Thursday, December 30, 2021

Looking Back on 2021

Participants on the stage of the Cartoucherie in July

In my post looking back on 2020, I speculated that our work (and perhaps the whole form of theatre) would not simply go back to the way it had been prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, but would continue that year's exploration of new forms more suited to our rapidly changing world. What I had not expected then was that 2021 would pass without us being able to present any actual 'theatre' at all - or that I would find myself at the end of this year putting the very word 'theatre' into inverted commas. The form itself seems questionable, unstable. Some companies have, of course, been able to perform in 2021, but they have done so under constant threat of closure, and they have usually been able to do so because they were building-based. For us, there remains very little point trying to plan a production in a conventional performance space, while access to those spaces remains so unpredictable. And so we continue the process of enquiry begun last year, examining how our work can and should evolve in the capricious context of our troubled times. This isn't just about the pandemic, either. Covid has brought into sharper focus two major issues which were already informing our art, and which are now emerging as its core themes. One of these is the existential threat posed to the planet by climate change. The other is the ongoing prevalence of colonial structures, both politically and culturally, which stand in the way of equity, justice and democracy. For the foreseeable future, our work will centre on these three themes:

  • Covid
  • Climate Change
  • Colonialism
On one level, these are all the same theme. They are all to do with the choking dominance of capitalist structures across the world, and they are all to do with loss of breath. Covid-19 attacks the breath; Climate change contaminates the air we breathe; Colonialism cuts off the breath of life from those whose humanity it denies. As George Floyd was choking to death, he managed to say "I can't breathe".

Thinking through these key themes has enabled us to create a very different version of the ORIGINS Festival for 2021-22. It was clear from the beginning that we would not be able to programme our usual two weeks of visiting performances in the summer, and so instead we looked to a full year of programming which would bring Indigenous cultures into a direct dialogue with our own society in Britain. We began with online events, building on what we'd achieved in THE LOCKDOWN DIALOGUES of 2020. The Opening Event was online, and included a performance of Yvette Nolan's KATHARSIS - a play written in response to the pandemic and the closure of the theatres, performed in the deserted auditorium of Winnipeg's Prairie Theatre Exchange by Tracey Nepinak. 

During the spring, we worked with our friends at Beyond the Spectacle to present ORIGINS WRITERS: a series of online literary events, using dialogues with leading Indigenous writers like Joy Harjo (the US Poet Laureate), Natalie Diaz and climate change expert Kyle Whyte to locate ourselves in relation to our themes and to the importance of Indigenous voices to all three. Many of the talks are still available as recordings. This online presence grew with film screenings, including ETCHED IN BONE and UNDERMINED with the Menzies Institute, VAI with Aya Films, and a fantastic evening of short films relating to Animism. We also presented our first online exhibition, featuring Indigenous Taiwanese Women's Art, and partnered with Woolly Mammoth in Washington DC to show an online version of Madeline Sayet's WHERE WE BELONG, which had been such a success at the Globe in ORIGINS 2019. Never shy of controversy, we set up a debate around the film LEPAGE AU SOLEIL, confronting questions around representation and engagement between European and Indigenous cultures.

All this online activity provided the cultural and political context, the vital Indigenous presence, that enabled us to undertake live work in new forms. So far, the most significant of these has been TOTEM LATAMAT: carved from a cedar tree in Mexico by Totonac artist Jun Tiburcio, shipped across the Atlantic and journeying through the UK to Glasgow for Cop26, the Totem became a focus for ceremonies and performances they responded to its ecological message wherever it went. Some of these were quite formal: like the Indigenous Fire Ceremony in Glasgow or the Return to Earth in Dumfries. Others were more spontaneous, arising from local communities, like Chiswick School in London or the Milton Keynes Interfaith group.  Early in the New Year, we'll be releasing a film that documents this extraordinary journey - so I won't say more here, except to emphasise that this was every bit as much a performance project as it was a visual art commission. 2022 will see more work like this, engaging directly with communities through Indigenous cultural forms that catalyse their own responses to our key themes, and to the need for change. As our Patron Peter Sellars said in his LOCKDOWN DIALOGUE, we need to think more specifically about the local, partly because the pandemic requires it, and partly because that is where regeneration, both cultural and ecological, can and will occur. One such project that is already underway is BOTANY BAY: a 14-month programme working with schools and heritage partners to explore the Indigenous heritage of horticulture and food production, creating new gardens which will offer healthy and sustainable models of reciprocal exchange between our communities and their environments.

