Indigenous Species is narrated by an abducted young woman taken on a riverboat. Amongst what we glean of her, we know she is indigenous to Indonesia, a vastly diverse country with hundreds of languages and cultures, but altogether being decimated environmentally. Anger, resistance, and mourning are voiced by the anonymous narrator, along with the urge to protect nature and cultures, and this is deeply intertwined with the power she is denied and trying to reclaim as a captive.
Indigenous Species shows that feminisms are not equal--the lipstick in Iowa made of Indonesian rainforest, on one page, shows how femininity and women's empowerment in one part of the world often comes unthinkingly at great cost to women elsewhere, and how the global supply chain encourages this lack of awareness. As an art book, further, it shows that sighted feminisms in particular are privileged over non-sighted feminisms, as the absence of Braille is noted on every left-hand page, with the word “Braille” in that language. Indeed, calling one version of the book—the one without Braille—“the sighted version” was very intentional, as we sighted people so rarely recognise ourselves as such.
I’d like to think the book also subtly questions what "indigenous feminisms" mean, focussing not on labels but on the affective experience of emotional response to environmental loss, and the ability for that emotion to contain within it any number of feminisms (always plural). What makes someone “indigenous”? In what contexts do we use the word—in Britain, is it used to exclude “migrant women” and refugees from the right to human dignity? Is it used to denote “native” in a way that’s derogatory? Is it all about how you feel about where you come from, and the different meanings of “coming from” a place?
The journey of Indigenous Species’ narrator, on a river, parallels the existential crises we all face as humans living in the anthropocene, where the very survival of our planet and our species is under threat from climate change, and we are all on a river we didn’t sign up for, hoping for an ending that provides a landing place for future generations. Amidst all this, women, LGBTQI, religious minorities and other communities, especially from the Global South, are trying to emphasise that no one can say they are speaking on behalf of us as “voiceless”—we have always existed and always stated our claims. The issue is who gets a platform in the fight for gender parity as indelibly linked to environmental survival. The decimation of women’s lands and indigenous women’s knowledge matters, and it’s a crisis with many struggling to protect rainforests, coral reefs, and innumerable habitats for humanity’s sake. When countless natural medicines from the rainforests are decimated, destroying the possibility of widespread cures for illness, it is humanity's crisis. When mines cause widespread mercury poisoning, affecting communities across riverine lands, it’s humanity’s crisis. When girls can’t go to school because of forest fire haze, that killed over 100,000 people in Indonesia alone last year, it is humanity’s crisis.
In my writing and artwork, I tend to mess with the notion of endings. Once asked, ”Why do the women in your stories always have happy endings?”, I’ve wondered if isn't it more realistic to portray brutal ends, society as it is for women, society as it ends women’s narratives prematurely and often violently. For years, I’ve been grappling with this notion of “escape”, of feminist narratives where safety ends up uncertain, or taken away. We can’t escape what’s happening to our one and only planet. We need to build narratives and a sense of urgency, to recognise that we too are on a river, that there is a dire need to preserve indigenous knowledge systems and ecosystems, and that as with the heroine on a precarious boat, it is up to us to save ourselves.
by Khairani Barokka