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Ekaterina Golovko

Climate Crisis, Symbiosis, Biology, Inter-species Cohabitation, Photography, Literature


Janj ak Joor

Janj ak Joor: Ecologies of the Savannah, Ekaterina Golovko, 2023-2024. Scan of 35 mm Photograph.

Ecologies of the Savannah



In December 2021, I was on the largest island in Senegal, situated between the Senegal River and its branch, Doué, known by the French name Île à Morfil. Its name literally means "Ivory Island," as elephants lived there until the 1960s when they became extinct due to hunting. Although I was interested in the small 18th-century mud mosques scattered around the island, I spent more time driving between the villages than visiting them. It is the realm of trees and termite mounds, birds and palm rats, strolling goats, and rare passers-by appearing from behind the trees and disappearing as unexpectedly as they appeared.


At some point, we stop next to a giant tree-shrub-termite mound. It is shaped like a tree that has a trunk and a crown. Only the trunk is the termite mound and the crown is the crown of a tree. One cannot tell how one is embedded in the other, but they form a single whole, a new world created by the coexistence of at least two living beings. With a natural and somewhat automatic reflex, I reach for my camera to take pictures, but the roll runs out after two shots. It is the last film I have with me. I take it as an opportunity to be in the presence of this natural "monument."


Île à Morfil, December 2021. 


In the coming months and years, I still keep returning to Île à Morfil, both physically and mentally; I keep thinking about the interweaving of trees, soil, shrubs, and living beings that come together in the unique space-time of the savannah.


Building on that specific encounter, I have continued to attune myself to the ecologies of bushes, trees, and termite mounds as sites of opacity and relationship, interconnectedness and interdependence, accumulation and intersection, seeking to learn from them through the process of presence and contemplation.


Termite mounds, trees, shrubs, and their modes of coexistence create mutable forms and constantly evolving relationships. The termite mounds are living monuments, temples, condominiums, and examples of conviviality. They are not separable from the beings that inhabit them and constitute interdependent entities in which boundaries are blurred, and layers overlap and extend over each other. Besides that, to a human observer, termite mounds seem to be fixed and static entities while they are complex and dynamic processes. Their temporality is very different from that of humans. Termites take centuries to build termite mounds, and colonies follow one another, sometimes dying and leaving termite mounds uninhabited until another colony decides to settle there. Trees, plants, and animals use them for shelter and habitation.


Being within the landscape, dwelling in the landscape is the experience that teaches us to go beyond the idea of "individuality," exploring multiplicity and reverting to the outside of ourselves. The relationship with the world means exploring the world and learning about it instead of projecting all the images on yourself. This change of lens assists in moving from the idea of "individuality" to the idea of landscape as a generative and interwoven mode of being in which the existence of everyone and everything is interdependent.


Termites represent a particular way of belonging. The way of being part of the landscape, dwelling in the landscape, and being an inextricable part of the landscape. What is the landscape? This way of being an interconnected whole that allows mutual existence.


Robin Wall Kimerer speaks about the "web of reciprocity" as a principle of existence where each living being has a particular role to play.[1] The web of reciprocity connects us all. She gives the example of sage. "Sage has its duties, to draw up water to its leaves for the rabbits, to shelter the baby quail. Part of its responsibility is also to the people. Sage helps us clear our minds of ill thoughts, and carry our good thoughts upward."[2] Termite mounds are webs of reciprocity among living beings, they connect, protect, help, and share space and nutrients. In scientific circles, termite colonies are considered superorganisms. A superorganism is a social unit of eusocial animals in which the division of labor is highly specialized and in which individuals are unable to survive for long on their own. Workers and soldiers are unable to reproduce; soldiers and kings cannot feed themselves; workers and kings generally cannot defend themselves adequately; soldiers and workers cannot fly out of the nest.[3] At the same time, termites cannot live without the fungi they cultivate, so they create and maintain within the mound the microclimate necessary for their existence. But it is also fair to say that fungi cultivate termites because the fungi could not survive without the care that termites bring. The termite architecture is also crucial for their own protection from other animals and insects. It seems to be an inspiration for Sahelian mud architecture. Termites created environments suitable for their activities and inspired humans to build structures perfectly suited to their lives in the hot, dry savanna.


