwhelming, critical mass, debilitation, the rift between the represented and experienced self, cognitive dissonance… All things wound up in ecological thought!

Chaudhuri also calls for a reconceptualization of environment by deconstructing an artificialized set, instead preferring broader investigations of space, pointing toward playwrights like “Gertrude Stein […] Lee Breuer, Richard Foreman […] and Heiner Muller” as authors who successfully alter the way plays function in their environment by increasing awareness of the interconnectedness of the characters, the audience, and the stage. And while the theatre will likely long be attached to its status as a cultural institution producing cultural artifacts, we can still “avoid misrecognizing that status as something natural” (Chaudhuri 30). Doing so is important—she concludes why nuanced understandings of naturalized-but-artificial settings by expanding the category of ‘stage’ and ‘performance’ onto the broader world around us:

“The simulated worlds of contemporary mass entertainment—the theme parks, world showcases, safari parks, tropical shopping plazas, and so on—become ever more uncanny as they become more perfect. As the technologies of representation approximate ever more closely to techniques of reproduction, the world that is being recreated so precisely recedes ever more quickly from our grasp” (Chaudhuri 30).

It is clear that she is leaving readers with the message that a critical intervention is necessary within our world, one that philosophically and psychologically examines and reconceives notions about the boundaries between what is natural and unnatural, what is performed and what is genuine, what is real and what is not.

Twenty years later, Chaudhuri was interviewed about this critical intervention in order to check up on how far along theatre was on this much-needed transvaluation. And, big surprise: it has not occurred. Largely because

“the persistence […] of a fundamentally anthropocentric, non-ecological perspective on life is fueled by the organization and practices and assumptions of just about every human endeavor, from the sciences, to politics, to economics… and the arts have not managed to disrupt that […] enough to make a difference […] the usual timetable for significant ideological shifts—many decades, at least—is being overwhelmed by […] the speed with which environmental conditions are deteriorating or changing. This is just one of the many conceptual (even cognitive) challenges posed by the Anthropocene, and one that performance could certainly engage with” (Preece 105).

So, even though there have been many efforts within the arts to decenter anthropocentrism within cultural production, non-sustainable ecological practices continue in virtually every other human institution. The pace at which environmental deterioration is happening might outpace the ability of the human psyche to adapt itself to those changing conditions. This especially seems to be the case in a late capitalist culture obsessed with accelerating technological production that winds up shortening attention spans and divorcing consumers from material reality in favor of the simulated experiences Chaudhuri mentioned in her 1994 article— theme parks and artificially curated tourist environments are still relevant today, but more abstraction into simulation has been occurring: the Internet, virtual reality, and information-based consumer culture, climate science based largely upon weather models and simulations… But, we should not give up hope on decentering anthropocentrism in favor of a more sustainable, balanced approach toward caring for the environment. What are some updated ways theatre and performance studies have come up with that can expand the imagination and think of new creative ways to move us toward a more sustainable lifestyle? She notes that “anthropocentric bias is produced by the theatre’s physical format and location” and recommends that we “extend consideration to the mediations […] performed by non-human agents,” contending that we should make “art about and with non-human partners, be they animal, plant, machines, cells, physical forces, elements, meteorological phenomena…” (Preece 108). But, at the heart of the problem is that “human activities are producing effects that are beyond human reckoning, beyond the possibility of calculation or prediction. The non-human, geophysical agency of the human is not only unfamiliar, it is also to some extent unknowable” (Preece 109). It is quite impossible to understand one’s affect on the world. Even just sitting here reading you’re breathing, turning oxygen into carbon dioxide, sloughing off dead skin cells, spreading bacteria, your body is being permeated by all kinds of bacteria, toxins, radiation, chemicals, entering though your lungs or your water supply or your food or things you touch. It’s even difficult to understand your effect on the world doing absolutely nothing—should you be held accountable for your inactions, indecisions? I’m not really sure, but I can offer a story about my experience in an informal eco-theatre workshop led by Gwethalyn Williams, the director of the Manhattan Experimental Theatre Workshop, which is a program for high schoolers that I was a part of in the past. I think the workshop offered up a compelling model of eco-theater and interesting alternative modes of engagement with the environment that exist outside of or beyond language—or at least can accompany the use of language to provide more philosophically and spiritually nuanced understandings of our relationship with the environment.

