Season 3: How art can transform our relationship with nature with Bryony Ella

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Marion Atieno Osieyo: [00:00:00] Welcome to Black Earth Podcast. I'm your host, Marion Atieno Osieyo. In Season 3 of Black Earth Podcast, we're meeting visionary Black women who are creating innovations inspired by nature. In today's episode, we meet Bryony Ella. Bryony is an inspiring artist researcher who creates public artworks that help us reimagine our relationship with nature.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: In this episode, Bryony talks to us about her incredible artistic practice and how an emerging idea called Embodied Ecology can help us reconnect with nature and rediscover ourselves as nature.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: Bryony![00:01:00]

Marion Atieno Osieyo: Thank you so much for joining us today on Black Earth podcast. I am extremely grateful and so excited to be in conversation with you because I really. Um, admire your work, and I'm also very inspired by your work. Um, Bryony, could you please introduce yourself to our listener community?

Bryony Ella: Sure. Thank you so much for inviting me on.

Bryony Ella: I'm, uh, I'm really excited about this conversation as well. Um, my name is Bryony Ella. I'm an artist and an artist researcher.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: And where are you currently based, Bryony?

Bryony Ella: Yeah, so we're speaking, I was speaking to you from my apartment in Brooklyn in New York. Um, yeah, obviously I've got a British accent, so I am, uh, you know, born, born and raised in Britain, but I've just moved over for a period [00:02:00] to the States.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: Amazing. Thank you, Bryony. Um, so Bryony, how would you describe your relationship with nature?

Bryony Ella: Yeah, with this, with this question, I guess I'm kind of wondering about where, where to start. Um, my relationship to nature is one that's evolving and changing constantly. Um, it's, it's changed a lot in the last few years.

Bryony Ella: Um, I think as a child, nature for me was a companion, um, it was a place of adventure and awe and wonder and solace, um, as well. And I think, yeah, during my early adulthood, maybe I, I changed that relationship to something that was more like nature was more of a backdrop. Um, to becoming an adult really and, and now I'm kind of returning to it [00:03:00] and re and understanding myself more fully as nature, the, the boundaries are less blurred and then kind of reconnecting with that inner child kind of, um, kind of quality of relationship.

Bryony Ella: Um, but there's this other aspect that is kind of new for me in the relationship. Which is also, um, a greater, I guess, kind of reverence and, um, respect for the, the wisdom and the scale and the power of the force of nature. And, and with that, there is a little tinge of kind of fear as well. I think particularly in the current climate, um, and a greater sense of my own mortality and wills.

Bryony Ella: And I'm really curious around that. It's not a fear that's blocking in any way. It's a fear that's kind of pushing me forwards to [00:04:00] get to know myself as nature in terms of an organic temporary animation of nature that's destined to return to the land. So it's, it's kind of going through this new phase of, um, of reconciling and also enjoying the kind of smallness that I feel in nature.

Bryony Ella: Yeah, kind of developing more kind of ceremony and ritual in, in that relationship, more intentional, um, play as well, returning to play in nature. It was a funny, it's a funny question because it feels like, you know, the first thing that comes to my mind is, um, if one were to kind of ask the fish, what does water feel like?

Bryony Ella: It would be like almost impossible to, you know, I imagine it'd be impossible for them to describe, but perhaps the fish is aware of the [00:05:00] water through the colors, the changing in the lights, in the, in the heat and the temperature, um, of its surroundings, um, the, the movements of other beings within that, that element, and also the experience of being extracted and taken out of it.

Bryony Ella: And the desire to return back, um, that's, I don't know if it fully works that metaphor, but that's, that's what kind of comes to mind with that question.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: Thank you so much for that beautiful articulation. Um, yeah, I think one of the, um, one of the great, you know, myths or stories about modernity and living in a modern age, as it were, um, is the story of separation, um, especially us [00:06:00] as a human species being separate from nature, like in order for kind of, uh, the modern age to work, we need to be separate from nature, right? Nature needs to be beneath us in some way. Um, and so yeah, that, that aspect of like reconciliation and returning, I feel is like the work of our time as a human species.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: Um, And for me, that's one of the reasons why the environmental crisis is so profound. Uh, not just because of the scale of suffering for ourselves and other species on our planet, but it's also calling us to reconciliation and unravelling the lie of modernity, which is one of separation.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: Because once you, once you see yourself as nature, it changes how you see everything around you. Um, and so, yeah, [00:07:00] I I heard in your statement or your response, um, Yeah. Reconnecting, you know, reconciliation, returning, um, to yourself in many ways, um, into your, you know, the essence of who you are, which in many ways is our child, our childhood, um, or ourselves as children, um, but also returning to, you know, who we are uh, nature into the land, which is something that, um, other people on this podcast have also kind of reflected on how they see themselves as nature. And that's something that's a, um, a way of being in the world that shapes them. So I'm very grateful for, for your response. And it resonates with me as well in, in where I'm at in my journey of life.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: Um, I'm very much returning and reconciling in my life with nature. So thank you.[00:08:00]

Marion Atieno Osieyo: Um, I'm very excited to talk about your work. Um, and before we get into it, I really wanted to understand more how your relationship with nature has evolved or is evolving and how it's shaping your, um, your practice as an artist.

