Reading List

List Author

Rod Barnett

Washington University in St Louis

Decoloniality and the Limits to Landscape

This reading list can be considered a landscape architecture counterpart to Aneesha Dharwadker’s selection of texts on Anti-Colonial Architecture. It’s not as wide-ranging (since she has done that important work), though it does include some non-landscape selections. From where I sit, in Aotearoa New Zealand, there is palpable urgency for change and at the same time blindness to the type of change required in this country. It’s much the same elsewhere, I suspect. Decoloniality, along with the climate emergency, is now the critical — the central — issue for landscape architects; and as I argued in a recent essay for this journal, the connections between the two phenomena are becoming clearer all the time.

One of the tough things in coming to grips with decol is finding a position to occupy, when every position is problematic. No matter how hard you try, you seem always to land in some spot which, if fully revealed, would horrify you. And these days it’s not uncommon to find horror and delight in the same text, the same artwork, the same landscape; but the delight does not cancel out the horror. Perhaps this is the dark truth at the heart of Kurtz’s dying gasp, in Conrad’s tragedy of colonial Africa: that the other will never, ever be knowable.

Perhaps this is also the central thesis of anthropologist Scott Atran. Atran argues that the west will never win if it fights societies whose values are spiritual, non-negotiable, not exchangeable for material gain. He calls the people of these societies “devoted actors” in order to distinguish them from the “rational actors” that the west wants them to be. Devoted actors — and let us suppose for a moment that Indigenous peoples are devoted actors — cannot be “won over.” But he maintains the hope that there might yet be what he describes as an “equally inspiring alternative” to the “fused social networks” of non-western peoples. I do not share his hope. I think it’s a dream.

If you are one of the world’s 370 million Indigenous people, this reading list is not for you. If you are a speaker of one of the 4,000 Indigenous languages, this reading list is not for you. If you are a member of one of the 5,000 different Indigenous peoples spread across more than 90 countries, this reading list is not for you. To do something “for” you is to colonize you, again and again and again. How could I presume to compile a list of recommended readings for you? You have no need of our lists, our archives, our dynasties.

Even to put you and your work on this list seems weird. And I do mean WEIRD: western, educated, individualist, rich, democratic. I begin with an explorer (James Cook) and a poet (Tusiata Avia), and end with a cri de coeur (OPEN SYSTEMS). We move from Indigenous makers to hybrid reflectors, before circling back to making. I’ve selected thirteen pieces, seven of which are by people who identify as Māori, Iranian, Secwepemc. I’m pretty sure these writers, designers, and artists would resist the very term Indigenous. It takes the layers of complexity and the nuances of language and life that make each group different and packages them, homogenizing and flattening difference for purposes of  “information,” “communication,” and not least, that bête noir, “explanation.” (Excuse my French.)

While it is true that the pieces I have summoned here have helped me figure out some things about landscape — and that is the reason for this list — there is nothing more important than being in the landscape. All landscape architects know that you have to go “to site.” And that does not mean wandering around with an iPad.

  • Online

    The Journals of Captain James Cook

    Captain Cook Society

    From 15 February 1775: “... by twice visiting the Pacific Tropical Sea, I had not only settled the situation of some old discoveries but made there many new ones and left, I conceive, very little more to be done ...”

  • Online

    The Savage Coloniser Book

    Victoria University Press

    Hey James,
    yeah, you
    in the white wig
    in that big Endeavour
    sailing the blue, blue water
    like a big arsehole

  • Online

    Emissaries in Pursuit of Venus [Infected]

    In 1804, James Dufour used the latest printing techniques to depict a utopian Tahitian landscape peopled with imagined natives. He created "Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacific," a 20-panel scenic wallpaper that drew on the voyages of Captain Cook, Louis Antoine de Bougainville, and Jean-Francoise de Galaup, comte de la Pérouse. Two hundred and ten years later, Aotearoa artist Lisa Reihana developed a panoramic video that reformulates that wallpaper as a commentary on the actual experience of coloniality by Pacifika peoples. In a clear and precise (but more gentle and caring?) manner, it visualizes poet Tusiata Avia’s depiction of colonization as aesthetic and political, sexual and psychological, just as much as it was economic and social. And still is.

  • Online

    Haunting the West

    In 2017 my colleagues and I invited the Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz to speak to landscape architecture students at Washington University in St Louis. Rakowitz showed a recent work that is part of his ongoing project "The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist"; in this case, Lamassu, a winged bull with human features, created from 10,500 cans of Iraqi date syrup, and sited in Trafalgar Square, London, England — the heart of Empire, a short walk from the British Museum. Two years earlier, ISIS had destroyed the famous Lamassu at the gates of Nineveh, which dated from ca. 700 BCE. “Decolonization,” he says in a video about the sculpture, has got to be accompanied by “repair and accountability.” There is no "after" colonization.