The Workshop & Warm-ups


The eco-theatre workshop took place in Warner Park, a public nature area in Manhattan, Kansas, on October 8th, 2016. Participants met in the parking lot of the park in the late morning, then walked together through the park—through prairie grasses, over rolling knolls, down to a pavilion on the edge of some woods that surrounded a stream. Even though Warner Park is situated within a residential area of Manhattan, it feels rather secluded—the only reminders of ‘human society’ being some telephone wires and a few packs of jogging moms passing by sporadically. It was the perfect environment for some serious inquiry about nature as a cultural construction!

We started the workshop with some physical warm-ups that engaged both the mind and body. What I like about the experimental theatre warm-up routine is that it involves the imagination: rather than the instruction line being “stretch up,” it was to look up at the sky, and elongate our bodies as much as possible. Toes rooted in the ground, fingers outstretched toward the sky. We were told to picture energy coming up from the Earth, through our feet and shooting out our fingers, the column of energy pulling us upward with itself, erecting our spines with its force.

The warm-up routine illustrates what Augusto Boal describes as “knowing the body […] its limitations and possibilities” (Boal 127). Actively tuning your mind to listen to the signals of your body not only allows you to feel where you’re sore and tender… It also helps you begin to understand how social systems shape the body through everyday performances—for example, one might note “muscular alienation” caused by one’s work. A typist might have bad posture from always leaning over a computer, and a farm laborer might have a bad back from always stooping down toward the Earth. Recognizing the way in which the body physically responds to and embodies its socialization is the first step toward undoing that socialization and taking off the “mask” or mold that society has imposed on our bodies. Just as we must intellectually unlearn naturalized ideologies by historicizing and contextualizing through discourse, we must activate our bodies to unlearn their embodied knowledge that has been naturalized through ritual everyday processes of socializing the body. In this way, theatre can be weaponized as a “rehearsal for the revolution” (Boal, 122). Or any kind of social change, really. In the context of the eco-theatre workshop, maybe a revolution against anthropocentric, liberal humanism? Maybe we won’t articulate what it functions as a revolution against to avoid the cooption of the revolution.

The First Exercise


After the warm up, we started to do some exercises. We went into the woods to a clearing. We were told to explore the space, to mill about it in a neutral position, allowing ourselves to look around and feel how the ground felt beneath our feet. After the initial period of exploration, we all were told to find a natural object or organism to hone our focus in on. We were then told to shape our bodies in relation to the object: an exercise which “makes the body expressive” (Boal 127). Anyone can use their body to illustrate their understanding of / relationship to an object—but, there are several ideas taught in the workshop to make that expression and experience more interesting. Keeping elements in mind such as: positive and negative space, tension, and speed of movement allow for experimentation and new ways of relating to the selected object. I remember I chose to shape in relation to a flower on a branch. I tried to mimic the flower with the shape of my body; I tried to complement the shape of the flower and branch with the shape of my body. I also tried more conceptual movements, like ballet motions, attempting to embody what my culture associates with flowers: fragility and beauty. There are infinite possibilities, and imaging opens up new ways of thinking and relating, expanding our open understanding of the object we chose.