Bryony Ella: Yeah, sure. I mean, um, my journey as an artist. you know, kind of really started at school and, and I went on and, and did a foundation course and a degree in art. And at that time, um, I was really interested in, uh, feminist theory and I was working largely in paint. Um, and I was looking at, [00:09:00] um, the symbolism of nature, um, in what it reveals around, you know, social constructs, um, and dominant beliefs around what it means to be a woman. Um, in the, in the West, um, you know, my, my upbringing and my education was all in England and I was really particularly inspired by the pre Raphaelite movement. I, I adore their paintings, the paintings of the pre Raphaelite brotherhood, but I was working with nature in a the male gaze and how nature was being kind of used by these artists to, um, pill or hold, uh, women, the depiction of women, um, the depiction of women in a way that was really limited. So [00:10:00] there's, there's the kind of the purity of the lily, for example, um, there were all these kind of, um, motifs that repeated in the paintings, which were depicting women as either the virgin or the whore, and there was no space for the in between.

Bryony Ella: So I was working with nature patterns there as a kind of form of oppression, actually, and just kind of understand how the works reveal far more about the men and their, their gaze, their perspectives, their, um, agendas than it did about the women. And it concealed the female story.

Bryony Ella: Um, for about 10 years following my degree, I worked in, um, social history museums. Um, I actually went to the women's library, um, which is, you know, in a collection of first wave, second wave and third and this movements. Um, and also worked on lots of different exhibition projects in London, looking at [00:11:00] various different, um, working with different cultural groups and social groups to tell their stories, and then moved into working in contemporary science, specifically biomedical research, and developed exhibitions there that were all about human health um, and human disease. Uh, so that was working with scientists. Um, and that was 2016. Um, that I kind of moved into that area.

Bryony Ella: My art practice during that period of kind of taking a back seat, you know, I was really developing a curatorial practice. So my focus was more on, on museology, but then around the time of, of working with scientists, even though our focus was on the, uh, the human form, um, my, I guess my awareness of the climate and ecological crisis was really heightening.

Bryony Ella: And that came this kind of tension, [00:12:00] um, between understanding that the work that I was doing was really important in terms of, helping the scientists to communicate their research, but also feeling like I didn't really have the space to engage with what was speaking to me more profoundly is kind of a really, really urgent focus for my practice of returning to nature.

Bryony Ella: What the, that experience, I mean, there's so many things that I experienced working with them really gave me, but specifically in terms of my art practice, I, I loved the microscopy that I was able to, um, observe with the scientists and their passion and curiosity in studying like single cells and single proteins and, you know, being able to, I guess, kind of, um, understand their awe and their fascination, you know, these people are dedicating decades of their lives to studying this one thing, [00:13:00] um, of the scale of the human body and how it is developed and how it grows and how it responds to external environments.

Bryony Ella: Um, and I was just, you know, really, you know, uh, deeply inspired by the, that, that scale of, of being able to observe life, um, and the patterns that are repeated. So I guess I returned back to my curiosity about pattern, um, in nature. I started to bring that into my own artistic practice and for a while I was kind of taking annual leave and working at weekends, um, to just focus in on on the patterns of the natural world and to start to learn more about the challenges that we're facing in terms of the nature crisis and think more about like how my art can [00:14:00] contribute in a progressive way, in a helpful way, um, to the efforts to mitigate the disasters that were looming that are coming.

Bryony Ella: Um, so for a while, my work was maybe a little bit more kind of botanical and activist. Um, I went into, you know, the world of street art. And I was painting huge botanical murals, um, that were kind of again, like trying to play with scale. And, um, so making the, I guess I was wanting to tap into that kind of, that childlike experience of feeling small and delighting in that, but also kind of disrupting the sense of hierarchy between humans and nature.

Bryony Ella: And I had this tag, which was nature was here first. No, plants were here first, sorry. Um, and I was doing that around London and then actually around the UK. And then that was. Um, a lot of, a lot of fun and it was a great way for me to kind of bring my [00:15:00] public engagement hat of, you know, previously working in, in museums into that kind of realm where, you know, I was having lots of conversations with the members of the public that were curious about the murals being, uh, painted in the, the neighbourhoods and just started to talk a little bit more about why it was important for us to, um, to have a greater awareness of, of the, the hierarchy in which we're kind of operating that puts nature as something that is other or beneath us or to be kind of extracted. And also why it was so important for us to have more nature access, especially in city areas, from the city areas.

