18 Nov 2023 - 14 Apr 2024

Stepping Softly on the Earth

Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art


Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art (Gateshead) is delighted to announce a ground-breaking group exhibition titled Stepping Softly on the Earth, opening on Saturday 18 November 2023. Through the work of 20, mostly non-Western and Indigenous, artists from around the world, this research-led exhibition, and its accompanying public programme and publication, invites visitors to consider human’s relationship to land and territory from a decolonial and anti-colonial perspective.

The exhibition will, for the first time, present a range of artistic practices that approach our relationship to land and territory through the understanding of the world as a pluriverse – a world in which many worlds coexist and support each other. In this world, all things and beings are interconnected and human and nature are not separated. Stepping Softly on the Earth includes artworks exploring questions around ancestral cosmovisions, spirituality, inter-species communication, embodied knowledge, oral traditions, autonomy, mapping and legal frameworks.

The title of the exhibition revisits a quote that Indigenous activist, writer and thinker Ailton Krenak brings to life in his 2022 book Ancestral Future. Krenak quotes a speech attributed to Chief Seattle (c.1786–1866) in which he says that his people ‘step softly on the Earth’, for they are connected to it, and invites the colonisers to teach their children to do so.

In 2022, the project benefited from an International Collaboration Grant from the British Council towards its Research and Development phase. This enabled the development of a collaborative R&D framework with four international partners: CAPC (Bordeaux), La Escocesa (Barcelona), Más Arte Mas Acción (Colombia) and Pivô (São Paulo).

The exhibition presents two new commissions by Mexican artist Naomi Rincón Gallardo and Colombian artist Leonel Vásquez, alongside numerous artworks that are being shown in the UK for the first time. Many of the artworks and artists included in the exhibition have not yet received the visibility they deserve in the UK and Europe.

Artists include: Aline Baiana (Brazil), Marwa Arsanios (Lebanon), Denilson Baniwa (Brazil), Ursula Biemann (Switzerland), Shatabdi Chakrabarti (India), Solmaz Daryani (Iran), Cian Dayrit (Philippines), Gidree Bawlee Foundation of Arts (Bangladesh), Shereoanawe Hakihiiwe (Venezuela), Karachi LaJamia – Shahana Rajani & Zahra Malkani (Pakistan), The Karrabing Film Collective (Australia), Takumã Kiukuro (Brazil), Queenie McKenzie (Australia), Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri (Australia), Dharmendra Prasad (India), Naomi Rincón Gallardo (Mexico), Taller Leñateros (Mexico), Tizintizwa (Nadir Bouhmouch and Soumeya Ait Ahmed) (Morrocco), Roy Underwood (Australia), and Leonel Vásquez (Colombia).

Leonel Vásquez’s new commission is a living sculptural installation titled Templo del agua (Water Temple) (2023). It invites visitors to enter a state of embodied presence by experiencing the resonance of water in their body and immersing themselves in its vibrating nature. The activation of sculptural instruments with the flow of water in the space proposes a collective meditation through listening, awakening our beginning as aquatic beings. Templo del agua addresses the binary separation between humans and nature in Western modernist cosmologies that has led to the destruction of water bodies on a planetary scale.

Naomi Rincón Gallardo’s newly commissioned film Eclipse (2023) forms the concluding chapter of The Tzitzimime triology, in which the thresholds between the worlds of the dead, the undead and the living blur. In Aztec mythology, the Tzitzimime were female deities linked to fertility and rain. They were at the same time feared for their ability to descend to Earth and devour men during solar eclipses, when it was feared that darkness would reign forever. An eclipse heralds the culmination of the multiple endings of the world, which accelerate and intensify in an era of collapse. The Sun is devoured by the Moon, darkness emerges victorious, and the Tzitzimime descend to Earth to devour men; it is the planet itself that undertakes an act of cosmic self-defence.

Eclipse (2023) was commissioned by Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, with the support of La Casa Encendida, Madrid; Artes Mundi, Cardiff; and La Virreina Centre de la Imatge, Barcelona.

Morrocan duo Tizintizwa (Nadir Bouhmouch and Soumeya Ait Ahmed), currently showing at the 35th Bienal de São Paulo, will present Seasonal Work Song (2023), a film that laments the condition of agricultural workers and monoculture in the Atlas Mountains. The project sought to project onto film the collective process by which oral poetry and stories are forged by communities over time.

Tizintizwa is Nadir Bouhmouch and Soumeya Ait Ahmed’s collaborative duo, which they created in 2019, to address their sense of urgency towards rapidly eroding ancestral, artistic, social and ecological practices and knowledge – which are even more at risk in light of the recent earthquake in Morocco’s Atlas moutains. Their work looks at how rural art forms have often been relegated to the category of folklore, which distorts their perception and questions their validity as contemporary art forms. They collaborate with rural communities, document oral literature, exhibit, curate, initiate cross-regional conversations, and allude to the importance of transgenerational transmission and relations between lands and people.

Sheroanawe Hakihiiwe is an Indigenous Yanomami artist from Sheroana, a small community of the Upper Orinoco River in the Venezuelan Amazon. He learned the skills of hunting and fishing from his father. From his mother, he learned the visual imagery of Yanomami ancestral knowledges and their application in basketry and body markings used in ritual ceremonies. Working primarily with drawing and handmade papers crafted from native fibres, he draws from his ancestral knowledge of the signs and symbols of Yanomami culture, and their application in basketry and body painting for ritual ceremonies.

While such practices are female in Yanomami culture, he has consciously recovered these motifs to build his visual lexicon. Hakihiiwe’s work is a very personal interpretation of Yanomami creation stories, tradition and identity; his drawings and paintings speak to his rites and beliefs, observations of the rainforest and concern for the ecosystem. For the exhibition Hakihiiwe will produce new paintings.

Dharmendra Prasad’s Harvest Books are part of his ongoing Harvest School project in Bihar that gathers farmers, craftsmen, fishermen, urban youth, and non-human agencies to unlearn colonial, nationalistic and industrial practices through workshops and deep observations. These books are the visual and textual documents of non-extractive stories and vernacular knowledge system of landless farmers of Dalit communities in the Buxar district of Bihar.

Press release from Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art

Image: Installation view of Stepping Softly on the Earth at Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, 2023. Image courtesy of Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art