The activity is a great example of a creative endeavor that Deleuze and Guattari might describe as becoming-animal: a process that seeks to “undo accepted and recognizable definitions of the human by replacing notions of exterior form and function with those of affects, intensities, and flows of movement as means to describe and value life” (Weil 11). By casting off notions of what it is to hold a human body, and instead mimicking or relating to a non-human organism or object, performers can undo their understanding of identity as stable and coherent. However, it is important to recognize that one might not truly be able to understand what it means to be the object or organism they are shaping in relation to, because “becoming produces nothing but itself. There is no identity or subject that precedes becoming, and no identity that a subject becomes. Hence, one cannot even be said to become an animal, one becomes ‘becoming’” (Weil 11). Regardless, performing the activity goes beyond what words can convey because the experience of becoming becoming-animal is “a tactile or visceral affair [that] exceeds the possibilities of language to contain or identify it” (Weil 11). While shaping with non-human agents might not allow us to truly become anything other than humans trying to become or understand something else, it still “brings us to the limits of our own self-certainty and certainty about the world”  and “this effort to attend to the ineffable is itself an ethical act […] a non-mastery of knowledge that was understood to be expressly ethical” (Weil 11-13): a basic understanding that I get that I do not necessarily get it, but I will still keep trying to get it anyway. And we’ll get closer and closer and closer but who knows if we’ll ever make it… as Miley said, “Ain’t about how fast I get there… Ain’t about what’s waiting on the other side… it’s the climb.” That is, the process is what matters, there is no ‘ends’ so there is no way a means could be justified outside of its own merit as an ethical means. Everything is means, mean or average. Accumulation is passé, we’ve become hoarders and it is time to recognize the problem and do some yoga about it.

For the next step of the activity, the workshop participants formed pairs. Each person in the pair picked a natural object to shape in relation to, but the participants also shaped in relation to the other person. A web of interrelation was formed: each participant reacting to their object, but also reacting to their partner reacting to their own object. After we performed in pairs, we all came together as a group to shape in relation to our chosen objects, one another, and the broader landscape. With each new exercise, the dynamic was complexified, and the participants’ embodied awareness of the interrelations were expanded.  The performance explained what language could not: when using words, “we cannot point to any one part of the system and say here lies meaning, because it is a property emerging from the entire configuration, traceable to no single causal force, but only to the resonance of its transient pathways” (Grant 212). I can attempt to explain in my essay the meaning behind the performance, but linguistic meaning is always inaccurate to a degree because the act of representing something through language separates the thing represented from the wholeness of things, which is what I understand to be Nature. And because everything is interrelated, meaning can only be constructed relationally. So, to write about the performance might miss the point entirely.  Until one experiences the dynamic as a performer, they will never have an embodied understanding of what I’m writing about, because through language “there is no unmediated access to the flow of the stimuli that constitutes existence only a transient pathway toward this understanding, a limit that can never be truly reached” (Grant 212). Like how you can try to describe the taste of salt all you want, but until someone tries it for themselves they’ll never know what salt tastes like.




The Second Exercise


After shaping, we headed back to the shelter to do the last exercise. We all found some space to spread the blankets we were told to bring, and then sat down in a neutral position—legs crisscross applesauce, spine comfortable but erect. We were told to close our eyes, then we all took deep, audible breaths together. The exercise was like a guided meditation: essentially, it was imagining a process of rebirth. We were told to sit still and pay attention to the sensations of our body as if we had never felt them before. To feel the sun on our skin, the slight chill in the autumn air. To smell the woods, the grass, the dirt. To listen to the birds and the bugs and the wind in the trees. Slowly, we were allowed to move our hands and explore through touch. To explore our bodies as if we had never felt them before, to touch textures of skin, blanket and grass. Then, like newly germinated seeds, we began to shift our bodies out of the neutral seated position. We explored motion, senses of balance and proprioception (body parts in relation to other body parts) while remaining within the boundaries of our blankets. We were told to slowly intensify our motions, add tension and speed—until we were all leaping, running in tight circles, dancing with frenzy. And then, we were allowed to open our eyes and see the world, as if it was brand new. We were then instructed to go off into the wilderness and experience it as if we never had before. It was as if I had accessed or perhaps reset “some other source of selfhood in [my] body, some physical locus where memory may be stored and known” (Weil 3). Perhaps this was the locus where memory of animality is stored, present in all humans… and perhaps this storehouse can be tapped into, the self that was prior to knowledge, the self that was whole.