Bryony Ella: Um, but I think my, Journey changed, um, in 2019, 2020, and maybe we can talk a little bit more about like what happened around that time that led to that, but [00:16:00] just to kind of stay on point to your, you know, your, your question, um, you know, in the last four years or so, um, my relationship with nature has changed.

Bryony Ella: As that has changed, my practice has led me more into, um, installation art and working really interdisciplinarily with, um, academics and other artists and activists, um, to focus more on, to focus more on the concept of humans as nature. Um, so rather than just simply revealing the kind of hierarchies, but like actually looking at, okay, so how can we flatten these and how can we enter into more of an eco centric rather than egocentric um, way of perceiving the world around us.

Bryony Ella: Um, so I left the, the Biomedical Research Institute where I was working in 2020. And now I've been working [00:17:00] full time on these different projects. And it's really, I'm loving working in lots of different disciplines. So it's, yes, I still paint. Um, but I also kind of create sculptures and films.

Bryony Ella: I've developed a practice of drawing, taking people out on guided walks, which I call wild drawing. Um, and I've developed in my own research, kind of, um, focus into embodied ecology and what that might mean in terms of how we respond to the nature crisis.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: You referenced, uh, this, this concept of embodied ecology. Um, and how, um, yeah, your engagement with it now as a concept, uh, could you tell us more about embodied ecology and yeah, what drew you to it and what is it, um, as a concept? Yeah.

Bryony Ella: [00:18:00] So, um, I landed upon the concept of embodied ecology a couple of years ago when I was in the middle of kind of grappling with these, these kind of conceptual and also, um, methodological kind of changes in my practice.

Bryony Ella: And I guess I was searching for a home in which I could place myself, my practice, my interests. Um, and there's so many different terms to describe artistic practice out there. It's, it's bamboozling and like, yeah, sometimes the art world us there. Um, but I was, so I was doing my research about different, um, concepts, theories.

Bryony Ella: And I came across, um, the Society for Cultural Anthropology, um, online, and they had this series of essays were titled embodied [00:19:00] ecologies.

Bryony Ella: And around that time, I'd landed on the word disintegration with it separated into two parts, right? So this integration, and I was thinking a lot more about. My curiosity about humans as hummus, as organic, as porous beings, as, as soil, and our life cycles of, of returning to the earth, um, as for me, disintegration is about kind of dismantling the binaries.

Bryony Ella: Um, borders, the systems, the, the hierarchies is the rigid, the rigid kind of linear way of thinking about what it means to be human, um, and our place within nature, um, in order to reintegrate into something that is much broader and much deeper and more nourishing. [00:20:00] Um, and I just felt like the way that they described embodied ecology is just really chimed with.

Bryony Ella: the kind of instinctual kind of leaning into disintegration that I was exploring in the studio. And essentially, um, Embodied Ecologies describes the materiality of the human body, um, at all the different scales. So from, you know, in smaller scales, like genes and microbes and hormones, um, as being responsive to its broader environment and as a site where environments are manifested as, you know, health and well being.

Bryony Ella: And it's really about that kind of fluidity between bodies and worlds, um, surrounds us and what composes our bodies or resides within them. Um, so we are relationally [00:21:00] impacted and implicated. with the environment. Um, it just feels so freeing, right, to be able to kind of layer all of these different scales and perspectives and experiences to kind of describe and, and through art, hopefully express the, the dynamism of, of, of being human.

Bryony Ella: Um, and kind of, I, in the essays, they kind of encourage you to think about, what are we absorbing, through our skin, through the things that we eat, through the air that we're breathing, um, what is passing through us, and what is also being emitted, and just that kind of flow, um, really spoke to me.

Bryony Ella: And, um, and also created room in my practice for me to then be able to work with lots of different practitioners and experts. [00:22:00] So around that time I was starting to, you know, speak to spiritual ecologists as well as urban ecologists and environmental foresters alongside ecotherapists. You know, now I'm working with environmental historians, um, and ethnographers and, um, and also in terms of the arts start to explore embodied, um, understandings of this through dance, through, through movement, through music, um, through masquerade. Uh, yeah, it's just, it, it kind of just feels much more roomy and more generous and that's so far away from the kind of, Mind, body, good, bad, nature, culture, um, way of dividing up in small segments, um, you [00:23:00] know, the way that we are actually part of the world, um, not separate to it.

