Nothing Comes without its World – Shimmering stories of human and more-than-human kinship

By Dylan McGarry

In May 2024 the One Ocean Hub team held their closing conference in Cape Town, and as one of the co-founders of the Hub it was a special privilege for me to invite the incredible Hub community to visit and participate in the opening of a new exhibition I curated, drawing deeply from our research and learnings with Ocean communities. Particularly exploring what might reparative ocean conservation look and feel like, and how might developing a multi-species ethics of care aid this work.

Sea turtles are among the oldest creatures on earth and have remained essentially unchanged for 110 million years. In that time, they have witnessed two major extinction level events: Triassic-Jurassic and the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction, with localised and smaller-scale extinctions happening in that time due to environmental changes, such as climatic shifts, volcanic activity, and asteroid impacts (Feulner, 2023). This is not their first rodeo, yet it seems this current extinction level event, caused by the legacies of colonialism, capitalism and its latest incarnation of Neoliberalism, may challenge the Sea turtle like no apocalypse has done before. Yet the turtle does not survive mass extinctions all on its own, long gone are the old patriarchal ideas of the single and solo hero.

art by johan styn

Ursula Le Guin (2019) challenges the traditional solo hero narrative, and reminds us that that hero was carried, cared for, held and nurtured as a baby, long before his heroics, prefacing collaboration and community – not individual heroism. We survive with the company and help of others. While Sea turtles live a mostly solitary life navigating our ocean, they do have a complex and rich ecological ‘social life’. As Donna Haraway (2018) famously quoted, “Nothing comes without its world”, and so too, the Sea Turtles are held and suspended in rich and complex ecological worlds, worlds that expand into our socio-cultural and political world.

In recent years, Cape Town/Camissa has witnessed a growing concerning phenomenon as sea turtles have been washing up on its shores. Loggerhead turtles for example, usually hatch on beaches in Northern KwaZulu-Natal near Kosi Bay and the iSimangaliso Wetland World Heritage Site, and are carried south by the Agulhas current. Some of these hatchlings wash up on the beaches around the Western Cape due to injury, hyperthermia, and dehydration. We are not entirely sure why young turtles are washing up at higher rates than previously recorded, though there are many theories, and some phenologists are reporting animals and plants falling out of seasonal sync with each other due to climate change and seasonal currents being out of whack due to warming oceans and confused weather.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has acknowledged phenology, the scientific study of life-cycle timing, as a crucial climate change indicator bridging climate and biodiversity issues (Hoegh-Guldberg, 2018). Despite phenology’s growing significance in climate science, the arts and humanities have not extensively explored it, typically focusing on temporal concepts like deep time and the Anthropocene (the current geological epoch, characterised by significant human influence on Earth’s geology and ecosystems) to understand global changes (Bastian, & Hawitt, 2023). For the turtles, it may mean that mothers laying eggs and babies hatching are getting the wrong seasonal cues, and arriving in cold waters too soon.

Turtles understand homeland, they understand birthplace and origin stories. They always return to their place where they hatched. This phenomenon is known as ‘natal homing’. Yet the place where turtles hatch, the stretch of coastline in Northern Kwa-Zulu Natal that touches Mozambique, is haunted. This haunting and dispossession of Tsonga and Zulu communities in northern Kwa-Zulu Natal, particularly around the iSimangaliso Park, reveal a grim history of Settler colonialism. The fact remains, in South Africa there is a systematic conflation between colonialism and conservation (Mbatha, 2022; Whittingham and McGarry, 2024). This legacy of fortress conservation which forcibly removed Indigenous People from their ancestral lands to create protected areas, often to facilitate mining or tourism, is commonplace wherever you look along that coastline. These actions led to the erasure of rich inseparable customary lores/laws that recognised the relationship between nature and humans. The cultural genocide perpetrated by colonial forces severed the deep connections these communities held with their ecosystems, leaving a haunting legacy of dispossession and ecological disruption.

artwork by dylan mcgarry

Today, if a Sangoma or iNyanga (traditional healer/herbalist/diviner) wants to go to practice rituals and make libations to their ancestors at the sea, or if a family wants to visit a grave of their loved ones in their previous ancestral land now fenced off in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, they are chaperoned by park rangers, armed with semi-automatic rifles. The region is still grappling with this legacy, and there is an urgent need to respond with imaginative leaps, empathetic arrangements, generosity, and the commitment to build new social tissue between conservation and culture, which colonialism and outdated scientific dogma have poisoned Ubuntu-based relational care. The collaborative series of sculptures I co-created with the Sodwana Bay Woodcarvers explores this question of whose worlds get to accompany the world of conservation today in South Africa, who gets to practice natal-homing and who does not? These are contradictions of light and dark, the high and low tide, that we are having to navigate. How do we not drown in the contradictions of conservation care for turtles and care for the justice of South Africans?