  • pdf

    It Burns

    Counterfutures: Left thought & practice Aotearoa

    In “It Burns,” Cassandra Barnett (full disclosure: my daughter) examines the interplay between decol and the left. The article takes the form of a review of two exhibitions, one a group show of work influenced by the western tradition of magic, and the other, "Colonial Sugar," an installation by Australian South Sea Island artist Jasmine Togo-Brisby. Magic is imperialism avant la lettre — as is also, Barnett concludes, the politics of the left. Thus she prefigures an important conversation that landscape architects need to have and which, to my thinking, leads straight to Landscape Anarchism (which is a good thing).

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    Indigenous Curation and Changing the World Through Art

    Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society

    Landscape architecture can’t function as a form of social justice separate from community if it is to be decolonizing. Tania Willard, an artist and filmmaker, conceives of participation as a form of ceremony, “where something might work on you without you even knowing it.” All the artists involved in her traveling exhibition and website Beat Nation are doing this in diverse ways, and then — so importantly — also not doing it.

  • Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples


    An Indigenous researcher herself, Linda Tuhiwai Smith shows that the seemingly neutral term “research” is inextricably linked to European imperialism and colonialism. “The word itself, research," she writes, "is probably one of the dirtiest words in the indigenous world’s vocabulary.” Her book, a critique of dominant research methodologies, has become a classic in decolonial studies. I only came across it in 2020. Can’t believe I found it so late. I hope you know it. If not, here it is.

  • Whakarite Whakaaro, Whanake Whenua: Kaupapa Māori Decision-making Frameworks for Alternative Land Use Assessments

    Kia Whakanuia te Whenua: People, Place, Landscape

    Manaaki Whenua Landscape is the Crown Research Institute for the land, environment, and biodiversity of Aotearoa New Zealand. This article — a chapter in the book "Kia Whakanuia Te Whenua: People, Place, Landscape" — describes a Māori-led research methodology developed at the Institute, based on Māori concepts, values, and principles that enable “a holistic approach to land use decisions.” I include it because I find something troubling in it. Do you see that too?

  • Online

    Decolonizing political ecology: ontology, technology and "critical" enchantment

    Journal of Political Ecology

    Any field that studies the connections between ecosystem management and political/social structures has to draw the attention of environmental designers. Political ecology developed at first slowly, in the 1970s, and then rapidly, in the new millennium. Karsten Schulz charts a tricky pathway through the necessary entanglements between this discipline and decolonial theory, concluding finally that the study of what I call political decology is itself possessed by the coloniality of knowledge, being, and power.

  • Online

    (Re-)Ordering the New World: Settler Colonialism, Space and Identity

    The settler-colonial project of re-spatializing indigenous terrains completely re-organized large-scale, long-term environmental systems, disrupting the social ecology both of small communities and vast tribal federations. This re-spatialization left ancient human-landscape relations in tatters. In his PhD thesis, Adam Barker makes the responsibility of landscape architects clear: The ongoing imposition of colonial structures on indigenous landscape networks and technologies “can never be considered ‘over’ — spatially or socially decolonized — as long as the structures of invasion remain.”

  • Online

    Decolonizing Landscape

    Landscape Research

    One of the latest dispatches from the front lines of landscape decolonization, this article, published in "Landscape Research," confronts the continuing legacies of racial capitalism and environmental racism in contemporary Canada. A persistent dedication to the land+capital+power formula underpins settler-colonial governments — and even well-meaning Indigenous urban housing developments, which are still capitalist and therefore “inseparable from the structure of settler-colonialism.” Let alone inseparable from the profession of landscape architecture. Perhaps here we can discern the romance of decol.

  • On Decoloniality: Concepts, Analytics, Praxis

    Duke University Press

    Here we find a full-fledged theory of decoloniality that emerges from a “daily praxis of living.” When enough houses are built, the authors say — and can we but agree? — then the hegemony of the master’s house — in fact, mastery itself — will cease to maintain its imperial status. The authors canvas the critical questions — How do we build (not, by the way, build back)? What do we build? To whom do we refer when we say “we”? — via a non-Eurocentric critique of Eurocentrism. You really get the sense that they are walking on eggshells.

  • Online

    No Design on Stolen Land


    As soon as I got my copy of "No Design On Stolen Land," wrapped in a facsimile of the First Nations Treaty that was “signed, sealed and delivered” in the colony of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in July 1713, I immediately plunged into this angry, damning indictment of contemporary landscape architecture. The goal of this slim pamphlet is to expose the dehumanizing White supremacy structurally embedded in the professional practice of landscape architecture. “Whose lands are you on?” the authors ask. “Who invited you?” “Who are you accountable to?” And, terribly, “What exactly are you fighting for?” Ultimately this piece provides an MO for landscape architects: Not design, but process, or praxis. Specifically, a process that the authors describe as "de-presentation," which works through operations of découpage, démontage, and décollage that “break the law.”

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