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On the lively materiality of soil: A Somali Drylands artistic collaboration

© Sage Brice, 2018.
The WIDER-SOMA project was a cross-disciplinary and multi-institution research collaborative project headed by Dr Katerina Michaelides at the University of Bristol, investigating the effect of warfare on dryland environments in Somalia. I was excited to be invited to join the project in its later stages as artist in residence, supported by a small grant from the Cabot Innovation Fund. As an artist-geographer, my work explores the potential of drawing as a research methodology. I am interested in the unexpected things that happen in cross-disciplinary encounters, and the hazy zones where categories and definitions begin to break down.

The brief was to produce an artwork responding to the range of research specialisms involved in the project, to celebrate the ‘liveliness’ both of the collaborative research processes, and of the Somali Drylands themselves. We wanted to push back against the idea of drylands as ‘dead spaces’, drawing on the knowledge of people who engage closely with these landscapes in different ways, and appreciate their rich and complex ecologies.

© Sage Brice, 2018
I took as my starting point the lively materiality of the soil itself - its vibrant colours, varied textures, and characteristic dispositions offered a tangible way of engaging with the remarkable diversity within the research site. I was prompted by a comment from Dr Marianna Dudley, head of Bristol’s Centre for Environmental Humanities, and a key contributor to the project:
I love the way the soil gets loose and wanders. When we had the exhibitions in London and Bristol we found that the soil got everywhere; even though it was displayed in petri dishes, and when it hadn’t been moved - still the soil got out.
The messy, wandering, sideways processes were what interested me: how did ideas and inspiration cross between researchers in different disciplines, or between researchers and the materials they encountered? Could I, as an artist, enrich, facilitate, or make tangible those processes?

I decided to create two large drawings with the earth pigments, using layers of imagery relating to the different strands of research, and letting them overlap and disrupt each other on the surface of the paper. I was interested in everything – in my e-mail to participants I asked for
photographic imagery of microbial life, soil colour-charts, scribbles and sketches from the margins of your notebooks, graphs and maps, snapshots, postcards from sites you visited, random finds, slide presentations, logos and letterheads, gifts and mementos - anything and everything.
Thus I set out in a quest for incidental imagery – seeking out the visual traces of process, and looking to see where they might differ from the formalised imagery of presentations.

© Sage Brice, 2018.
I met and interviewed many of the researchers involved in the project, to hear about their specific strand of the research, and what about it had been most animating - but also to explain more clearly what I was after. To scientists used to presenting only clean, clear, and coherent findings, it seemed counterintuitive to ask for scribbles, notes, sketches, and first attempts. Many of the processes were more fully digitised or highly sanitised than I had imagined - in some cases there was little to work with visually, and I instead sourced imagery from internet searches, based on keywords the researchers helped to define.

© Sage Brice, 2018.
Once I had collected what I needed, I set about sifting through the material, sampling and experimenting with the soils themselves as pigments, feeling my way into an encounter with the various strands of material and practice. Working with the soils was a joy - as pigments they produced a richly clouded medium, with a range of textures and tones. I worked vertically with a water-based medium, allowing the pigments to dribble and disturb each other. Some were sandy or gritty and difficult to work - others sleek, fluid, and vibrant. I used each soil to draw imagery relating to its source of origin, and layered them over each other by colour to differentiate the strands of the work.

© Sage Brice, 2018.
The two drawings are arranged to echo and contrast with one another - a digitally plotted map against a hand-drawn one; the frenetic lines of cyanobacteria and a delicate web of roads, the sharp line of a mounted machine gun and a goat’s left horn. The drawings are large; seen close up the textures of the soils are on an equal standing with the content of the imagery.

The different threads of the project come together here in a messy collision - sometimes speaking to each other, sometimes disturbing each other. As a practice-based researcher with a special interest in cross-disciplinary collaboration, I am interested in how art processes can help to draw unexpected connections and enliven relations across conventional disciplinary divides. Coming in towards the end of a project, my role here was to look back at what had been done, to draw out and enliven an account of the collaborative process. I believe this way of working is important, and has a lot to offer for building connection, right from the start. Teasing out resonances between different disciplines of practice can help encourage people to work together and to step outside their comfort zones, in order to think afresh with new tools and approaches. I learned a lot about diverse kinds of research from interviewing the different participants - but what they consistently valued most from the process was what they learned from encountering and learning to understand each other’s work.

This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Sage Brice, Artist In Residence with the support of the Cabot Institute Innovation Fund. Sage is an internationally exhibiting artist and an SWW DTP doctoral student in human geography at the University of Bristol. More on her work can be found at Her doctoral research blog is

All images © Sage Brice, 2018.

Sage Brice

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