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Art and Environmental Struggle
Drawing of a large tree with green leaves and animals on the ground below it

Drawing of a large tree with green leaves and animals on the ground below it

Abel Rodríguez

El árbol de la vida y la abundancia (The Tree of Life and Abundance)

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What kind of tree could this possibly be?

The leaves, fruit, and flowers in this tree are a combination of many different kinds of plants. The artist, Don Abel Rodríguez, grew up in the Amazon Rainforest, in Colombia, a country in South America. He learned about these plants from his uncle, who wanted to pass on his own wisdom and knowledge of the forest. He wanted to make sure that others could take care of the forest, and benefit from all it had to offer. Don Abel studied these plants so much that he memorized what they looked like, where they grew or lived, and which ones were good for food and medicine. He drew this tree from memory, combining the many plants he had studied into one huge organism.

Can you recognize any of the leaves, fruits, or flowers growing in this tree?

The name of this work in Spanish is El árbol de la vida y la abundancia. In English, this means: “The tree of life and abundance.” Abundance means that there is a large amount of something.

What parts of this artwork come from the artist’s imagination? What parts come from his observations of the world around him?

The individual plants and animals all exist in real life, but they way they are growing together comes from Don Abel’s imagination.

Can you find the pineapples growing in the branches of this huge tree?

In real life, pineapples grow on the ground, not in tall trees. But Don Abel wanted to show how the plants growing here are all connected, so he made the pineapple plant part of the tree’s branches.

Sometimes artists tell stories or create pictures that aren’t real, because it lets them imagine other possibilities for the world. Even though humans are cutting down trees and causing deforestation, we can imagine and create other possibilities for living peacefully on Earth and respecting nature.

What creatures do you see here?

The habitat of these animals is the Amazon Rainforest. Many of these animals have a special meaning to the artist, and are important characters in the stories of the culture he comes from. The kinkajou, the animal to the right of the axe, and monkey near the tree trunk are especially important. The artist sees these animals as the ancestors of humans in this land. There is no difference in the importance between the animals and humans.

Have you heard of a kinkajou before?

This animal lives in tropical rainforests, in Central and South America. Watch this kinkajou in action! To learn about other animals in tropical rainforests, look at this video! See if you can match the animals in the video with the animals in this work of art.


A repeating image of birds fading from color to black is divided into three parts by vertical tree branches on which decorative beaded birds are hung

Jolene Rickard in collaboration with Janice Smith, Anita Greene, and Anita Ferguson

…the sky is darkening … coming home…

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How were these birds created?

The artist, Jolene Rickard, who designed this artwork, worked with a group of Haudenosaunee (hoe-dee-no-SHOW-nee) women, who made the six hanging birds. With these artists’ permission, Jolene Rickard used their art as a part of her own art. She explains it this way: “The piece is a collaboration… I provide the frame, but they provide the artistic excellence in the birds they’re making for my piece.” 

The Haudenosaunee Confederacy is a group of six Indigenous nations (Cayuga, Seneca, Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk, and Tuscarora) who came together in one united group, and whose traditional homelands are across what we now call New York State. Many of the women who worked on this artwork are from one of the nations in the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, called the Tuscarora Nation. 

The beaded design on the birds is known as “beadwork,” and is an important form of Haudenosaunee artwork. The Haudenosaunee artists who took part in this project are a range of ages. The older artists passed knowledge about their artform on to the younger generations.

What knowledge or skills have you learned from older members of your family or community?

How are the beaded birds different from the birds in the background?

The beaded birds are hanging in front of a background, which is covered in photographs. The beaded birds are an important symbol in Tuscarora culture, one of the nations in the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, which the women who made this belong to. The background is made of photographs of a special kind of pigeon, called the passenger pigeon. You might have seen a regular pigeon before, especially if you’ve visited a big city. But the last time anyone saw a passenger pigeon, the kind shown in this photograph, was more than 100 years ago, in 1914. That year, the last passenger pigeon died, and the species went extinct. Now, we only have photographs, models, and artworks that show the passenger pigeon.


Why does the image get darker at the top?

When passenger pigeons were still alive, they would travel in huge groups. People said their groups would make the sky go dark because there were so many birds. In this artwork, the artist, Jolene Rickard, made a repeating pattern with the photographed birds. She gradually overlapped the birds as she moved up the image, creating a dark cloud at the top, as if the birds were darkening the sky. You can hear her talk about it on this website (starting at 1:56). 

But the darkness also has another meaning. The reason passenger pigeons went extinct is that humans hunted them much too much. Do you notice how the artist slowly made the birds less and less colorful as she moved up the artwork? The darkness at the top is also a way to show that this animal isn’t alive anymore. 

If you want to know more about the story of the passenger pigeon, this video can teach you: 

Do you know the stories of other animals that have gone extinct, or are in danger of going extinct? What can we do to protect animals from going extinct? 


Dilyara Kaipova

Danger Signs

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What symbols and patterns do you notice on this artwork? 

The artist, Dilyara Kaipova, is known for combining symbols from different cultures in her art. In this piece, she uses a technique called “ikat.” This technique is commonly used in Dilyara Kaipova’s home country of Uzbekistan, and in many other parts of the world. It is made by weaving together strands of silk, which are colored with dye to make patterns before they are woven together. In the past, the government ruling Uzbekistan looked down on traditional crafts like this, and discouraged people from using the ikat technique. But some artists and craftspeople continued to practice this artform, and passed on knowledge about it to other members of their community, so that it would not be forgotten.

Her artwork also includes many symbols that we are familiar with.

​Can you find the patterns from the images below in the work of art?

What messages does this piece of fabric communicate?

Many of the symbols on this work of art communicate warning messages, or danger signs, like the title of this artwork. The artist comes from a part of the world where dangerous chemicals were once used in factories and power plants, and then released into the environment. Her country, Uzbekistan, was also a place where the government tested nuclear bombs out in nature. The bombs were very dangerous, because they contained radioactive materials, which still affect the environment there today. When something is “radioactive,” it means that it contains very small particles that send out energy or even smaller particles. This energy or these particles can cause cancer and other health problems, and can also cause serious harm to the environment. In this work of art, the symbol on the light yellow background means “radioactive.” All the warning symbols on this artwork are signals that events from the country’s past can still be harmful to today’s people, animals, and plants.  

Can you think of other examples of warning symbols, which you have seen before? What do these symbols mean? 

Who could understand these symbols?

The symbols on this artwork aren’t written in any language, so people from many different cultures and backgrounds could understand them. By using symbols instead of words, Dilyara Kaipova can reach a bigger audience. People from all over the world can understand what she is trying to say with her art, from Uzbekistan, where the artist is from, to Ithaca, New York, where this object is now in the Johnson Museum’s collection. 


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