The ‘Tree of Life’ was one of the artworks on display at the Aratoi Museum of Art and History as part of ‘Family Tree Whakapapa’ exhibition. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

Erin Kavanagh-Hall

Whether they’re encroached upon by urban sprawl, regenerating after forest fires, standing tall after nuclear warfare, or nourishing one another through vast networks of roots: trees have important lessons to impart to humanity.

This is the message of Family Tree Whakapapa – a travelling exhibition of more than 70 artworks by Carterton artist and writer Madeleine Slavick and three of her four sisters, based in their native United States.

Family Tree Whakapapa first opened in Wairarapa at Aratoi Museum of Art and History in December, and is now on its second leg – opening at the Wallace Art Centre in Auckland last month.

In Family Tree Whakapapa, Madeleine and her sisters – Susanne Slavick [based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania], Sarah Slavick [Boston, Massachusetts] and elin o’Hara slavick [Chapel Hill, North Carolina] – make critical commentary about environmental degradation and the disregard of nature in pursuit of profit.

Through paintings, photographs and poetry, the Slavick siblings pay tribute to trees as both casualties and survivors of human-inflicted destruction.

Madeleine says the exhibition was, in part, inspired by 1995 poem What Kind of Times Are These by American feminist writer Adrienne Rich – a reply to a 1940 poem by Bertolt Brecht, which theorised it was “almost a crime” to talk about trees in a time of “so many horrors”.

Rich’s poem answers: “so why do I tell you/anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these/to have you listen at all, it’s necessary/to talk about trees.”

Madeleine says she is hopeful Family Tree Whakapapa will help people gain a deeper respect for the natural world.

“We have this idea of nature as this romantic backdrop that’s disconnected from humans, or being neutral and apolitical,” she says.

“In fact, power and politics are imprinted on our landscape. Nature has become another marginalised community.

“We wanted to offer a contemplative space where people can appreciate the beauty of the world and, hopefully, come up with solutions.”

Madeleine and her five siblings grew up in the US, where their artistic talents were nurtured by their parents, both educators, from a young age.

All five of the Slavick sisters pursued art as a career, going on to showcase their work throughout the US, Europe and Asia, curate exhibitions, teach art at university level, and be involved in community arts advocacy.

The sisters’ work often explores social justice –influenced by their father Bill, a “liberal Catholic” and peace activist, who ran for the US Senate in opposition to the Iraq War.

Madeleine, who has lived in New Zealand since 2012, has authored several books of photography, poetry and non-fiction.

Her body of work featured in Family Tree Whakapapa is focused on trees and greenery in urban landscapes – which are obscured and forgotten as the concrete jungles stretch and inflate into natural spaces.

This theme is explored in her adopted home of Wairarapa, immortalising natural phenomena which, sadly, became invisible due to “progress”.

Her photographs capture, for example, two cypress trees in the parking lot by Bin Inn in Masterton, which have since been felled; a creeping vine on a wall in Carterton now blocked by a new building development; and a tree near the Kuripuni roundabout, now concealed by a fire alert.

“The trees are there one moment – and gone the next.

“In urban development, trees don’t fit in with our priorities. Trees are marginalised, contained, and lessened.”

Elin’s body of work is a collection of photographs taken over eight trips to Japan, capturing the trees that survived the World War II atomic bombing and the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.

Her photographs were solarised in the dark room – a process of re-exposing the photographic paper to light – to represent the flash of the A-Bomb.

She also collected organic matter from surviving trees, and exposed them to the sun to create cyanotype photographs [stark white images on a cyan-blue background], again to capture the violence of light and heat from nuclear energy.

One of the most poignant images, she says, is a fruit tree near the Fukushima reactor.

“It’s beautiful – but its fruit is full of radiation and poison.

“It begs the question – why do we still have nuclear power?

“The trees represent the possibility of survival. It was very emotional being in their presence – I cried every time.”

Sarah’s body of work, “Elegy to the Underground”, also speaks to survival – inspired by the New York Times bestseller The Hidden Life Of Trees by German forester Peter Wohlleben.

In his book, Wohlleben describes the forest as “a social network; a world wide web”– trees communicate with by electrical signals through their roots and across latticed fungal systems, and use the same systems to feed, nurture and protect one another.

Sarah’s striking and expansive paintings, in oil, watercolour and ink, capture these networks, fusing together the concept of tree roots and human neural pathways.

“Trees have much to teach us,” Sarah says.

“They operate as a community and a co-operative – which is an amazing alternative to the individualistic, Darwinian, capitalist model we currently live under.”

Eldest sister Susanne Slavick’s body of work was inspired by the ancient craftmanship of Tree of Life carpets and rugs – featuring embroidered images of trees in minute detail.

Susanne sourced confronting images and forest degradation [including images of the 2019/20 Australian wildfires], and painted Tree of Life designs, in all their beautiful intricacy, over the top.

In the midst of destruction, the Tree of Life images offer “a modicum of hope” for regeneration and restitution.

“These trees do not lie down; instead, they stand up in persistence,” Susanne said.

“It’s a homage to the resilience of nature.”

  • Family Tree Whakapapa will run at the Wallace Art Centre until June 13.


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