We were already beginning to undertake work of this kind before the pandemic, of course, and its enhanced significance does not mean that we are abandoning theatre. Not a bit of it. As with TOTEM LATAMAT, performance will actually be central to BOTANY BAY, and to the other forthcoming ORIGINS work. I am very hopeful that the Festival will climax with a visiting theatre production, and that the different strands around ceremony, ecology and rebalancing after colonialism will come together in a new piece we're developing with the support of Birmingham's Commonwealth Games Festival 2022. What it does mean is that we are questioning the form more profoundly, developing how it can work in relation to shifting ecologies and histories, balancing our community and international remits. It's therefore really helpful that, through Border Crossings (Ireland) we are undertaking two European strategic partnerships that allow us to exchange good practice with extraordinary partners overseas.  One of these looks at the Third Space as a model for community engagement: the other, CRE-ACTORS, is an exploration of intercultural devising processes.  

It was CRE-ACTORS that found us, in July, working for a week in Paris on the stage of the Théâtre du Soleil, at the Cartoucherie de Vincennes. As our colleague from the Teatro dell'Argine in Bologna, Micaela Casalboni wrote: "Being on the sacred stage and spaces of Théâtre du Soleil was the dream of many years in my life as an actress and as a theatre maker interested in arts for change – individual, cultural, social change. Admiring the painted walls, the paper lanterns, the costumes, the scenes, the behind-the-scenes, the spaces for theatre and the spaces for the group (the kitchen, the courtyard, the space for the kids…) was not only exciting but moving. Especially after the toughest years that we may remember in our life of individuals and theatre makers, years of closed theatres, years of distances, years with no bodies sharing the same physical space." This celebratory, creative week really did seem to offer a way forward - and we were all incredibly excited to return to Paris in December so as to see the Soleil's new devised piece: L'ILE D'OR. And then Covid swept through the company, causing the shows to be cancelled, and through our different countries, with new travel restrictions. As the year ended, there was still no stability to be found, least of all for theatre.

This year dominated by disease has seen many sad losses to the world of performance - not all from Covid, of course. Helen McCrory, Antony Sher and David Gulpilil are three that particularly hit me: all truly great actors whose presence on stage or screen was an object lesson in what we do and why we do it. Our own circle was not exempt, so let me end this year with tributes to three great friends, each of whom contributed profoundly to the story of Border Crossings:
  • Seun Shote passed away last March, aged only 47. He was an extraordinary actor and a very warm human being, whose performance as Ato in THE DILEMMA OF A GHOST combined great humour with a compassionate understanding of what it means to be caught between worlds. 

  • David Kerr, who died in the autumn, was from the same part of Coventry where I spent my childhood, but lived most of his adult life in sub-Saharan Africa, where he taught at the Universities of Malawi and Botswana. He and his wife Adela were my hosts on a wonderful trip to Gabaronne, where I led a workshop with local performers. We became very close very quickly: he was full of wise and modest counsel.

  • Alaknanda Samarth died on 6th December. For almost a quarter of a century, she had been one of my most  important interlocutors in the exploration of theatre and the intercultural. It was Alak who introduced me to Rustom Bharucha, and Rustom has written a very fine obituary for her. Although we were constantly looking for something we might work on together, it only finally happened in 2020, as a response to lockdown. Alak's recording of Artaud's THEATRE AND THE PLAGUE as a Border Crossings podcast now serves as a sort of memorial, I suppose - emphatically her, emphatically of its moment, brutal in its demands and searing in its spirituality. A few nights ago, I was privileged to share it with a group of her friends and colleagues from India as a tribute. We gathered - as so often these days - on Zoom. We listened to her voice speaking this unique text for 45 minutes. And then we sat in silence - because sometimes that is all you can do. 

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Totem in Dumfries

Guest blog by Gordon MacLellan

TOTEM LATAMAT laid to rest at The Crichton, Dumfries

As TOTEM LATAMAT ends its journey in Dumfries, after travelling from Mexico to Cop26, we publish one final guest blog about this extraordinary journey.  Gordon MacLellan is an environmental educator, artist and storyteller.  He led schools' workshops at The Crichton with TOTEM LATAMAT, and devised the ceremony at which the Totem was returned to the Earth.

Totem Latamat came the The Crichton to share a story, to offer an invitation and a challenge.