Bryony Ella: So yeah. So I'm still, I'm still trying to work out what on earth embodied ecologies is. It's new. Um, and I'm enjoying exploring it. Um, with lots of different, um, fascinating human beings who are also curious about this area. And I think it's probably going to end up being like a lifelong thing kind of focus for me, you know, like it's just so rich, such a broad gaze, like 360, right?

Bryony Ella: And also, it also touches on the kind of intergenerational, um, fluidity, you know, like it's not just literally about what's happening to us right now here, but they, some of the essays speak to, in this particular, [00:24:00] uh, on this particular kind of website, speak to the kind of generational trauma. Um, and that can be, you know, emotional, psychological or physical and health trauma that is passed down.

Bryony Ella: And, um, and I'm, I'm really fascinated by, by that concept, um, and how, and thinking about how that's manifesting now in the present day and how that is informing or shaping the current major crisis. Wow.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: Thank you so much for sharing that. Um, it is. Embodied Ecology is, um, it's a profound, um, insight into seeing the world, um, and in, in some ways it's what drew me to your work.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: When I first saw some of your paintings, there was this element of [00:25:00] like unraveling boundaries, um, like some of your paintings feel very fluid, um, whether it's like color or composition, And I just was like, wow, this is really fascinating. I don't know why, but this is what emerges for me. And as you're speaking to, uh, this idea of embodied ecology, I can see how it's drawn you as a concept.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: In many ways, you've been expressing it through your art before you came across this idea of embodied ecology. Um, and I think this, also, this is also a really important part of our work in environmental justice, um, valuing experiential knowledge as much as we value kind of documented [00:26:00] knowledge, if that makes sense, um, trusting your experiences, trusting the knowing of your experiences and using that as a guide to help you, um, you know, to help you learn or to help you trace your own things that interest your patterns of inquiry.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: Um, because, you know, for some communities, They may not have, um, an understanding of what is happening in the environment when it comes to environmental injustice, but they just know that something's off, right? And it's only through pattern and observation that they're able to make different connections between what's happening in the world.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: But it's that initial knowing within your, your own body, your own sense of awareness that something is different that allows you to kind of trace things and try to understand, uh, what's happening.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: Um, I wanted to stay on the topic of embodied ecology with you just to maybe [00:27:00] understand what is, what is new about embodied ecology? Like what is different about it as a, as a concept? Um, I guess there's, there's a notion of, um, it's helping to redefine what we've termed as boundaries. So for example, between mind and body, or between, You know, uh, what is a human body and what's not, um, there's a sense of like, redrawing in, in many ways, what we've previously termed as, as boundaries, but what, yeah, in your sense as a practitioner and someone who's drawn to this concept, what have you found to be new or how is it helping us think about the world differently?

Bryony Ella: I mean, I mean, I think what's exciting for me is that it's just really encouraging us [00:28:00] not to think in a linear way. And I, um, love the kind of the deep time aspect to it as well. You know, it's, um, it's more, it's so much more holistic and it's so much more of a kind of a macro view of the human and more than human relationship through time and space, but it's able to also zoom into the specificities of the most micro kind of interactions simultaneously.

Bryony Ella: And I just think we, right now, it's so, um, easy and, and encouraged and almost desirable, you know, given the complexities of the challenge that we face now to kind of hone in on one specific narrative or [00:29:00] worldview or this way of thinking, um, and, and latch onto that because it's scary, the the world that we're in right now in terms of this ecological collapse.

Bryony Ella: And what I, I love about embodied ecology is that it's kind of just, it's a kind of gently kind of teasing open, uh, our perception in a, in a way that's really empowering as you say, yes, the body knows our bodies are, are so powerful in the intuition that they hold and they store.

Bryony Ella: And it's kind of an encouragement to really reconnect with that and trust in that and, and speak it and voice it and, and just recognize also that we are not alone. You know, that. that we are, um, interbeing. So it just, [00:30:00] I think it just feels more, I've used this word before, like roomy and more compassionate and way more, um, uh, I was going to say sensible.

Bryony Ella: And then I was going to like, take that word back, but then I'm just thinking sensible. So maybe, maybe it works, but like in this kind of situation, the only solutions are going to come out of our understanding of the interconnections.

Bryony Ella: If we stay in silos. And if we reduce ourselves down to, into these small boxes, um, that have been created by systems that were not designed for anything other than maximum production, maximum extraction, maximum profit for a very small minority of people, we're never gonna, we just, we'll just keep like reducing down and down and down.