I chose to walk into the forest, down a descending path that led to the streambed. I ran my hands across juniper leaves, plucked a piece and smelled it. Tasted it. I crawled down an embankment. I was not afraid to get dirty like usual, but rather I wanted to experience the sensation of touching the dirt, to feel its silty texture. I touched moss and it was soft. I flaked bluish lichens off bark. It was as if it were all new to me. I experienced a sense of open awareness. My inner monologue was quieted, as if there were less narration or mediation between my experience and my thoughts. My mind, body, and environment were connected, and I was open to encounter. I left behind a sense of premeditation, my preconceived notions of what was what and why. I felt closer to “another phenomenal world or Umwelt” and this feeling of closeness reminded me that my perception of the world in which I operated in my day to day life “(and [my] means of expressing [it]) [was] not commensurate” (Weil 8). I wandered through the streambed, which was covered in prickly sweetgum balls. I heard rustling in the leaves, encountered squirrels and rabbits and joggers. When my path crossed with another workshop participant, there was a silent acknowledgement that neither of us would break the performance, neither would express to the other or ourselves that what we were experiencing was just an experiment. After I had sensed enough time had passed, I returned to the shelter. We were told to grab our notebooks and find a spot to free-write for about fifteen minutes.

Writing and Staging


I chose a grassy knoll facing the woods. I tried to access the same sense of open awareness I had experienced before. I watched the birds, I felt the air, my hands combed through the grass. One line I remember writing was “petting nettle grass like lively hair on a lover’s head.” I find it interesting that I remember the experience of wandering through the woods more clearly than anything I wrote down. Perhaps it has to do with the open sense of awareness.

After writing, we disbanded for a while, then met back up at the Manhattan Arts Center, which is the space that the Manhattan Experimental Theatre Workshop normally takes place. There, we broke into groups and shared our writing with one another. We chose lines from one another’s writings to use in a couple of exercises. First, we played a game called “Word Jazz” in which four people choose a line, repeat it, then remix the sounds of it until the literal meaning of the words dissolves into an ambient soundscape. My group had a line that went something like: “Water river water rushes over stones.” We repeated the sentence together then riffed on it, like jazz musicians might do with a line of music. It’s hard to capture in words, but it went something like, “Water… Rushhhhh, rushhh, river rushhh, water, shhhhhh, shhhh, rushhhh, water, river STTT STTT STONES stones over water river STONES rrrrr vvvvvv rushhh.” Through experimentation with dissolution of the semantic meaning of the words, new ways of communication were found, such as onomatopoeic sounds and rhythms that drew upon the embodied experience of being next to the stream in the park. The exercise adheres to a sustainable rhetoric that “aim(s) less at representation and more at experimentation, less at argumentation and more at problematization, less at ‘taking a position’ and more at ‘entering a conversation'” (Grant 213). As Gwethalyn frequently says at the workshop, experimental theatre is all about the suspicion that there is more than one way to tell a story. “Word Jazz,” then, is a great example of a form of “discourse [that] is no longer representative of anything, but recreative […] a process […] continuing some patterns and modes of the world’s emergence but also possibly altering it” (Grant 214).

The second game we played draws upon the techniques of image theatre, or “theatre as language” (Boal 127). We broke into groups of four. One person selected a word that came from their writing or that was related to the experience in the park. It could be a physical object like “stone” or “leaf” or it could be more conceptual, like “recreation” or “nature.” Then, without using words, that person sculpted the bodies of their group members to create an image or scene that they felt expressed the word chosen. Last, the sculptor adds themselves into the scene, blurring the lines between spectator and spectacle. The roles rotated until each member got a chance to be the sculptor. Then, all four members performed a short scene which showed each image and a sustained transition between them. The exercise has an “extraordinary capacity for making thought visible […] because the language idiom is avoided. […] The image synthesizes the individual connotation and the collective denotation” (Boal 138) which bridges gaps in linguistic communication. If the goal of sustainable eco-composition is “to determine a shared reality,” then image theatre is a great way to transform our understanding of reality so we recognize “that reality as dynamically interwoven from complex systems such as bodily logics, be they individual or social” (Grant 213).



