Artist Patricia Domínguez was born in Santiago (Chile 1984) and lives and works in Puchuncaví. Domínguez draws upon myths, symbols, rituals and healing practices, combining artistic imagination with experimental research on ethnobotany.
The Art Of Ethnopharmacology
Ethnobotany is the study of the ways in which people from particular areas or cultures use indigenous plants, in the context of healing practices and the commercialisation of wellbeing.
In her work Rooted Beings: The Vegetal Matrix, Patricia uses the South American and European collections from the Royal Botanic Gardens and Wellcome Collection to explore narratives around colonial and neo-colonial violence, and to honour indigenous knowledge on healing and nurturing the living world.
This work focused on 4 select specimens: Brugmansia (a nightshade also known as Angel’s Trumpet), Banisteriopsis caapi (also known as soul vine and used in the visionary yagé or ayahuasca ritual), Cinchona, and the Mandrake. Material related to each plant was displayed within futuristic totems, with the central one honouring pre-Colombian symbolic, spiritual knowledge and vision.
In connect me with all the women of the earth (2021), strings are used to uproot the Mandrake plant. This is because the plant’s toxicity can be absorbed through the skin, and it was once believed that it could kill whoever plucked it from the soil. It is now thought that European witches popularised this legend in an attempt to prevent it from being stolen by illicit vendors.
The mandrake is said to embody the anthropocentric and binary categories imposed on the natural world by today’s scientific frameworks – alongside the erasure and persecution of native healing practices. Mandrake (Mandragora) have been known throughout Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa since ancient times and are a member of the Solanaceae (tomato) family.
The plant has sedative and anaesthetic properties and was traditionally used by medicine women to improve fertility and ease childbirth – practices that were historically deemed witchcraft. Mandrake are rich in alkaloids such as hyoscyamine, and at certain levels these can be toxic and induce hallucinations. During the medieval period, traditional knowledge of the plant was suppressed and condemned as demonic by the Church.
Due to the similarity of the mandrake’s roots to the human body, the plant was arbitrarily gendered according to the binary terms (male/female) that dominate natural history. However, many plants are hermaphrodites with both staminate (‘male’, pollen-producing) and carpellate (‘female’, ovule-producing) parts. Some can change from masculine to feminine and vice versa, while others reproduce asexually.
The anthropomorphic shape of its roots has since propelled it into European myth. According to the theory of the ‘doctrine of signatures’, it was believed that plants resembled the areas of the body that they were designed to benefit (for example, walnuts and brain health). Such ideas persisted throughout medieval times, when the roots were carved into charms or amulets emulating human figures, and carried as treasured totems.
In the 16th century, with the advent of more scientific approaches, herbalists began to question the superstitions associated with the Mandrake. Systema Naturae (1735), by the Swedish Botanist, Zoologist and Physician Carl Linnaeus, marked the start of an empirical ethnobotany, but still carried arbitrary aspects. For example Linnaeus’ system of plant classification was based on the notion of ‘marriage’, with floral parts functioning as husbands and wives performing ‘coitus of vegetables’.
Reorder my hologram in its best version (2021). Ayahuasca or yagé is a potent, hallucinogenic brew used by indigenous and mestizo cultures in South America for millennia. It connects them with a spiritual plane of existence, cures illness, and facilitates communion with nature. Due to these astounding properties and experiences, Ayahuasca has been increasingly commodified by Western cultures, and in many such cases it is cut off from its holistic, indigenous worldviews and cultural context.
‘Ayahuasca’ is the Quechua name for a concoction of Banisteriopsis caapi, with Morton vines and leaves from the Psychotria viridis. The former contains an inhibitor that allows humans to fully digest the psychedelic compound contained in the latter. This brew produces powerful alterations in consciousness, and in some instances, a dissolution of the sense of a distinct ‘self’.
Thousands of Europeans and North Americans flock to South America every year in search of an authentic ayahuasca ritual experience. While this ‘spiritual tourism’ yields large profits and boosts local economies, it is not without insidious neo-colonial consequences.
Many of the retreats are owned by outsiders, leading to a 300% rise in the cost of ayahuasca for locals over the last decade. This has limited their access to a pillar of their cultural heritage. Lodges look to hire indigenous healers, but in doing so they leave their rural areas, which in turn creates gaps in the networks of traditional Amazonian healthcare.
The active component of ayahuasca is dimethyltryptamine (DMT) – a strong, hallucinogenic alkaloid. One of the first European ethnobotanical accounts of ayahuasca was from British botanist Richard Spruce in 1874: On Remarkable Narcotics of the Amazon Valley and Orinoco.
Indigenous cultures do not all brew ayahuasca in the same way, and some mix it with additional hallucinogens such as Brugmansia. However, it is generally used to resolve physical and mental ailments, to bond socially, or to learn more about nature and the spirits within it. The ceremony is often led by an experienced healer, who undertakes vision quests to attain such knowledge.