Bryony Ella: I just think it's going to be that way lies complete. kind of madness in [00:31:00] my, in my sense, in my mind. And, um, I love that it's, it's recognizing that bodies, um, are sites of struggle, um, but that we can become our own kind of witnesses, um, to what is happening and, and encourage us not to be disengaged observers at a distance, but really kind of sensorial kind of sensory led activists, you know, feeling our way out of this crisis.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: Yes, definitely, definitely feeling our way out of this crisis. Um, yeah, thank you for sharing that.[00:32:00]

Marion Atieno Osieyo: So you've mentioned while drawing, uh, which is a kind of a core tenet of your, your practice. Um, I'd love to delve into some of your, um, your public creations, if that's okay, um, and there was so many to like, there was so, I mean, I could talk about each and every one of them because I feel like there's so much depth and richness, um, but there's a few I wanted to explore with you in this conversation.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: Um, the first one being, um, your creation for the World Reimagined series, Um, yeah, I'd love to kind of discuss with you about your inspiration for that [00:33:00] and like what you ended up creating, um, as part of The World Reimagined.

Bryony Ella: Yeah, sure. So this was, uh, 2022. Um, there was this, uh, very large, you know, UK wide, um, exhibition of, uh, globes painted by artists responding to different themes, um, under the umbrella of, of retelling the stories of the transatlantic, uh, slave trade.

Bryony Ella: And, um, yeah, I was given one globe to paint under the theme of still we rise. Um, while I think a lot of the, um, the globes were perhaps speaking to more of the West African experience. Um, I, I wanted to bring, um, [00:34:00] there's a story from Kenya into, uh, the mix and, and some of them, you know, it spans, um, spans centuries, the different way, you know, topics that people explored, but more recently, um, it's not so important to me to celebrate the work of Wangari Maathai, um, in Kenya and her Green Belt Movement in terms of the environmental justice kind of, um, area of, of the wider project.

Bryony Ella: And, um, because she was, I mean, what a life really, just the most phenomenal human being. Um, and I think of the time when I came across her as, a real, um, marker in my journey of, of, of moving into, um, a creative practice that engages with the nature crisis. Um, seeds were planted when I discovered her, [00:35:00] but then, you know, didn't germinate until many years later.

Bryony Ella: But, um, I remember I visited Kenya when I was working in a museum in London. on a placement and I was based at the National, um, Museums in Nairobi and, um, I was learning actually, just as a kind of a quick side note, but I guess my museum practice does really, um, feed into my art practice. I was learning from the team there about how they were using material heritage as a way to, um, strengthen or highlight, um, what different tribes had in common.

Bryony Ella: There were lots of issues around that time with warring tribes and so it was seen as a kind of, um, as a healing program using the material heritage of the museum and bringing different groups together to identify and talk about those commonalities. So I was there learning from them and I went to the gift shop one day and bought Mathai's autobiography [00:36:00] and I was, um, diving into it and just finding it, I just, you know, you just feel like those, just so many synapses are just like lighting and those dots are being joined and I, I just remember being just so blown away by how she was able to, um, speak to and respond to the, the kind of the problem, the ecological challenges in Kenya, both, um, on a very practical level in a very socially kind of activist kind of way.

Bryony Ella: way and also, um, in a spirit, you know, the language, the spiritual language in terms of, um, our relationship to nature, um, and, and show how they are inextricably linked, like the needs and the methods, um, that she identified [00:37:00] distinct was, I just thought really galvanized by that and, you know, started to think a lot more about how, um, What, what skills do I have that I can bring?

Bryony Ella: Um, it took a little while to get to that place eventually, but I got there.

Bryony Ella: But what happened was like two days after buying the book, uh, she died, this was in 2011, and across the whole of Kenya, all of the news outlets. You know, all of the, everybody, everybody, there's just this massive outpouring of grief and such a huge celebration of all of her achievements and her life.

Bryony Ella: And I felt really honored to be in Nairobi at that time and just to be listening to the impact that this woman had. And I hadn't got to the point in her autobiography, you know, I just started it. So it was like I learned so much about more about her life and all of the challenges that she faced and her [00:38:00] tenacity.

Bryony Ella: Um, but when I returned back to England and finished her autobiography, I think there were, it was two specific, um, stories or descriptions that she'd included that really stuck with me that in the world reimagined, I decided to. Um, focusing on one was, um, the significance of the fig tree in her village.

Bryony Ella: And she spoke about how, um, it's very sacred to her villages. Um, and how they, you know, honored it, um, in a, in a, in a daily kind of practice way, right? And that meant that the fig tree was never uprooted. It would, it, it stayed. And therefore she managed to kind of link that to the, the environmental, um, [00:39:00] crisis that was taking place at that time in the seventies and lots of landslides and flooding.

Bryony Ella: And so the roots of the fig tree was stabilizing the river bank and protecting the villages. Um, And it was her observation of that particular tree that made her realize that the work that she needed to do was around tree planting. Um, but it was not just a practical kind of environmental conservation response.

