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Galleries | Cate McQuaid

Artists unearth stories from Massachusetts lands for ‘Local Ecologies’ exhibition

Plotform’s “Dear Harbor Radio”

Everywhere, we walk on land where history has taken place. During King Philip’s (or Metacom’s) War in 1675-76, Deer Island in Boston Harbor was a concentration camp where English colonists imprisoned hundreds of Native Americans. In 1919, a tank gave way at the Purity Distilling Company in the North End and millions of gallons of molasses flooded the neighborhood.

In “Local Ecologies,” an ambitious exhibition traveling among University of Massachusetts galleries, artists consider area lands, ecosystems, and histories. The show kicks off at UMass Boston’s University Hall Gallery, moving to UMass Dartmouth in November and UMass Lowell in January.

Some terrific artists with ties to Massachusetts and long-standing fascination with history and ecology bring facts, tales, and wildlife that may seem distant or esoteric into crisp, affecting view. Maria Magdalena Campos Pons’s “19/19 Molasses Intervals” uses pots of molasses — little vessels of sticky darkness — to remind us that the Great Molasses Flood, which seems like a quirky event a century on, was an industrial disaster in an immigrant neighborhood. Twenty-one people died.

Plotform (Jane D. Marsching + Andi Sutton) outfitted a bicycle trailer with a radio transmitter and recording studio and pedaled around New Bedford, asking people to write and record love letters to non-humans. Their perky “Dear Harbor Radio” gently reorients our anthropocentric world view.


UMass Boston’s gallery commissioned Sarah Kanouse and Nicholas Brown’s beautiful, unnerving “Ecologies of Acknowledgment,” a video and print project reckoning with notions of land ownership. In it, three unidentified native women reflect on the history of Deer Island, comparing colonialism’s hunger to possess the land with native ideologies honoring it. The women choose anonymity to give voice to their peoples, upending our individualistic way of thinking.

Duy Hoàng ingeniously runs photographs of local invasive species through Google Translate to discern Chinese text, such as “penalty,” “sensitive,” and “old,” finding suggestions of xenophobic language whispering in non-native greens.


Works in “Local Ecologies” take long, often surprising paths to thoughtfully dismantle power hierarchies. Throwing the focus off us and onto this place, they slyly reveal the ways we have trammeled and possessed the beings that live here, implicating those in power as the most invasive species of all.


At University Hall Gallery, University of Massachusetts, Boston, 100 Morrissey Blvd., through Oct. 26. 617-287-5707,

Cate McQuaid can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.