By observing this environment, I become familiar with it as well as learn how to relate to it, shifting my focus from the individual self to exchange and sharing, seeing our lives as lives of beings entangled in the webs of reciprocity. Through the network of reciprocity, the matrix of the not-yet, we learn to abandon the matrix of the Anthropocene, the matrix of self in which humans shape their environments without caring about other living beings and surroundings. The logic of gifts — offered and received — is dismissed by the centrality of the human being above all the rest. When I talk to people and say that I am working on the ecologies of the savannah and specifically on termite mounds, very often I hear, "What do we need termite mounds for?" If it's not useful, it's almost harmful — like termites devouring our houses and furniture — or it doesn't deserve any attention because we can't use it to achieve anything. Instead, I learned that termite mound soil is used in various ways, from healing to agriculture to construction building. Termite mounds are also extremely important for the environment, for the whole ecosystem, and for keeping the soil moist. While we do not see them, these are the gifts termites and their mounds share with all of us.


If we imagine ourselves being and living in the webs of reciprocity, our self-identification cannot be imagined exclusively as our intrinsic characteristics. It is built, negotiated, and carried out in relation to the environment. Overcoming the division between visible and invisible, external and internal, animate and inanimate, the web of reciprocity creates bonds with the thought of Edouard Glissant and his concepts of Relation and opacity. The visual ideas that the savannah offers us help me to see termite mounds as shifting universes and sites of more-than-human architecture. These complex forms of interspecies coexistence and more-than-human forms of solidarity suggest experiencing difference without separability. [4]

1- Robin Wall Kimerer, Gathering Moss. A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses. Penguin Books, 2021. 
2- Robin Wall Kimerer, Gathering Moss. A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses. Penguin Books, 2021, p. 107. 

Artist Interview

Q: In this new edition of the UAAD online magazine, we're exploring the theme of "[Matrix] of the [Not-Yet]." How would you interpret these two words, and how do you see your work aligning with the concepts of [Matrix] and [Not-Yet]?

I have never seen the movie “Matrix,” either when it came out or afterward when it became a cult film. So the ideas that I have or the associations that I may have with the word “matrix” are not at all related to the collective imagination that comes from the movie. To me, it is something that means a closed form or system. Connected with the “not-yet,” it changes the meaning by acquiring the characteristic of change. If I take the meaning proposed by you, “the cultural, social or political environment in which something develops,” it becomes much closer to my creative work. I am constantly interested in change, visible, invisible, imperceptible, but at the same time constant. This interest stems from the view of life as continuous flux, multiplicity, and change.

Q: We are very interested in the trajectory of your creative practices and their connection to the theme. Could you provide us with a little more information about your background?

Photography and writing are two of my creative practices that used to run somewhat in parallel. Before, I pursued exclusively photographic projects, for example, the work on the city of Dakar (2016- present). Now, I'm trying to bring them together and make them mutually related. In this work on termite mounds and savannah ecologies, I am trying to devote space to both visual work through analog photography and writing, focusing both on research and auto-fiction.

Q: The creators participating in this magazine work across various mediums, including moving images, interactive installations, music composition, etc. What factors influence your choice of medium for your works?

I use analog photography as my main working method, along with writing. My thinking goes to the possibilities of working with the still image and ways of experimenting with it. While I firmly believe in analog printed and framed photographs, I am also interested in other ways of presenting still images. For example, experimenting with prints on fabric, the interaction between image and text, using space for projection of images and its interactions with the sound.

Q: How does your work reflect or actively engage with the cultural and social dynamics of your community or the communities you interact with? Are there elements in your art that seek to bridge, disrupt, or transform these dynamics?