When reading my old journal about my experience in the Manhattan Experimental Theatre Workshop from 2015 (prior to doing all of this research, and prior to the eco-theatre workshop), it struck a chord within me. Poring over my old reflections made me realize that, to a degree, doing the workshop had given me experiential knowledge that my recent research has now given me the capacity to explain with words. My 2015 description of the Manhattan Arts Center as a space for community engagement and performance, for example, parallels Chaudhuri and Grant’s claims for situated-ness in sustainable environmental rhetorics:


“It’s difficult to describe in words, but the best way to understand the creative process at MXTW is to simply take a step into the space in which the work is done: it’s positive, relaxed, communal, and disciplined all at once, somehow. The one rule is respect, and that rule is followed. Everyone is treated as an equal, the only criticism is constructive and lighthearted, and no one feels out of place. My friend Haley said she likes it because, “the only way you can feel weird is if you’re not being weird,” which is pretty accurate in my opinion. The result of the process is a form of community building that is sadly lacking in other places of learning– everyone knows that they’re all sort of in this together, and this only lasts a few weeks so we’re all here ready to do our best work. The fact that my proudest writings are the result of working for a couple weeks with people who, three weeks prior, were relative strangers to me should stand on its own. The method of learning employed by the program is extraordinary in the way that, while students are participating it doesn’t really feel like learning? It’s just like…. you absorb it from the space.”


The experience also gave me insight into performativity as a tool to undo stable identity and fixed social roles, as mentioned in the Weil article and the Boal book:


“The workshop is eye opening. I entered as a freshman with certain limits on what theater was and what it could do, and now that I am exiting I realize that those limits have been so expanded that I am no longer sure what is and is not theater. Am I a real person, or just a series of ever-changing roles and false motivations? Thanks to experimental theatre, perhaps I may never know. The lessons learned stick with me, whether it’s just shaping the physicality of a character I made up by envisioning my head filled with hate and my body filled with joy, or painting my face as a mask of happiness as I work a hellish retail job. Theater is everywhere. I used to wonder if I wanted to keep doing theater into the future, but now I know it is inescapable.”


On that note, I would like to offer up my experience in the Manhattan Experimental Theatre Workshop as an example of environmentally engaged experiential learning. Through my experience with the workshop, I learned about performance as a mode of being that engages the body, and embraces an openness toward encounter with the non-human other. This alternative mode of engaging nature via performance might open up space within the imagination to formulate a new relationship with the environment and non-human world that decenters our anthropocentrism and allows us to move toward a healthier, sustainable conception of nature and relationship with the natural world around us.






Boal, Augusto, and Charles A. McBride. “Aristotle’s Coercive System of Tragedy.” Theatre of the

Oppressed. Theatre Communications Group, 2013.

Carlson, Marvin. “After Stein: Traveling the American Theatrical ‘Lang-scape.’” Land/Scape/Theater. Ed. Elinor Fuchs and Una Chaudhuri.  University of Michigan Press, 2002.

Chaudhuri, Una. “‘There Must Be a Lot of Fish in That Lake’: Toward an Ecological Theater.” Theater, vol. 25, no. 1, Jan. 1994.

Grant, David M. “Toward Sustainable Literacies.” Rhetorics, Literacies, and Narratives of Sustainability. Ed. Goggin, Peter N. Routledge, 2009.

Preece, Bronwyn, et al. “A ‘Turn to the Species’: Una Chaudhuri Reflects on Some of the Ethical Challenges and Possibilities That Are Emerging from a Decade of Ecological Performance Practice and Scholarship.” Performing Ethos: International Journal of Ethics in Theatre & Performance, vol. 4, no. 2, Jan. 2015.




Gender in Voltaire’s “Candide”

