Oryza glaberrima is the scientific name for African rice, following the standard Latin two-part naming system (binomial nomenclature) introduced by the Swede, Carl Linnaeus, in the 18th century. Classification became crucial in the 18th century as a means of organising the huge influx of unfamiliar plants, goods and information that flooded Europe as a result of Western exploration and colonisation.
The visualization of classification became an important tool for identifying plants and objects in the 18th century. Gissis documents the evolution of ‘nature’ illustration from the first quarter of the century: botanical imagery firstly depicted plants in their environment, but gradually, as the search for commonalities increased, the plants became divorced from their settings and were shown in abstracted grid-based isolation with parts analysed and compared in detail. As European colonisation intensified along with the quest for universal natural laws, these depictions spread to human subjects, where a similarly invasive scrutiny was influenced by prevailing societal attitudes, contemporaneous travelogues and European imperial power[i]. Like the plants, human beings were shown in isolation without cultural and geographic references, and held up in comparison to the perceived civility of the cultured European. The Age of Reason was also the age of slavery, but Gissis notes that even towards the end of the century, when political conflict raged over the issue of abolition, blacks were still accorded an extremely low position in classifications of ‘human varieties’[ii]. He notes that the issue of colour in hierarchical classification was particularly significant in the New World and in countries which depended on slavery for economic reasons[iii].
Rice cultivation in West Africa dates back 4,500 years[iv], and there are numerous 15th century Portuguese accounts of West African coastal rice production[v]. Cultivation required expert knowledge of both floodplain and irrigated systems, processing and preparation. Carney notes that ‘women played a crucial role in African rice culture regardless of the system’[vi]. Rice was a woman’s crop: women tilled the ground, sowed the seeds, transplanted, weeded, harvested, pounded and cooked the rice.
African rice came into the Americas via the Middle Passage; it was one of the primary foods by which slave traders fed thousands of West African slaves on the journey across the Atlantic; Carney records the onboard milling of African rice by female slaves using a traditional mortar and pestle[vii]. She also mentions numerous South American maroon legends which claim that female slaves hid grains of seed rice in their hair. A South Carolinian colonial account also exists: Jean Watt, a Swiss correspondent, in 1726 noted that ‘it was by a woman that rice was transplanted into Carolina’[viii]. Hiding seed rice was a survival mechanism; it provided some opportunity for slaves to control their own preferred food supply at their destination. However left-over ship provisions and subsistence slave gardens may also have provided the catalyst for plantation crops. Several colonial accounts mention the deliberate cultivation of a red rice which Carney suggests is the African glaberrima[ix]. In addition there are records of specific requests by planters for slaves who had knowledge of rice cultivation.
African rice was not classified until 1855[x], and even then the adaptation of rice to New World conditions continued to be attributed to European ingenuity, featuring the Asian species, Oryza sativa, which Linnaeus had classified in 1723. While evidence does suggest the cultivation of red rice for export in the 17th and 18th centuries in the American colonies, acknowledgement of those who held specialist skills associated with rice was absent; the prejudices of classification separated the plant from the African knowledge system, rendering the people and their culture invisible. Like botanical illustration of the time, it was a literal disconnection of the plant from its environment, or, more poignantly, a disconnection of the people from an essential aspect of their culture.
It is only in recent decades that research has presented an alternative history, recognizing the crucial role of African slaves, particularly women, for the contribution of Oryza glaberrima and rice cultivation knowledge systems to the Americas.
Cutting a linoblock is also a removal, and what is left only becomes apparent through the inking of the block: it is the action of inking that reveals what is there. Perhaps the deliberate obliteration of a history secures its existence, but it requires action to make it visible; with the passing of the inked roller, the woman’s face, haunted and defiant, appears as if from behind a veil. The digital image, originating from a photograph of the cut and partially inked block, records both the removal and the process of revelation. The actual linoblock, therefore, originally chosen to mimic the effects of an 18th century wood engraving, becomes symbolic of the vicissitudes of history; they are embedded in the nature of the material.
This work continues the theme of concealment begun with the Architecture of the South series.
[i] Gissis, S. B., Visualising ‘Race’ in the Eighteenth Century, Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences, Vol 41, No 1, (Winter 2011), pp 41 – 103.
[ii] Gissis, S.B., p 42.
[iv] Carney, J., With Grains in Her Hair: Rice in Colonial Brazil, Slavery & Abolition, Vo. 25, No. 1, (April 2004), p3.
[v] Carney, J., 2001, Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas, pp 13 – 25.
[vi] Carney, J., 2001, Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas, p 27.
[vii] Carney, J., ‘With Grains in Her Hair’: Rice in Colonial Brazil, Slavery & Abolition, Vol 25, No. 1, (April 2004), pp 1 – 27.
[ix] Carney, J., 2001, Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas, p 144.
[x] Agnoun Y., Biaou, S.S.H., Sié,M., R. S. Vodouhè, R.S., & Ahanchédé, A., The African Rice Oryza glaberrim Steud: Knowledge Distribution and Prospects, International Journal of Biology; Vol. 4, No. 3; 2012, published by Canadian Center of Science and Education, p 159.