The Totem’s story started in a wood on the eastern coast of Mexico with a prayer and a ceremony to a cedar tree. The story continued through a village carving its words as images, memories, hopes and fears into the wood and sailing the tall carved Totem, across the wide seas to the UK. Over the autumn, the Totem has travelled the UK, reaching Glasgow in time to stand in The Hidden Gardens throughout COP26. Then, Totem Latamat arrived at The Crichton in Dumfries.

This isn’t the place to go into all the details of the Totem – you can explore the wonder of its travels on facebook or through its own page on the Border Crossings' ORIGINS Festival website.

The Totem carries figures: a rattlesnake, a skull, a person with her arms upraised, a cluster of hummingbirds. An eagle supports the whole edifice....Every figure, from plaited rope seedlings to that climbing snake, hold their own stories, their own messages to share. Here, I want to pick up the Totem’s invitation to become Hummingbirds – to become the messengers who speak, who share, who inspire; and the challenge to become Eagles. To be an Eagle is to act with strength and honour and to see the wider picture, to see the world as a whole, not as lots of individual people or towns or countries but as a wider connected world, where everything is connected to everything else, however distant.

Here, we will celebrate one day of the Totem’s journey: marking the responses of the children of Holywood Primary School in Dumfries. They spent the day with us on Friday at The Crichton, enjoying the grounds (best visitor shop ever, we were told. And it’s free! Triumphant pockets stuffed with pine cones, conkers and acorns), meeting the Totem: drawing it, touching it, talking about it…...…..what is the message? If they were telling this story what animals would children choose to best embody – not the action that is needed (reduce, reuse, recycle, etc) but the qualities we need to find and foster in ourselves to make those actions viable, embedded, enduring….

  • Rabbit brings thinking quickly, acting fast, solving problems (well, you try keep in them out of your vegetables!)
  • Wolves remind us that we are strongest when we work together
  • Lions, likewise, need the family, need the support of their friends
  • Godzilla tells us that sometimes we need to be fierce
  • Mice remind us that we can always find a way into a situation
  • Deer help us be strong and know when to watch, when to run
  • Hedgehogs will bring cleverness, bravery and being ready to be loud
  • And the Octopus will help us be intelligent, solve problems, be strong, and as an octopus you can help protect the world

I would like to thank:
  • the artists and storytellers of Holywood Primary School, Dumfries
  • the Open University for being there, supporting, encouraging, joining in
  • The Crichton team for their hospitality, warmth and imagination
  • the Border Crossings ORIGINS team for drawing all this together
  • Jun Tiburcio, the artists, and the people of Cuhumatlan in Vera Cruz, Mexico who gave us the travelling wonder that is the Totem Latamat.

Monday, November 08, 2021

Totem in Glasgow, at COP26

 Guest blog by Ailsa Clark

Totem Latamat at the Minga Indigena Fire Ceremony.  The Hidden Gardens, Glasgow.

As TOTEM LATAMAT makes its journey towards Glasgow for Cop26, we are asking people who encounter it along the way to write guest pieces about their response.  Ailsa Clark is the founder of Inspiralba, which delivers social enterprise development and support across Argyll and Bute.  

What an incredible and humbling experience to be with Totem Latamat and these kind souls who travelled from their Indigenous homelands to connect their spirits with ours, sending a collective prayer for a better future for humanity, ecology, our planet and beyond.

As if through the serendipity of a higher wisdom, Totem Latamat was in the very place that Indigenous leaders from all corners of the world had chosen to create a collective prayer for Pachamama and Pachapapa. And so it came to be that I, a wee lassie from Argyll, now in my more mature years, was there to join my own indigenous roots with all of their collective might in the most powerful and profound ceremony of this time in Glasgow. Our connections across continents run deep across our soils and rock and through our sea beds, touching every living thing, like the mycelium of the forest with the wisdom of the plants.

I journey from my home in ‘Campbell’ town - renamed/stolen (Ceann Loch Chille Chiarain) as a ‘royal’ seal of approval to the Campbells for their support in a colonialism learned then exported. James VI and I, who made various endeavours during his reign to improve the condition of the Highlands, erected Campbeltown as a Royal burgh, and encouraged the settling of people from the lowland districts. I think we call that cultural genocide. I pass my family home at Furnace en route to the Indigenous ceremony. Seeing the fumes from the quarry above the fish farm hatchery on the shore reminds me of how very far we are from climate care, with humanity and ecology overshadowed by corporate greed.