Born in the late 17th century in Paris, France, Francois-Marie Arouet was the last of five children born to his parents, members of the still-emerging middle class. Always outspoken, the young man pursued a writing career against the wishes of his father, who intended for his son to become a lawyer. By 1718, Arouet had become notorious under the name Voltaire for his biting, leftist criticisms of social traditions and the Catholic Church. He later became an integral component of the Enlightenment, a European intellectual movement stressing individuality and rationalism over the existing, dominant ideologue of tradition. The movement also functioned as a quest for equality between genders, allowing women to engage in, rather than be the objects of, intellectual exchanges held at salons and coffee houses. It was at one of these conferences where Voltaire met his lifelong mistress, Marquise de Chatelet, who also played the role of his confidant and intellectual partner, was the idyllic model of an Enlightenment woman— she wasn’t afraid to dignify herself as an individual, polymath, mother, lover, and strong woman in general. She held a striking, revolutionary role of Newtonian physicist and mathematician, notorious for meticulously hanging wooden spheres from her ceiling to observe the effects of gravity, all the while being buried up to her corset in notes and sketches. Voltaire once described his partner as, “A great man whose only fault was being a woman.” This unique combination of influences set the stage for Voltaire’s magnum opus Candide. Having been influenced so heavily—both personally and academically—by women, it is obvious all of the suffering experienced by women in Candide is thoughtfully placed criticism, rather than misogynistic humor. In his novel, Voltaire satirizes traditional notions of gender through complex, androgynous characterization which oftentimes relies on the reversal of traditional gender roles; inverted power dynamics and plot structures; and by juxtaposing a society full of misogyny with an egalitarian, labor based alternative.

The book’s criticism of traditional gender roles begins with the way Voltaire formulates his characters. His attentive characterization is androgynous and shatters gender norms, especially in context of the period in which the text was written, in 1759. This is evident from the exposition of the story. Voltaire immediately characterizes his protagonist, Candide, as effeminate— “A youth endowed by nature with the gentlest of characters. His soul was revealed in his face,” (17). Candide, throughout the entirety of the novel, exhibits countless qualities commonly attributed to femininity. He constantly faints when faced with imminent, pressing danger; he hides, rather than fights, when confronted by the massacring Bulgars; he weeps excessively and openly after learning of a Suriname slave’s tragedies; and he even displays weak moral resolve when seduced by a Parisian marquise, despite his inner determination to stay true to his love interest, Cunegonde. In fact, Candide seems especially feminine when compared to Cunegonde— at one point, he even expresses the desire to become her, stating “after the good fortune of being born Baron Thunder-ten-tronckh, the second greatest good fortune was to be Lady Cunegonde…” (18). Conversely, from her introduction, Cunegonde is affirmed as active, aggressive, and arguably more masculine than her male counterpart, being described as “buxom and rosy-cheeked,” (18). Ascription of heavily gendered character traits to the wrong gender is a motif in the novel. For example, Cunegonde is much more verbal about her physical attraction to the opposite sex than Candide, even though one would expect the opposite. This is evidenced by her commentary on the large build and beautiful complexion of her Jewish lover in Portugal, as well as her thoughts on Candide. Whenever her precious Candide is flogged at the Spanish auto-da-fe, Cunegonde’s first reaction surprisingly isn’t one of remorse or helplessness, but of sexual passion— she finds herself admiring the fine shape of his now exposed, muscular torso.

By contrasting the traits of characters with opposite genders, it becomes clear that the relationship between men and women has been turned on its head. Candide, unlike his love interest, finds himself unable to voice his attraction toward Cunegonde, “for he found Lady Cunegonde extremely beautiful, although he was never bold enough to tell her so.” (18) Voltaire even takes his statement to sexual role reversal. Whenever Cunegonde witnesses Pangloss and Paquette (described in the passage as docile, paralleling similar traits between Paquette and Candide) having sex in the bushes, she closely studies Pangloss’ sexual technique. Shortly thereafter, she seduces Candide— notably not the other way around, as traditional gender norms would uphold— by dropping her handkerchief coyly. This motif does not strictly apply to Candide and Cunegonde, as well. Arguably, the old woman is the character who has suffered the most in her lifetime, yet she still has a flaming passion for life. She explains it as the desire “to fondle the serpent which devours us till it has eaten out our heart” (49). This understanding of life is the same one shared by influential Enlightenment philosophers including David Hume and Voltaire himself. Since the old woman is, indeed, a woman, Voltaire’s characterization undermines the notion that men are wiser than the other gender, one prevalent at the time and still existent today. On the contrary, Voltaire portrays his male protagonist as weak and naïve, a portrait upheld by Candide’s relentless, headstrong personal philosophy of Panglossian optimism. Even after hearing the old woman’s recollection of her unsettling past, Candide simply states he may only raise a “few objections” to the idea that we live in the best possible of all worlds (50).