Bryony Ella: It was also a cultural, um, spiritual, you know, kind of, you know, act and, um, that needed, needed nurturing. Um, but then also she described her, her career. um, successes as being not only, you know, of her own, but as a collective, um, effort. And the way that she described it was through the metaphor of the rivers.

Bryony Ella: Um, so the, [00:40:00] the piece that I created, I called it Tributes of Knowledge. And that's a line from her book because she describes about how, you know, the river carves and curves around obstacles and finds its own path. It has this growing momentum behind it, but it is joined by tributaries of others who help it expand and continue to grow as it's reaching towards the ocean.

Bryony Ella: And I just found that such a beautiful way of honoring the people that supported her on her journey, but just helping us to understand how collective movements move and work and, and the power of, of them, um, regardless of the challenges, ways are found. Um, so yeah, so the, my globe was, um, on one side there was a fig, um, depicted and on the other side it was just interwoven with lots of, um, rivers flowing and, um, [00:41:00] it, uh, then was shown in, in Liverpool and there's now they're touring all of the globes around the UK and as a way to kind of start conversations.

Bryony Ella: Um, about the legacy of, uh, the slave trade. Wow. Yeah.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: Thank you so much, Bryony. It is. a stunning piece of artwork. Um, and I encourage people to check it out online or if you can see it in person. Um, yeah, I, I loved, I mean, I love Wangari Maathai also because reading about her and finding out, you know, the work that she was doing was also in many ways, um, an unlearning for me in terms of what nature conservation was.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: Um, and yeah, you know, the, the nature conservation that I was taught was that it's a, it's more or less a practice of conserving nature, but requires, [00:42:00] you know, careful managing of our relationship with interaction with an ecosystem or a species, right. And Wangari's whole work, her whole entire thesis and theory of change is about deep relationship with earth, deep relationship in community.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: So it was a complete unraveling of what I thought nature conservation was. And, um, yeah, I was so inspired that you kind of chose to honor her, her work and the things that she was doing. Um, but also, I guess, within, you know, The whole framing of that project, the world reimagined, um, placing her as the center of that, the world or the globe.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: I think that's also quite profound. Um, and I think again, it's moving away from some of the binaries that we have in, um, international [00:43:00] relations, you know, global north and global south. There's always this, you know, and global north being like the apex or the center of the world running. And actually. None of that. It matters in, in when it comes to how power flows in our world, but it's also challenging that notion. But yeah, it's really beautiful. Thank you.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: Um, and connected to that, uh, kind of recentering. where the center of the world is. I'd love to speak to you about the, the color of transformation. Um, and I think that's how I first came across your work actually, the color of transformation project.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: Could you share a bit more about, yeah, your inspiration and how it unfolded?

Bryony Ella: Yeah. Yeah. I guess, yeah, this is another project of centering women of color who are approaching nature [00:44:00] conservation, access, history, writing in different ways. Um, so the color transformation, actually that was in the same year. So two years ago, it's, it's a theorem that I created, um, in collaboration with Butterfly Conservation.

Bryony Ella: Um, and I interviewed seven women working in the UK, um, uh, women of color, uh, black women, each with quite different disciplines, you know, um, some come from. natural history, well, some come from nature access conservation. Um, and I was, I guess the idea behind it was a, you know, wanting to platform the work of, of these women, um, because they've all achieved phenomenal things in their careers, um, which I feel, and I think all of their careers and, you know, [00:45:00] it's, it wasn't like, um, they're just starting.

Bryony Ella: I mean, there's some of them have been working since many, many years, but it's just, you know, um, it's just starting in terms of the recognition that they deserve, I think. And so I wanted to kind of create a space to really celebrate the work that they've been doing in their careers that's been, um, you know, unfairly unnoticed up to this point.

Bryony Ella: But it was really about, um, asking the questions of what does it mean to be a pioneer? You know, a lot of these women are working in spheres in which they are the only person of color. Conservation is the least diverse sector in the UK after farming.

Bryony Ella: So there is a, you know, real vulnerability in stepping into these spaces, [00:46:00] um, and saying, I think there's a different way that we could do this.

Bryony Ella: Um, and it's being visible and there's so much power in that visibility because other, you know, people of color can see themselves in those spaces and, and therefore that is one way to really encourage, you know, hopefully reach a greater diversity of voices sitting around these tables.

Bryony Ella: Um, but there are also obviously just um, negatives, uh, to that vulnerability, that visibility. And so I wanted to just interview these women and have a really open and, uh, honest conversation about their journeys. Um, and what advice they would give to other people thinking about getting into their respective sectors, um, how much, um, self care and nurturing and community has played in, [00:47:00] um, in, in supporting them on their journeys and hear more from them about their unique perspectives on the systems in which they're working and their hopes for them.

