Amazon Ashes to Art: works use rainforest materials to highlight threats to indigenous communities

Pic: Cornelia Falknäs

An exhibition of artworks created by renowned artists, such as Cornelia Parker and Richard Long, with materials made of ash and charcoal from rainforest fires in the Amazon opened in Tower Hamlets yesterday. 

From The Ashes is exhibited at Truman Brewery, just off Brick Lane, and will end with an auction to raise money for indigenous communities in the Amazon suffering from climate change and illegal deforestation.  

The project was created through a partnership between the arts organisation Migrate Art, the arts research centre People’s Palace Projects, based at Queen Mary, University of London, and Xingu indigenous communities of the Amazon. 

Simon Butler, founder of Migrate Art, told Eastlondonlines: “I went to the Amazon in 2022, with People’s Palace Projects, to stay with the indigenous Xingu community, which is in the arc of deforestation, land is being destroyed quite quickly there.” 

“Whilst we were there, they took us to an area where forests have been burnt down. I got the idea to collect the ash and do something with it because I thought it had a powerful message.” 

Simon Butler. The painting pictured to the left was created by the shaman of one of the indigenous villages. Pic: Cornelia Falknäs 

“We managed to get it back to London, through this whole quite laborious process because you can’t bring in crops or trees without permits. We disguised it as art materials and then shipped it here, and it managed to get through fine. So it came from Rio to here and once it was here, we worked with three companies to make paints, pastels, and ink from it. So we made these artists’ kits from the charcoal and the ash and then we started sending it out to artists around the world.” 

The artists’ kits created from the ashes and charcoal, used by the participating artists to create work for the exhibition. Pic: Cornelia Falknäs 

Twenty-nine contemporary artists used the kits to create new works which are now exhibited as part of From The Ashes. In the gallery space, paintings, sketches, prints and sculptures with widely differing expressions are brought together to raise awareness about the climate and deforestation crisis in the Amazon. Included in the exhibition are also pieces of ceramics from indigenous Xingu artists, and drawings made by children in their villages. 

Butler said: “We sent some of that paint back to the Amazon and they held a ceramic painting workshop. So we’ve got these ceramics which are painted in the Amazon and then we moved them back here.” 

Yula Rocha, communications manager and indigenous and climate projects manager at People’s Palace Projects, told ELL: “Simon always wanted to come to the Amazon, and 2022 was the worst year of the droughts and fires in Brazil on record, it was absolutely devastating. The Xingu indigenous territory was completely affected by the fires, so then it was Simon’s idea to bring contemporary artists together to raise awareness in the world about what’s going on. Transforming ashes into the material given to the artists is like a circle closed.” 

Rocha described the feeling of finally seeing all the works exhibited as “amazing”.  

She said: “I got quite emotional because it’s been 18 months in the process. So coming here, I had a flashback of first going to the indigenous village and talking to them to explain to them what we would like to create with them and collaborate with them. It’s amazing and I’m quite touched by how all the 29 artists responded to this call.” 

Butler said: “It’s been a year and a half in the works. We’re also a bit delayed, because the Xingu is 16 villages across the size of Belgium and all 16 villages needed to approve us to do the project. We were there in July and they came together in December of 2022 to approve the project.” 

People of Topepeweke Village painting the sculpture. Pic: Migrate Art

The exhibition is open until February 25, and the works will be auctioned out at Christie’s Post War and Contemporary Day Sale on March 9. The proceeds will go back into the Xingu communities, funding firefighting equipment, reforesting initiatives and monitoring technologies in the villages.  

Rocha said she wants people to come into the exhibition and reflect on the climate emergency: “We are all on the same planet and we want to bring the art and culture to the heart of the climate action. We think the art is really, really powerful to address what’s happening with climate change, with the climate emergency that we’re all in. We all have a lot to do with that.” 

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