Voltaire takes his critique of gender a level deeper by not only examining individual character traits with relation to gender, but also by using women as the sole catalysts for positive change within the novel. He turns traditional power relations between genders on their heads, by having women play more dominant roles than men in both their personal relationships and the central narrative of the novel. Nowhere is this more evident than in the relationship between Candide and Cunegonde. The relationship is initiated by Cunegonde as she drops her handkerchief, coquettishly hoping for Candide to pick it up. Candide’s reaction displays a traditionally female coyness toward the situation. When caught kissing Cunegonde by the baron, Candide is exclusively blamed as the perpetrator regardless of the reality of the situation.  After her one brief fling with Candide, Cunegonde is shipped off to Spain, setting her lover off on an endless journey to recapture his now fetishized love. His struggle to marry Cunegonde is framed recurrently as an attempt to find his lost self, or his other half: this confirms Voltaire’s message that both genders are interdependent on one another. While the relationship begins based off of pure physical attraction, it ends with Candide upholding his ethical imperative to marry Cunegonde regardless of her now-revolting appearance. Cunegonde, in the meantime, “did not know that she had grown ugly, nobody had told her so: she reminded Candide of his promises in so peremptory a tone that the good Candide did not dare refuse her” (118). It is her ugliness that sets her free—no longer is she constantly objectified by men. This also makes a scathing argument against the trend in society for women to base their self-image off of the opinions of others, especially men.

While throughout the majority of the novel women function in a society created on a foundation of their suppression, their mistreatment is only overcome by life on Candide’s farm. All of the murders, beatings, and sexual assaults that women are subjected to in the novel should not be viewed simply as Voltaire poking fun at the society he lives in—he is showing his disgust at the mistreatment of women in the European, American, and Muslim cultures. The garden is his alternative, a metaphor for a society based off of labor, rather than birthright and gender. It was created by individuals belonging to groups which had been marginalized for hundreds of years— the old woman is the one who offers the advice to purchase the farm, critical to egalitarian treatment of both genders, and the money is spent by a religiously oppressed Jew. Once settled, Candide announces, “We must cultivate our garden.” (117) (This phrase becomes a parable meant to represent coexistence between the genders, where equality is based off of labor rather than gender.) Candide’s garden is an escape from the rest of the world which is full of rape, objectification and forced labor— gender becomes irrelevant as long as each member of the community does his or her job. Cunegonde bakes, the old woman knits. By basing value off of productivity, even the most ferocious of stereotypes can be overcome. This is exemplified by Paquette’s admittance to the colony, now a prostitute serving a client. Candide recognizes the prostitute, traditionally a timeless oppressive stereotype, as an individual forced into an unethical act. He willingly accepts Paquette and her pimp into the community where she then becomes a social equal. Candide recognizes that only through superseding gender stereotypes can a truly whole community ever be formed.

Throughout Candide, concepts reinforcing the idea of gender equality are found in the form of character traits which oppose notions of traditional gender roles, Cunegonde and the old woman being the most dignified and noble characters in the book while men such as Candide and Pangloss are represented as morally weak. This is fleshed out further by altering character relationships to represent women as dominant and men as submissive, as evidenced by the awkward sexual interactions between Candide and Cunegonde. Women act as catalysts not only within in their in-story relationships, but also in the plot structure of the book itself— what kind of a protagonist would Candide be without the old woman to guide him and Cunegonde to inspire him? Voltaire’s argument for gender equality even goes so far as to offer a solution to the problems satirized in the form of Candide’s farm, a sort of proto-Marxist community where social standing is designated explicitly via productivity. With reference to these points, Candide undeniably fits in with the overarching Enlightenment model of gender equality. Though at points dry and blunt, Candide’s scathing satire provides an excellent example of an early work used to further the still ongoing struggle for gender equality.

Cited Works:

Voltaire. Candide. New York: Bantam, 1959. Print.