Then Inveraray: always a stark wee reminder of land ownership and feudalism, which still deeply affects the psyche across Argyll and the islands. Land stolen, gifted, bought and sold. More recently a return to community ownership has been supported across Scotland, with inspired places like Gigha and Ulva: but this remains very much a drop in the ocean with the vast majority of the land still owned by wealthy external interests.

I travel the last leg of the journey with my younger colleague: a dynamic force of nature with strong Argyll roots who has come back to work in her own community, and her friend who through kindness agreed to drive and offered us space to stay.  Arriving at The Hidden Gardens the calm of the space and sense of community is instantly apparent. I meet a friend who is there to film the events of the day. Sadly the mainstream media will likely dumb down the messages, but if just one glimmer of light gets through, that may spark an interest. We also meet a phenomenal group of women when we get to the Totem. They, like us, are in awe at the energy and beauty of Totem Latamat. 

We leave messages of hope on ribbons as we circumnavigate the garden space, then enjoy the colour and vibrancy of a vast textile creation brought by the Indigenous leaders. As we continue round we visit the medicinal garden, then come to a space waiting on the fire ceremony.

We wait and enjoy the sense of togetherness as more and more people arrive to share the ceremony. We meet Graham Harvey, a man with a wealth of wisdom on Indigenous culture, and he shares his insight with humility in an unassuming and modest way. Graham has journeyed part of the way with Totem Latamat and introduces us to colleagues from Border Crossings who have been instrumental in bringing this significant symbol of hope and shared connection on its journey from Mexico to our shores.

The ceremony unfolds. The collective wisdom, passion and focus of these Indigenous leaders  can be felt, as they call on the spirits to assist at this momentous moment in shifting the energy from evil and greed to love and care for all things. They invite us all to join the ceremony: our western culture of roping off the ceremonial area must be baffling for our visitors! Some of us are distracted by the desire to capture images, and the shaman asks us to set aside our cameras as the most sacred moment approaches. With greater focus we add all our energy to the ceremony, which builds in volume and connectedness.  The fire is sparked and we are all encouraged to add fuel, with a collective intention for peace and compassion so intense it resonates within and beyond. It's an experience that I am privileged to hold now as part of myself, and to connect with my own cultural roots, thanks to the kindness of these elders.

I have had the great privilege of traveling and working with Indigenous peoples in Australasia, Asia and the Americas; and now, I realise, in my own community also. I have become aware of the shared burden of colonialism.  I have always come home to Argyll, Earra-Ghàidheal, the border area of the Gaels, land and sea connecting Scotland and Ireland. I retrace my ancestral roots with folk in both these lands: migrants, refugees, Indigenous people forced to leave their homes.

Our great great great great great grand parents were cleared from their land. Half-starved and flea-bitten from Ireland they arrived by boat to start a new life on these shores, shunned for being different (like the refugees that come across the channel).  That misery and despair, shame and disconnection permeates a huge amount of the Scottish psyche. There’s us Irish migrants, and those cleared from their rural lands to make space for sheep. I think that experience of trauma, that feeling of shame and self-loathing are carried forward generation to generation, not in a way you would directly recognise, but in the self-destructive ways we live our lives. We have some of the highest addiction rates in Western Europe, and that’s only what’s reported. Life expectancy is very low. It’s a pretty dire picture.  But we as a generation have an opportunity to heal ourselves and to heal our planet, so that we don’t carry forward these wounds to the next generations. In order to do that, we need to talk about our feelings, our fears, and to explore our ancestral roots.

My sense of place and of the need for collective healing has been building over recent weeks, with support from friends at Heal Scotland and with Ariane, my younger colleague. We aim to bring back to our community a shared insight and a connection with our lands and waters, informed by the strength and wisdom of Indigenous elders, accelerated through our experience with Totem Latamat and the fire ceremony. 

I receive a gift from Professor Graham Harvey (the modest and wise) - an ancient piece of yew. As we prepare to leave, we make a promise to reconnect. Later, as we share food to celebrate the birthday of Ariane, I am honoured to hand on this yew pendant - to share the gift.  I realise the importance of us working together, the strength of our young along with the wisdom of elders, the nurturing of our mothers, the feminine wisdom of Pachamama along with the masculine energy of Pachapapa, and collective leadership of our communities as a whole.