Bryony Ella: Um, but going back to, you know, I guess I didn't want it to be just a straight documentary. I wanted to with all of my public artworks, I'm trying to find ways to make them as immersive or as inclusive as possible, to find the points where the stories can really resonate, um, or draw in, uh, the viewer.

Bryony Ella: Um, and I find metaphor and symbolism really powerful there. So the reason why I wanted to work with Butterfly Conservation, um, was largely to have, uh, access to their scientists. Um, they, to, to, to help me understand a little bit more the process of [00:48:00] metamorphosis, um, biologically, but then also to take that and be able to work with it symbolically.

Bryony Ella: Um, because the whole mystery of the process of dismantling or disintegration within the chrysalis, um, just fascinates me, right? It's where these cells called imaginal cells, um, are activated. and what was is completely taken apart and reconfigured into something completely new and into a whole new way of moving, um, through the world.

Bryony Ella: And I was really curious to talk to women. I'm so grateful for them to be, you know, so generous in, in talking about their personal journeys, you know, about what they had absorbed from the environments in which they grew up, the [00:49:00] environments in which they were working, um, that were positive and, um, and also negative in terms of, um, early understandings of what was possible, um, and what it felt like at that kind of tipping point when they realized that they had deeper into a different part of themselves in order to reach a place where they felt more, I guess, authentic, comfortable and empowered, um, and able to speak their truth.

Bryony Ella: What was that journey of them finding their truth and then creating the world in which they were able to speak it from a place of safety? [00:50:00]

Bryony Ella: Um, so the, the film is, um, itself is quite, um, the women are quite vulnerable

Bryony Ella: they're funny. They're, there's, obviously there's stories in which are really moving and they are so, um, generous to the audience in terms of all of the advice that they give and the lessons that they have learned along the way. Um, and we responded myself and then a team of artists that I brought in to their stories with a short artist's film which, uh, for which I wrote a poem that reflected or responded to their, the wisdom that these women shared, um, and then worked with musicians to create a musical score that takes you on that journey. Imagine, imagine what it's like to be in the chrysalis, um, and to be facing these unknowns, these deeply personal kind of transformations, [00:51:00] but also the global ecological changes that we are witnessing at the moment and how to kind of reconcile that and reconfigure it into something that feels really progressive and, and nurturing.

Bryony Ella: And then I worked with dancers and costume designers. who performed to the musical score in ways that were really charismatic and, and, you know, embodying the messages. Um, And the, the costumes that kind of abstract it, it wasn't about like trying to present the women as butterflies at all, it was about like the symbol, right?

Bryony Ella: So the, the costume is, is a masquerade, but it's, it's not literal. Um, and I think that's a really kind of pivotal project for me where I started to think about performing, performing arts, um, within my practice, um, and how can we. um, express the feeling of this information and the processing of that [00:52:00] information.

Bryony Ella: Um, and the films were projected onto this huge wall in a, in a community garden in London. Um, and that, you know, in, in many ways, in the way that we designed that space, that felt like quite a cocoon as well, quite a, um, a safe space to just kind of start to think, okay, what, what if we were to take a different path, What if we moved in a different way and what would we need in order to support ourselves throughout that process?

Marion Atieno Osieyo: Um, and so we, we come to, uh, a more recent project, which is honestly so fascinating. Um, Melting Metropolis. Please, can you tell us more about the project and I believe there's an opportunity, um, that's also out. So yeah, please tell us more. [00:53:00]

Bryony Ella: Yeah. So this is why I'm in New York. So Melting Metropolis, um, is a long term five year project. Um, based at the University of Liverpool and it's led by a team of environmental historians and there's also ethnographers in the team and a community engagement manager and so it's a big kind of quite multi disciplinary team. I'm the only random artist in the team um and this is I'm there as a research artist um developing public artworks and the research. The whole project research is looking at the phenomena of urban heat islands in cities, uh, London, Paris, and New York, uh, and soon Port of Spain and Trinidad.

Bryony Ella: And I'll speak about that in a moment. Um, but with those three cities, essentially the researchers are looking at, um, everyday [00:54:00] sensory experiences of extreme heat. Um, particularly, uh, interested in archiving and sharing the stories of people that are typically marginalized from conversations around the impact of climate change.

Bryony Ella: And it's from the period of 1945 up to the present day. Um, and there's lots, I mean, there's, there's oral histories, um, there's archival research, the community engagement projects, you know, working with a lot of different practitioners, um, creative practices. Um, it's quite a hive of activity. It's really exciting.

Bryony Ella: And as, and as the, um, research artist, I'm drawing across the cities, um, the kind of commonalities of, in between the experiences of citizens living in these particular areas that we're researching, there's certain boroughs in each city that we're looking at, um, in a way to try and carry these stories that are, that are being, [00:55:00] um, told through the, through the research practice um, into more of the public realm and find ways for them to land, um, with those who have not got that direct experience of the extreme urban heat island. Um, so that's my creative, uh, focus at the moment. Um, and, and as I mentioned a little bit earlier, one of the ways that I'm starting to explore that is how can I turn wild drawing into, um, a methodology for drawing heat, um, and attuning to.