In this exhibition we borrow the concept of “Shimmer” which we learned from Deborah Bird Rose (2021) who was an Australian anthropologist and environmental humanities philosopher known for her work on the Australian aboriginal wisdoms of how to understand humans, animals, ecological entanglements. “Shimmer,” as they explain, speaks of the interconnectedness and the complex, dynamic, shimmering nature of the world. The idea of “shimmer” goes beyond traditional Western dualisms that separate humans from nature, or culture from ecology, politics from turtles. Instead, she suggests that everything in the natural world is in a state of constant transformation and interplay. “Shimmer” represents the fluid and ever-changing relationships between humans, animals, and the environment. It acknowledges that these relationships are not static or fixed but are characterised by movement, indeterminacy, and unpredictability. Rose’s concept of “shimmer” emphasises the need to recognise and respect the interconnectedness of all life forms, human and non-human alike. It challenges the conventional boundaries and hierarchies that have often characterised Western views of the environment, advocating for a more inclusive and holistic understanding of our place within the natural world.

​​We cannot look away from the many controversies surrounding conservation and its impact on land, access and inclusion/exclusion here in South Africa. Not just here, but in many colonised global south countries as well. Conservation is inherently bound up with this history of colonisation, with the ongoing mistrust of the government, especially parastatals and conservation agencies mandated to enforce conservation law, designed often without local people, drawing often solely on biodiversity science. As such, conservation is bound up in colonial hauntings and contemporary inequalities as the work of Peers, Magmoet, Kwaai, Martin, Droomer, and my own work in this exhibition carefully surface. Yet conservation is also led by radical acts of care and hospitality – of wonder and love for the ocean, which we see in the Care(ful) comrades photographic series of Blake, Oelofse, Trull, Specker, Du Toit and others. We witness this also in the whimsical sculptures of Rorich and Steyn. These are not opposing acts, but embodying real truth and reconciliation around the history of conservation, and learning new pedagogies of care in current conservation – there is a space we can occupy, commit to difficult conversations in. Sometimes, it requires allowing the camera to be turned by the more-than-human themselves, as in Foster’s work – where he holds himself up to scrutiny from both octopus and human.

When governments abuse their right to intervene in local people’s lives, using outdated mandates to manage the landscape or coastline (created during the apartheid era), we see colonialism play out yet again, through ‘righteous’ conservation efforts, which can be justified ecologically, but come with massive social and cultural costs – and dangerous privileged irresponsibility (Tronto, 2012), that being how privileged groups can often excuse themselves from care responsibilities. This irresponsibility still remains in texts, curricula, pedagogies and cultures in which we train young aspiring marine scientists and oceanic fields. An expansive, iterative and politically rigorous approach is needed to take us beyond purely ‘academically’ rigorous marine research. We can no longer make excuses or claims for ‘objectivity’ as marine scientists, when our science causes harm to other humans, and maintains immoral legacies of power and privilege. Thinking with this complexity, as we have done with all the artists in this exhibition, opens up this question of what do we hold on to and what do we allow to slip away? What must we remember? Layering stories like sediment as Martin, Peers and Kwaai do in their work? What tessellations and relationships and new boundaries (both sovereign and connected) might we forge as Droomer and Poole delicately piece together?  And how do we take up those challenges in the context of ongoing extinction and also ongoing colonisation, epistemicide, ecocide, and genocide?

To borrow Thom Van Dooren’s (2019) thinking here, what does conservation as a multifaceted, always compromised work of inheritance look like? This exhibition is a kind of Ocean Humanities field philosophy approach to answering that question, or at least dwelling and living with it, in all its shimmering forms. How might thinking with other philosophers, small-scale fishers, scientists, children, sangomas, customary rights holders, educators, ghosts, turtles, swimmers, plastic, surfers, and their worlds, help us be more true to a multispecies kin-making ethics – how could this shape our approach to conservation here and now in the thick present? The “thick present” refers to a recognition of the complexities and interconnectedness of past, present, and future, something many of the artists achieve in this exhibition, revealing the entangled nature of time and the importance of considering multiple temporalities in understanding our world today. Especially on the cusp of building a new wildlife marine conservation centre and hospital? Is this a hospital for turtles only? Or is it also a hospital for the turtle’s worlds as well?