Monday, November 01, 2021

Totem in Hexham

 Guest Blog by The Rev’d David Glover 

Totem Latamat outside Hexham Abbey

As TOTEM LATAMAT makes its journey towards Glasgow for Cop26, we are asking people who encounter it along the way to write guest pieces about their response.   David Glover is Chaplain to the Queen, and Rector of Hexham Abbey.

We were delighted to welcome the Totem to Hexham Abbey. It looked stunning and dramatic set against the backdrop of our ancient Abbey Church - the contrast in styles reminding us of both our diversity and interconnectedness as peoples of the earth. 

The Totem attracted a host of curious visitors but also a lot of families who took part in a Treasure Trail around the Totem and the Abbey and engaged with important environmental issues. The Totem also acted as a stimulus for an excellent talk by Prof. Graham Harvey in which he both explained the Totem’s imagery but also stressed the vital insights that Indigenous people offer to the environmental challenge. I was particularly challenged by the idea that most in the developed world behave as ‘Human Supremacists’ towards the earth and that Indigenous peoples do not distinguish between human activity and the natural world but are entirely interdependent. 

Thank you for stimulating and challenging us at this crucial moment in our world’s life.

Monday, October 25, 2021

Totem in Manchester

 Guest blog by Alexandra P. Alberda

Totem Latamat outside Manchester Museum

As TOTEM LATAMAT makes its journey towards Glasgow for Cop26, we are asking people who encounter it along the way to write guest pieces about the encounter.  Alexandra P. Alberda spent most of her youth in Bismarck, North Dakota, USA. She is mixed race and Jemez Pueblo, which has meant that she has grown up at the thresholds of cultures.  She is Curator of Indigenous Perspectives at Manchester Museum - the first person to hold such a role.

Between October 21st -24th TOTEM LATAMAT was installed on The University of Manchester’s University Place Square opposite the Manchester Museum across Oxford Road. At the Museum, we are proud to host this important work as it contributes not only to our Indigenising Manchester Museum programme, but also to our hello future programme, which is concerned with climate and environmental action. TOTEM LATAMAT was an example of Indigenous action and lived experiences (through QR extra material) that our communities, students, staff and visitors could encounter. Many remarked to me on the beauty of the work and message, and how the materials seemed very important in considering actions we take. 

This installation coincided in a happy accident with the wonderful Corridor of Light celebration, which brings in people and families from across the Greater Manchester area. It was placed next to an audio-visual work by Antonio Roberts called Move Fast and Break Things. Through this event, regular University activity and dozens of prospective student trips on the Saturday, thousands of people viewed or interacted with TOTEM LATAMAT, and I certainly saw at least a couple hundred take selfies with it and read the signs.  Jun Tiburcio’s TOTEM LATAMAT was an important ambassador of Indigenous perspectives on climate crisis/burning and a provoker of conversation.

Friday, October 22, 2021

Totem at the Rollright Stones

 Guest blog by George Lambrick

Totem Latamat at the centre of the stone circle

As TOTEM LATAMAT makes its journey towards Glasgow for Cop26, we are asking people who encounter it along the way to write guest pieces about the encounter.  George Lambrick is Chair of the Rollright Trust, which administers the ancient site of the Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire.

The Rollright Trust was delighted to be asked to host TOTEM LATAMAT at the Rollright Stones for a couple of days on its way to COP26. By dint of a carefully worked out installation, it was possible to place the totem at the centre of the King’s Men stone circle leaving no trace of how it had arrived, thereby enhancing its sense of belonging – which many visitors commented on.   

The stone circle dates from a period about 4,500 years ago when domestication of animals and plants was well-established but before ‘farming’ in the sense of extensive fields and permanent farms and villages was established.  Indeed, it is very possible that the Stones were erected in a still widely forested landscape before increasingly rapid clearance for agriculture in later prehistory (c. 3,000 years ago) led to flooding in the Thames valley as arable agriculture expanded to feed a rapidly growing, increasingly urban population.  It could hardly be a better location for reminding us that in Western Europe we long since went through effects of deforestation for farming which now, on a far greater global scale, are causing even more devastating changes – not just to water land and ecology, but also climate.

The only comparable previous event at the stone circle was a visit by Sir Anish Kapoor’s ‘Turning the World Inside Out’ in 2004 – and this new visitor has been just as impressive, temporarily changing the architectural dynamics of this ancient ceremonial gathering place in ways that draw attention to many of its key characteristics.  The act of placing such a striking, contrasting yet somehow complementary feature at the centre of the circle exactly on its axis from the entrance to the tallest stone makes a profound difference.  The scale of the totem meant it had a presence that was unmistakably significant, one visitor commenting that it made the stone circle’s somewhat inconspicuous entrance seem larger and more significant – not least because the totem was carefully oriented to face the entrance square-on. 

