August 8, 2019 – November 3, 2019

Opening Reception: Thursday, August 8, 2019 at 6:00 PM. Free and open to the public. RSVP required.

Plant Medicine: Multi-Species Wellness in a Global City

How do migratory human and non-human beings learn to grow and flourish in a city of steel and glass? Through the lens of plants, this exhibition explores the connections between nature, health and growing roots. On the Northside, newly arrived refugees bring their practical knowledge, plants and aesthetic dispositions to gardens. It’s there that they create familiar smells, textures and ways of interacting as communities. They work through traumas of displacement, pass on traditional knowledge to children born in exile and sell their produce at the farmers market. On the near Westside, Latino gardeners plant prairie flowers on a remediated brown-site.  They tend to Monarch butterfly chrysalis in order to maximize the chances of emergence and trans-migration to Mexico. On the Southside, a neighborhood ravaged by redlining, out-migration and school closures hopes to remake itself as the city’s food garden, and a growing network of gardeners and farmers hope to become economically viable producers. In ethnic pharmacies around the city, plant-based medicines connect Chicagoans to alternative ways of thinking about health and disease. All throughout the city, people otherwise dislodged or in flux—because of changing health, ability, neighborhood or family situation—turn to plants and planting to sow new roots.

More about the Project:

Chicago is celebrated as an urb in hortis (city in the garden) because of its extensive and innovative landscape. Discussions of its parks and greenways often focus on the professionals and philanthropists who realized these beautiful projects. Indeed, environmentalism and the appreciation of nature are often assumed to be the purview of the upper classes. We are interested in the modest and everyday ways that working-class people engage with and make places for nature in the city. Our project is a multi-disciplinary collaboration; it brings together environmental anthropologists who study conservation in rural Latin America and the US, an ethnobotanist who looks at the medicinal uses of plants, biologists who counts birds and track wild bee species, and an ethnographic photographer. We are interested in the ecologies that gardeners create, the social and political lives they build and the stories that they tell. Our project is framed in environmental humanities scholarship that pays attention to the affective or emotional relationships among people, plants and animals; and that understands our sense of place and belonging to be connected to familiar species, landscapes, customary practice and all our usual smells, sounds and climes. We explore the ways that connections to plants, animals and each other promote health and wellbeing in the city.

We are:

Dr. Molly Doane is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Dr. Joanna Michel is the Director for the Urban Medicine Program at the UIC College of Medicine, Clinical Assistant Professor in Medical Education and Affiliate Professor in the School of Public Health.
Dr. Alaka Wali is curator of North American Anthropology in the Science and Education Division of The Field Museum.
Paul Bick is a freelance ethnographic photographer.
Haley LeRand is a Research Assistant on the project and graduated with a BA in Psychology from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Emily Tarrant is a Research Assistant on the project and graduated with a BA in Anthropology from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Hanwen Zhang is a Research Assistant on the project and graduated with a BA in Anthropology from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Project Background: In 2010, Dr. Alaka Wali, the curator of North American Anthropology at The Field Museum, convened a symposium to consider the potential and methodologies for establishing an Urban Contemporary Collection at The Field Museum. The symposium resulted in a protocol for a holistic research project titled Urban Health and Well-Being, an effort to collect herbal products and document herbal remedies, traditional knowledge, and cultural practices surrounding how people achieve and define well-being and health in Chicago neighborhoods. The herbal collection currently stands at around 200 objects, and additional research and contextualization of the objects is ongoing. In the summer of 2015, the Urban Health and Well-Being project entered a new phase with research turning to personal interviews with Chicagoans about their ideas and practices of wellness.

In 2016, the project further expanded and partnered with a team of anthropologists and biologists from the University of Illinois at Chicago to look at community gardens and their impact on wellness in different communities in Chicago. For this aspect of the project, we are looking  at gardens in mostly lower-income, immigrant, or refugee communities to learn more about how gardening impacts people living with fear of gentrification, land insecurity, and living within food deserts, just to name a few scenarios. To learn more about the biological impacts of community gardens, check out this site. If you would like to learn more about the work that has gone into the Urban Health and Well-Being project, check out the Behind the Scenes page.

Thank you to our sponsors:

John and Daphne Cunningham

The Ajana Foundation

This project is partially supported by a CityArts Grant from the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs & Special Events.

This program is partially supported by a grant from the Illinois Arts Council Agency.