Bryony Ella: Yes, the pleasure of, of summer in the city, because there are pleasures and joys there, but also, um, the negative, uh, very real health impacts of extreme heat and, and the systems that perpetuate that. Um, [00:56:00] yeah, the human decisions behind the infrastructure that creates heat. The island effect. Thank you so much for sharing that.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: Um, believe there's a PhD opportunity that's available at the moment to, to work with you on this project. Could you tell us a bit more? Cause I'll put that in the show notes and we'll definitely promote it on our socials as well.

Bryony Ella: Brilliant. Yeah, so, um, so the team's, it's still quite early days, the team is getting into place and, um, what I'm really excited about, um, is we have a PhD, um, opportunity coming up in, uh, Port of Spain, Trinidad.

Bryony Ella: Um, the PhD is called Heat, Health and Human Geographies. exploring Caribbean responses to urban heat stress through creative ethnographic methods. So [00:57:00] they will be working, um, really closely with the ethnographic team at the University of Liverpool. And, um, one of the supervisors is also at the University of the West Indies in Port of Spain.

Bryony Ella: And I'm really thrilled, this will be the first time I've ever done this, but I'll be one of the supervisors too. Um, so the creative ethnographic methodology is something that I'll be working with a PhD on. Um, so I think it's just, it's really important that the, you know, the project is, um, including the experiences of, of people from this particular, um, climate, as well as, you know, alongside, um, the experiences of those in Europe and New York and, and the PhD will also be looking at, um, the experience of the diaspora living in those, uh, cities.

Bryony Ella: Um, what I'm really excited about working with this PhD on is, um, In terms of the development of [00:58:00] public artworks for this project, I'm fascinated by, um, Carnival as a methodology to, uh, re revisit the past, um, interrogate it, um, retell our stories, um, masquerade and movement, as I just mentioned. The Colour Transformation is, um, is an area that I'm really ready.

Bryony Ella: excited about the potential to create opportunities for, um, embodied expressions of, of climate and the impacts of climate, um, within civic space in a collective way. Um, so I'm really curious to see how my collaboration with the PhD will go, but they will also be running their own research project there as well.

Bryony Ella: Um, and it's, out now, the job ads, the deadline is near the end of June. So [00:59:00] yeah, if you could include a link, I would love it if your, any of your listeners wanted to apply. Um, yeah, that'd be, that'd be really amazing.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: Um, so how can we support you and how can we support your work?

Bryony Ella: Oh, well, um, definitely please share the PhD amongst, you know, this is for the listeners. If you, if you know of anyone else, please pass it on. Um, there's a book that's just come out called Wild Service, Why Nature Needs You, um, that was published, uh, by the Right to Roam campaign in England.

Bryony Ella: And if you're interested in the wild drawing practice, um, from where it emerged with, with me, um, I write a chapter titled Belonging There, which takes us between um, the islands of Trinidad and Tobago, which is where my father is from, and, um, between, uh, and, uh, into rural Kent, which is where I grew up, um, in [01:00:00] the UK.

Bryony Ella: Um, so that's out and it's filled with many other chapters really exploring the, the nature crisis as a, as a dual crisis, you know, that we're, we're decimating nature whilst also Um, the fact that our mental health, the mental health crisis in the UK, which is being really kind of widely documented right now, and there's lots of data, um, the, the UK being one of the most depressed countries in the world.

Bryony Ella: And it's a real call for the access to nature and greater access to nature in order to heal both of those challenges. And so that's out now. And if you want to listen to it on. As an audio book, actually one of the women that's featured in The Colour of Transformation narrates that Nadia Sheikh. So that's one way.

Bryony Ella: And I guess, you know, if you wanted to connect with me, I'm on Instagram at Studio Bryony Ella. And I have [01:01:00] a sub stack in which I am exploring embodied ecology, which is just called Embodied Ecology. So search that up and join in the conversation there.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: Thank you so much, Bryony. Thank you for this conversation.

Marion Atieno Osieyo: Thank you so much for joining us on today's episode. We'd love to stay connected with you. You can subscribe to Black Earth Podcast wherever you listen to your favorite podcast. And you can also connect with us on Instagram, LinkedIn, and TikTok at Black Earth Podcast. See you in the next episode.

Creators and Guests

Marion Atieno Osieyo
Marion Atieno Osieyo
Creator and Host of Black Earth Podcast
Season 3: How art can transform our relationship with nature with Bryony Ella
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