The symbolism of the totem is fascinating in its varied messages.  It was possible to pick up on this in how we placed it, with its more optimistic and hopeful front facing out over the beautiful Cotswolds landscape while turning its back (representing the damage that human development has been done to the environment) on the noisy HGVs and other traffic on the road that passes less than 10m from the stone circle.

Many visitors commented on the cheerful vibrant colours of the totem, which beautifully complemented the more muted but no less varied colours of the 70-odd species of lichens that cover every surface of the stones.  The natural materials of the totem and the unshaped irregular form of the stones also complemented each other, one of our volunteers commenting on it as ‘a real antidote to mass-production.’  Another striking feature of what the totem brought to the site was the sense of life engendered by the movement of the fabric scarf and bamboo ‘wings’ which rattled fiercely in a strong breeze and like wind chimes in gentle gusts.  At one point this percussive effect was complemented by a group of three regular visitors who circumnavigate the stone circle rhythmically sounding a gong and tambour drums as a form of meditation, and on this occasion included the totem in their perambulations.  A player of medieval-style English bagpipes (as reconstructed from illustrations from the time of Chaucer) added another musical dimension.  The combination of colour, movement, sound and smell of the wood (especially down-wind) gave the totem an added sense of liveliness which further enhanced its impact in contrast to the rock-solid stones.  

There is a very long tradition of people placing a wide variety of offerings or decorations on and around the Stones.  During the installation, we were very anxious about forecast high winds and wanted to make the totem even more stable.  As a pragmatic solution, we placed two smallish but heavy stones that we use for a children’s stone-moving exercise on the base as temporary extra contribution, literally helping to make the totem more ‘grounded’ but in a manner suitable to its new setting.  Subsequently an apple was added between the eagle’s talons, and later some hawthorn berries. 

Numerous children visited (including a class from the local primary school) – one child familiar with the Stones, but not aware of what she was about to see coming round the corner, let out a delighted whoop of ‘WOW!’  Also very welcome is the unforeseen effect that the totem’s visit has made to the work of our Trust – several of our Friends group visited with enthusiasm, we renewed and reinforced our connections with volunteers who helped with the installation and removal as well as neighbours who helped keep an eye on the totem overnight.  

Finally, congratulations to Jun Tiburcio for his brilliant and moving sculpture; greetings to the Totonac peoples in making so clear their commitment to the vital importance of safeguarding Indigenous culture and the environment; and a very big thank you to all involved in making this special visit possible. 

Totem in Coventry

 Guest blog by Thomas Ellmer

Totem Latamat outside Warwick Arts Centre

As TOTEM LATAMAT makes its journey towards Glasgow for Cop26, we are asking people who encounter it along the way to write guest pieces about the encounter.  Thomas Ellmer is Deputy Curator at Warwick Arts Centre, in Coventry, the 2021 UK City of Culture.  During Cop, WAC will host the Change Festival, which is collaborating with ORIGINS for Indigenous programming.  

We were thrilled to welcome Totem Latamat to Warwick Arts Centre and to the University of Warwick campus. Stately yet spooky, majestic and mysterious, Totem Latamat was quickly surrounded by University of Warwick students. The Totem posed for photos, making sure its colourful headdress was nicely lit from above and its environmental proposition was felt.

Students and members of staff were surprised by the sculpture’s scale and moving elements. Now we know what 4.5m in height is.   
“Oh wow, it’ll have its work cut out at Cop26,” said one student.

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Totem in Enfield

Guest blog by Ali Istanbullu

YTA's Young Notes Choir welcome Totem Latamat to Enfield

As TOTEM LATAMAT makes its journey towards Glasgow for Cop26, we are asking people who encounter it along the way to write guest pieces about the encounter.  Ali Istanbullu is a child protection social worker, living in Enfield.  He has worked with refugees in different locations across the Middle East, and for the last decade has been working in a deprived and diverse London borough in the child protection area.