For many, many years I have not lived in the place from which I come. Since 2016 I have been spending a lot of time in Senegal, which has become my second home. The condition of always being between places, in multiple places, or being there and not being there at the same time very much defines my relationships with the world. In the project I work on now and present here I create a dialogue with termite mounds and through photographic work I try to develop a two-way relationship with these beings. My work is situated in the landscape of northern Senegal, in the semi-arid savanna, in the interaction between trees, bushes, animals, insects, and termite mounds. Although they are absent from the images, the communities living in those areas are extremely important to the research. I am very much interested in how people living with termite mounds see them, understand them, and interact with them. Indeed, my research includes not only visual aspects, but also cultural and social aspects related to the knowledge of termite mounds, and their inhabitants, both more than human, visible and invisible.

Q: What real-world strategies or methodologies do you employ in your art practice to manifest your visions of the future? How do these tactics serve as forms of resistance or intervention within the current socio-political landscape?

Very often I think of the phrases written by Mark Fisher in his book "Capitalist Realism," “Is it really easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism? And why have we become addicted to the idea that, as Margaret Thatcher put it, 'there is no alternative' to the system in which we live?” The question Fisher's book poses remains relevant until now almost 15 years after its publication. In my own work, both textual and photographic, it remains crucial to open the limits of the possible, break out of imposed barriers, and seek openings in the system that is strangling us. I believe that imagination is essential to thinking otherwise, as Lola Olufemi proposes in her book "Experiments in Imagining Otherwise."

Q: How do you hope your work impacts its viewers or participants, particularly in terms of rethinking potential futures or alternate realities? Who do you perceive as your audience?

After I started working on termite mounds, I came across Laurie Palmer's work on lichens, which influenced me greatly. Her book "Lichen Museum" brings our attention to the lichens that surround us almost everywhere — on walls, on rocks, on floors — but very often we don't see them or pay attention to them. The work on termite mounds, among other things, leads me to invite the viewer to see the invisible. The termite mound is at the same time a castle, a superorganism, a complex unit of symbiosis between termites and the fungi they cultivate. All of this is not visible from the outside because termites never go out into the sun, but also because the termite mound is a protective shell for the internal microclimate. From the outside, you can see sculptures with incredible shapes, not only the result of centuries of work by termites but also different ways of plant entanglement. To me, these are all aspects that we humans must learn to look at, admire, and even take as forms of inspiration on ways of being.

Q: As a creator, what do you see as the threats or uncertainties we will face in the coming decade?

We are experiencing a period of unprecedented violence. Unfortunately, very often the responses to violence are more and more violence, and this greatly limits the space for solidarity, mutual aid, but also for thinking about collectivity instead of individualism.

Q: What motivates you to continue creating as an artist?

I believe that art is one of the ways of reflecting on the world, and it is also a nonviolent way of responding to all that is going on around us. Given the current situation — the wars, genocides that are happening — my intuitive response is to look at the more-than-human world to learn, to take insights, to find alternatives.

Q: Are there any theories, books, or artists you would like to recommend in your current areas of interest?

As I mentioned in my previous answers, I really like Laurie Palmer’s book "Lichen Museum," as well as Lola Olufemi’s book "Experiments in Imagining Otherwise." Besides that, I really like Akwugo Emejulu’s essay "Fugitive Feminism." The work of Edouard Glissant remains central for my thinking on Relation and opacity. I am also admiring the increasing number of books that focus on natural beings, their entanglements, and ways of world-making.

Q: If you could possess a superpower, what would it be?

I would love to make violence instantly disappear from the world. I would like the destruction of the other, of the world and of oneself to not exist.

About the Artist

Ekaterina Golovko is a Russian-born researcher, writer, and photographer living in Dakar and Bologna and interested in contemporary African cities, critical approaches to colonial history and heritage, and their emanations in the present. She has a PhD in Linguistics from Bologna University (2010).

Her personal practice is focused on writing and photography. She has published texts on ethnographic museums and alternative archives, on oral culture and ways to approach objects in ethnographic museums using the concept of "ontological distances" in NKA Journal of Contemporary African Art, The February Journal, for the Center of Experimental Museology, among others. Her photography has appeared in Fotofilmic JRNL 15 and NEA Magazine, among others. She exhibited her photographic work during the Dak’art Biennale at the Hotel de Ville de Dakar in 2022.

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