How to Talk to Ghosts

In a new online project, MIT alum Nancy Valladares finds phantoms in Honduras’s horticultural past  

In 1932, the British botanist Dorothy Popenoe died after eating a piece of unripe ackee fruit. The fruit, which originated in West Africa, was grown at the Lancetilla Agricultural Experimental Station in Tela, Honduras, a botanical garden founded by the United Fruit Company in the twenties and directed by Popenoe’s husband Wilson. The enigmatic Dorothy, and the plant that precipitated her untimely demise, are the subjects of the new online exhibition, Botanical Ghosts, by MIT alum Nancy Valladares SMACT ‘20. 

What Valladares calls a “speculative archive” houses a short film, fictional epistolary exchanges, and archival photographs. In creatively manipulating these historical documents, Valladares creates an alternative narrative of colonial science. From the silences, the gaps in the official record, she constructs new ways of examining the relationships between human and more-than-human agents. “Is this some kind of colonial revenge?” Valladares thought, “Or is it a horror story? Is it a love story? Did Dorothy eat the food on purpose? Was the fruit calling Dorothy to do something else?” 

Artistic Research

To explore these unanswerable questions, Valladares, who is from Honduras, spent two years combing through digital repositories, reading Popenoe’s correspondences, pouring over old photographs, and researching the agricultural histories of the region. As a student in MIT’s Program in Art, Culture, and Technology she had the opportunity to conduct in-depth research at the Peabody Museum of Archeology, Kew Gardens, and the Hunt Institute for Botanical Research at Carnegie Mellon University. “My process is essentially following all the little clues. I ended up in a lot of archives, and pieced together a story that was a little bit obscure and underwritten,” she said. 

This research-intensive art practice has a long history at MIT, dating back to the founding of the Center for Advanced Visual Studies by György Kepes in 1967, where the creative process often borrows as much from scholarly methods as hands-on making. “MIT student artists are able to draw upon the resources of the Institute to support art practices that involve rigorous research and documentary media. Nancy takes her academic research and breathes life into its retelling through her suggestive and poetic film and web archive,” said Sarah Hirzel, Coordinator of the Wiesner Student Art Gallery. 

Spectres of the Past 

And yet, while rooted in historical research, the project equally probes what remains not so easily documented–the hidden desires and uncanny forces, the strangeness of the past that remains forever uncertain. “The archives I was looking at have very specific ways of framing these histories through the lens of techno-scientific thinking, but I was really interested in the character whose presence you feel but you can’t quite see,” said Valladares. 

What’s striking about the project is its intimacy. The experience of the website is more akin to paging through a family album than an institutional archive. “Botanical Ghosts situates colonial plantation plant biology inside a much fuller landscape of life, love, and death. The past becomes present in Nancy’s voice, and a fuller truth emerges than could ever be understood without her perceptive retelling,” said Hirzel. 

For Valladares, writing letters to Dorothy was a form of communion with a past whose reverberations are still felt today. The work, she said, is a form of necromancy, a magical conjuring of spirits across time and space. But Dorothy remains an ambiguous figure. “My complicated relationship with Dorothy is a mirror to my complicated relationship to Honduras, and being part of a diaspora of Central American immigrants. I like to think of her as a friend, but she’s also someone that I am deeply troubled by,” Valladares said, “She was fearless about just doing whatever she wanted, but she is also the continuation of the colonial project.” 

The Fruit Trade 

The main purpose of the Lancetilla research station was to study the banana, the country’s single largest export. Since the early 19th century, American corporations like the United Fruit Company dominated the banana trade in Honduras. The industry had so transformed the country–from the rise of plantation culture to the construction of the railroad system–that Honduras essentially became a de facto colony controlled by American business. 

The study of horticulture at the research center had global economic implications. “Particular kinds of pesticides, hybrids, and certain ways of propagating and planting were all studied at Lancetilla. And those technologies were then exported to the rest of Latin America and all over the world,” Valladares said. As different plants from Southeast Asia and Africa were shipped to the station, the open-air laboratory became a multinational port. “It was a place where the ecologies of Latin America, that particular biome, began to shift as they introduced new species and changed the landscape forever,” Valladares said. 

This disruption of the local ecosystem is part of the country’s current instability. Honduras, one of the poorest countries in the world, is home to one the largest populations of migrants today. “We have a lot of people who are no longer able to practice sustainable agricultural practices due to the soil erosion,” Valladares said, “Right now, you have a literal exodus of people because there’s not enough of anything, and scarcity has become the norm.” 

The Illusion of Plenitude 

While Honduras may have once been seen as a lush and bountiful paradise, this illusion of plenitude only made it more vulnerable to capitalist predation. “It was a construction, a tale used to justify the constant extraction of minerals and nutrients from Honduran soil and from Honduran bodies,” said Valladares, whose grandfather worked for the railroads. “That is the history that I’m grappling with on both a personal and larger societal level.”

Botanical Ghosts is a living archive, with more material being added over time. In excavating these repressed histories, Valladares is able to tell new kinds of stories about Honduras.  “Can we speak to the dead and through the dead? Can we learn more about history? Can we learn about our future through these engagements with the past?” she asked, “There are these empty spaces that can be filled with fiction and speculation, and that’s an act of reclamation for me.” 

Botanical Ghosts is on view in the virtual Wiesner Student Art Gallery through spring 2021.

Established as a gift from the MIT Class of 1983, the Wiesner Gallery honors the former president of MIT, Jerome Wiesner, for his support of the arts at the Institute. The gallery was fully renovated in fall 2016, thanks in part to the generosity of Harold (’44) and Arlene Schnitzer and the Council for the Arts at MIT, and now also serves as a central meeting space for MIT Student Arts Programming including the START Studio, Creative Arts Competition, Student Arts Advisory Board, and Arts Scholars.

Funded in part by The Council for the Arts at MIT, a group of alumni and friends with a strong commitment to the arts and serving the MIT community.


Written by Anya Ventura

Posted on March 4, 2021 by Arts at MIT