“I have been exploring the symbolic and spiritual ethnobotanical relationships between Pre-Columbian and South American thought and the living world. Here, plants have been allies in co-creating the myths around our ancient quests for vision. Humans have dwelled for centuries in the Vegetal Matrix, and in collaboration with this non-human world, have attained information to broaden our consciousness, and reconnect with planetary memory. There is an alignment that comes from conceiving of plants as companions: organic technologies that connect us with natural intelligence and forms; They have provided us with multispecies inter-connection. In these rituals, Cacti are allies, trees are Axis Mundis to other dimensions, mother-trees nurture the dead before they reincarnate, and ‘tonalli’ are energies that fluctuate within each month of the Aztec Calendar. In this paradigm, there is no room for unsustainable living on Earth, such as the practices that reduce living beings to commodities for financial gain.” – Patricia Domínguez
A witch doctor of Araucania: Machi medicine woman. A female ‘Machi’ stands on a ‘rewe’, a seven-stepped pillared altar used by the Mapuche, indigenous inhabitants of south-central Chile and southwestern Argentina. Machis are healers and religious leaders who possess detailed knowledge of medicinal herbs and remedies. A rewe is the Mapuche representation of the ‘Axis Mundis’ or cosmic tree, which connects a Machi to the Earth’s celestial poles and allows them to gather allied spirits and information for healing.
Connect me to the thread of the living (2021). Brugmansia and the closely related Datura species (from the tomato family) bear beautiful trumpets of scented and hallucinogenic flowers – which have been used both for healing in the hands of shamans, and for damaging illegal activities in the hands of criminals.
Brugmansia are known as the ‘white angels trumpet’ in English due to the shape of their creamy white flowers; they are also known as ‘toé’ or ‘floripondio’ in the Peruvian Amazon and as ‘Borrachero’ in Colombia. Angel’s trumpets are one of the most potent hallucinogens in the plant kingdom, and are prized for their psychoactive properties when harnessed by experienced medicine men and women.
However, rich in scopolamine (hyoscine), hyoscyamine and several other tropane alkaloids, all parts of the Brugmansia plant are potentially poisonous and can lead to delirium and blocked neural transmission. In the wrong hands, extracted scopolamine has sadly become a dangerous tool for robberies, kidnappings, and sexual assault. In Peru, intoxicating a person against their will is known as ‘chamicado’, meaning ‘touched by the angel’s trumpet’.
As early as the ancient Mexican Olmec era (1600 – 350 BCE) the Brugmansia and Datura species were used in communion, divination rituals, and for understanding adverse events or illness. Being especially rich in alkaloids, the seeds and leaves were often mixed with water for analgesic effects.
Fast forward to 1529 and the arrival of Franciscan missionary, friar Bernardino de Sahagún marked the start of the early stages of the Catholic evangelisation of Mexico. While shamanic uses of the plant were widely persecuted by the Spanish, other plants were given central roles in the colonial system – as commodities, such as coco and tobacco.
Chibcha-speaking Guambianos refer to the Brugmansia as ‘yas’. In local mythology it is associated with a large bird on top of a tree. The bird is said to be a symbol of evil and sorcery, which would punish people if they uprooted all the plants when making their fields, ensuring that at least 1 plant should be left for seed.
Make me sensitive to mountains like Manuel (2021). The transactions of the Cinchona seed between the indigenous of South America and the colonisers of the 17th and 19th centuries continues to highlight the current exploitation of both nature and people.
Cinchona is the genus of a group of large evergreen trees native to South America. And its orange bark is the source of the bitter anti-malarial quinine alkaloids. Quinine was central to the control and expansion of the European empire, as it protected the labourers and soldiers against local disease.
It is unclear exactly how these properties were discovered, as the most virulent form of malaria in South America arrived with the Spanish. But it’s likely that skilled indigenous healers with innate botanical knowledge initially concocted it to protect and heal their communities.
The first few botanical expeditions from Western Europe criss-crossed South America and the Caribbean in an ambitious project to survey the local flora. The British and Dutch appropriated seeds and saplings from South America in the 1860s to establish plantations in India and Indonesia for the mass production of antimalarial drugs. However the erasure of natural forests for large quinine-producing monocultures, and the use of indentured labourers caused heavy environmental and social impacts.
Mamani is a well-known name in quinine’s history. Bolivian native Manuel Incra Mamani could tell which trees contained the highest amount of quinine by sight alone – acknowledging their position in relation to the Andes. Because of this skill, in 1865 he was commissioned by the English trader Charles Ledger to collect Cinchona seeds from Bolivia for the British. Tragically, Mamani was eventually arrested and beaten to death by local Bolivian police for his involvement.
Mamani’s seeds contained the highest amount of quinine of all the cinchona transplanted by Europeans in the 19th century. Seed sold to the Dutch gave rise to an enormous industry based in Java, and trees grown from Mamani’s seeds (C. ledgeriana and C. calisaya) were subsequently grafted onto the hardier C. succirubra, to create a tree that eventually enabled the Dutch control over 80% of global quinine exports.
German polymath Alexander von Humboldt was one of the first scientists to record how harmful colonial monoculture plantations were, citing their disastrous environmental effects on the local landscape. He took an expedition to the Andes with French explorer and botanist Aimé Bonpland between 1799 and 1804, and his privileged position as a wealthy Baron meant that he could publish his theories widely. However, a great deal of this knowledge was harvested from the locals of the land.
As the current environmental crisis exposes the vital yet fragile connections between human and planetary health, the vegetal matrix exposes a lens that implores us to appreciate people and plants as so much more than resources for commercial consumption. As we rethink the significance of our places in this tangled web of life, Rooted Beings imparts the desire to embrace the grounded wildness that exists within our landscapes and hearts.