Colossal heatwaves, wildfires, torrential rains, and stronger hurricanes that devastated swathes of land and killed dozens of people across Africa, South America and Europe. The Earth is telling us something and we need to do something about it. Poorest communities are at the receiving end of these devastating effects.  Totem Latamat is a messenger sent by Indigenous people to the leaders in COP26. Totem Latamat is not only a response to the leaders but also it is our connection to the environment and Earth. Totem Latamat is an art with a loud and resonating voice for the most important issues of our day and age. It was a great experience for us to meet this Indigenous Mexican response to climate change en route to COP26.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Totem in Milton Keynes

 Guest blog by Joan Harris

TOTEM LATAMAT surrounded by lasers in Milton Keynes

As TOTEM LATAMAT makes its journey towards Glasgow for Cop26, we are asking people who encounter it along the way to write guest pieces about the encounter.  Joan Harris was part of the group from Interfaith Milton Keynes who welcomed the totem to Station Square.

I was surprised at how colourful and beautiful the totem is!  The photo in the initial information I had seen obviously showed the totem not finished, so it was a glorious sight against a blue autumn sky. The juxtaposition of the totem against the building project behind it focused the message of nature being dominated by human activity.  The gathered observers raising their voices in song (even in 2 parts in rounds!), is encouraging that we can work together for the good. Thanks to all involved in getting that beautiful symbol and art here to our city.

Totem at Chiswick House


Pupils from Chiswick School encounter Totem Latamat

A guest blog by Ellie Scott

As TOTEM LATAMAT makes its journey towards Glasgow for Cop26, we are asking people who encounter it along the way to write guest pieces about the encounter. The first post is by Ellie Scott, who is a pupil at Chiswick School.  

Hi, I'm Ellie and on Monday, my friends went to Chiswick House to do a speech about the environment. It was really great meeting the Deputy Ambassador of Mexico, the Mayor of Chiswick and seeing the big totem used to spread environmental awareness and peace. Something I found really cool about the totem was the fact that it was carved entirely out of wood! On our way to Chiswick House, some students and I had to carry a massive pole full of information about ourselves, our nationality and much more! On the way there, it was pretty tiring due to us carrying the pole. Then, we carried the steelpan instruments to the grass from the van they were in, before doing some pictures for the press. Not so long after that, my friends and I said our speeches and introduced ourselves to the Deputy Ambassador of Mexico. What's more, Chiswick School’s steelpan band then played Levitating as a welcome to the totem, before we met the Mayor of Chiswick after a song blessing the totem, from a Shaman. This day was an amazing experience and I loved it.

Quechua shaman Kurikindi blesses Totem Latamat

Thursday, September 30, 2021

The Coming of Totem Latamat

The story began back in  March, when we first approached Jun Tiburcio to make the totem. It was clear that this year's ORIGINS was not going to be the same as previous editions, with travel and audience gathering so uncertain. Indigenous people had been particularly badly hit by the pandemic, and this fact was also affecting the other great concern of 2021, the Cop26 summit on Climate Change.  As Greta Thunberg pointed out, vaccination inequality compounds existing divisions between rich and poor, effectively excluding Indigenous voices from the crucial debates in November. As a UK-based organisation working with Indigenous cultures, we felt a deep need to find another way in which their environmental ideas and agendas could be brought to the world's attention. TOTEM LATAMAT is the answer.

Accompanied by a ceremony to give thanks for the life that was being offered, a single tree was felled by Jun and other men from his village back in June. He carved it over many weeks, working with the entire community to shape the tree, to sculpt its intricate designs, to paint it in the magnificent, sun-kissed colours of Mexico. TOTEM LATAMAT is the work of a great artist - and it is also the work of his Totonac village community.

By early August, the totem was ready to move to Veracruz for shipping. It's not a simple matter... but we really couldn't send this by plane: the whole project has to be as environmentally positive as possible. We needed export licences and we're still doing import paperwork. The totem turned out too be too big for the 20 foot shipping container we had booked, so we had to get a bigger one. Then the queue of goods for the ship proved too long, and there was a two week delay before it could be loaded onto the next ship. Finally, on 7th September, it was able to begin its sea crossing.  

The ship stopped in Houston, and then Le Havre. Mid-Atlantic there was another delay that meant the ceremony of welcome had to be put back. Just this morning we heard the departure from Le Havre was 9 hours late, which means the ship will be unloaded overnight tonight at London Gateway. Then it's a question of how long it takes to get through customs. The shippers will drive it across London to Chiswick House, and at last we will meet TOTEM LATAMAT, for the beginning of the UK journey.