What I aimed to explore in this exhibition as a curator is to collaborate and engage with and re-imagine the human/justice shapes of the big questions about conservation, and to do this with other animals, and other ways of knowing, being and doing. To explore care, multispecies ethics and seeing justice as an ongoing iterative project (a justice-to-come), that includes conservation care workers as much as it includes sociologists, activists, and scholar activists. As a recovering marine scientist myself, I long and yearn to expand beyond the hegemony and tyranny of ecological and biodiversity sciences’ role in shaping our conservation practice.

I believe a cultural and artistic engagement is so desperately needed because these things take place in the vicinity of humans, and it is some humans, mostly those in charge of corporations, who are hierarchically placed humans, with many blind spots, much privileged irresponsibility. Humans and their systems who have all the power in these situations, not the turtles, not the kelp, not small-scale fishers or customary fishing rights holders – most of which are trying to survive an economic and political class war, and the devastating forces of neoliberalism.

‘The Mother Hydro-rug’
Artwork: Aaniyah Martin
Photograph: Clair Thomas

For many marginalised and previously displaced communities through colonially rationalised conservation, ‘protecting the turtle’ can be seen and felt as a Trojan horse whose conservation facilitates further loss of land and rights. As such, biodiversity inheritances and heritages cannot be valued and cherished in the same way as conservationists (at least how we have trained them up until now), as they are weighted symbols and powerful material enablers of a broader colonising process, a broader fracturing of community and ubuntu.

So here, in this space, in these stories and images, and digital pedagogical experiments – we spend time attending to and living in/with the shimmer of responses to the Anthropocene, to reparative conservation, care, and multispecies ethics.

This exhibition is also a pilot exploration into what an Ocean Humanities research and meaning-making community could look like in the Two Oceans Aquarium Foundation, where the humanities claim their space in the Marine Research territory, and insist that the ways in which human lives have been included within environmental policy, decision-making, education, economics and politics require a significant reworking. Approaches that have drawn in large part on marine science, economics and cognitive psychology, which have often wrongly depicted people as rational decision makers whose attitudes, behaviours, and choices might be moderated effectively through education campaigns and market mechanisms like green taxes (van Dooren, 2019). If we are to see only marine science and out-dated cognitive psychology approaches premised on ‘behaviour change’ models, continue to inform our education in Aquariums and marine centres, in school curriculum and in popular media, our approach to Ocean Literacy will continue to silence and displace other ways of knowing the ocean. We will only see a rise in climate anxiety and mis-placing of responsibility of the crises on individuals – on young people, and not the systematic dysfunction that is really causing much of the ecological collapse we are seeing in the ocean today.

In this exhibition I have tried to move beyond this somewhat simplistic approach of seeing visitors to the aquarium and those visiting the future Turtle Conservation centre as decision-makers leaving more ‘ocean literate’, but expanding our understanding of people and how they live in and with the ocean, and honouring and acknowledging their existing ocean fluency.  This exhibition hopes that visitors who enter and witness its stories, enter into a deeper dialogue about what kind of marine care is possible, how we can expand conservation practices that have the potential to shimmer, in both light and shadow.

We aim to create a new living ocean archive that is in service of the thick present, and all its shimmering wonder and pain.

The exhibition is hosted by Cloudigital Art, at the Foundry in De Waterkant, Cape Town, till the 30th August 2024.  Cloudigital Art is rethinking how to finance social and ecological movements, by putting artists and cultural practitioners in the driver’s seat. Through digitising artwork, and tokenising their work – Cloudigital supports artists in utilising the power of block chain and digital currencies to claim back the ways in which they finance the projects and people who are making the world a better place. Part of the proceeds from the sales of artwork will go to the Mbazwana Arts Centre – a community centre supporting local creative youth in the regions surrounding Isimangaliso National Wetland Park, right where the turtles hatch.

Ground Floor The Old Foundry 74 Cardiff Street, De Waterkant, Cape Town