Artist Hugh Hayden’s work “Nude” (2021), featured in his solo exhibition “Boogey Men” at ICA Miami earlier this year, is the cyborg of our moment. The philosopher Donna Haraway proposed the cyborg in the 1980s as an answer to the capitalist, technocratic, and patriarchal subjugation of nature. If the solution to what Haraway described in her 1985 essay “A Cyborg Manifesto” as the “border war” between nature and culture born out of “the traditions of ‘Western’ science and politics” could then be imagined as a fusion of organism and machine, today it is urgently conceived as a plant-human. If technology seemed the greatest threat and promise four decades ago, the environmental crisis is center stage now.

“Nude” is a headless skeletal figure made of bald cypress, sitting in a resigned or meditative posture with branches sprouting down its spine and along its limbs. Both personal and global in its fusion of wood with bone, the work taps into the artist’s family tree and that deep environmental current in contemporary art that wrestles with our forgotten embeddedness in the natural world. Plants are invading the space of humans in art while human activity is invading every corner of nature, threatening two-fifths of the world’s plants with extinction, even as we depend on their photosynthetic alchemy for the planetary life systems that sustain us.

Hayden’s plant-human is memorable but not solitary, rubbing shoulders with those of artists such as Barthélémy Toguo, Wangechi Mutu, and Firelei Báez. It is no accident that plant-human hybrids sprout in the work of artists from Africa and the African Diaspora, especially. Theirs are the global communities where the subjugation of plants in the plantation system accompanied the suffering of humans. If in Ovid’s Metamorphosis Daphne is transformed into a plant to avoid Apollo’s sexual violence, today’s plant-humans commemorate the kidnapping and brutality inflicted on millions of people and the human and environmental harm that resulted. 

Barthélémy Toguo, “Homo Planta I” (2018) (© Barthélémy Toguo, Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co and Bandjoun Station)

Cameroon, home to Barthélémy Toguo, was important to the Atlantic slave trade. In the 19th century the country was colonized by the Germans, and later the British and French, who profited from locally grown cacao, rubber, palm oil, and bananas. Toguo’s painting “Homo Planta I” (2018) translates the continent’s histories of forced labor into an agonizing posture punctuated by nails. Yet sap from the trees also flows through the body in a transferal of energy, linking the figure’s pathos to the ongoing threat to Cameroon’s rainforest. Moving between Paris, France and Bandjoun, Cameroon, in 2009 Toguo opened Bandjoun Station, an artist colony and coffee plantation. The home-grown coffee is sold in packets wrapped in the artist’s lithographs, highlighting the value of Africa’s natural resources. “We consider that it is not up to the West to fix the prices of our raw materials,” Toguo wrote in a 2018 exhibition catalogue. 

Indigenous societies have practiced respectful reciprocity with their non-human kin for millennia. But in the modern period, Western states developed and exported techniques for objectifying nature, the better to subject her to extractive purposes. Modern systems of classification parsed out of the natural world into specimens that were removed from their ecological and cultural contexts, rendered interchangeable and thus amenable to scaled-up exploitation. Linnaean taxonomy, the binomial system of naming species introduced by 18-century Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus and first applied to plants, exemplified the classifying urge that later underpinned ideologies of race and inequality. Societies viewed as “backward” or “inferior” were judged in need of improvement by Western colonizers. 

Firelei Báez, “Ciguapa Habilis (after Carl Linnaeus)” (2009) (courtesy of the artist and James Cohan Gallery)

The organizing impulse of taxonomy in the service of exploitative hierarchies is dismantled in works like Firelei Báez’s “Ciguapa Habilis (after Carl Linnaeus)” (2009). The Ciguapa, a creature of Dominican folklore, is a wild woman with beautiful hair, dangerously alluring but hard to track due to her backward-facing feet. She has been associated with Indigenous Taino culture but probably originates later, in the island’s Afro-Latin identities, oral traditions, and national mythmaking. Báez’ Ciguapa subverts racist and misogynist ideologies of passive femininity institutionalized under the Trujillo regime: her luxuriant hair is both plant thicket and serpentine braid and one of her hairy limbs ends in a fleshy heel. She defies categorization within nature or culture, showing kinship with the creatures of Wangechi Mutu. 

The Kenyan artist’s collages, such as “Madam Repeateat” (2010), articulate hybridity through mixed assemblages harvested from fashion, travel, and pornographic magazines. Mutu’s collage practice captures the layered, fragmented histories of displacement and the complex, composite subjectivities they engender while interrogating racialized and sexist projections onto the Black female body. Her sculpture calls forth multispecies beings that seem eerily at home in our damaged world. Unlike the mythological Daphne fleeing sexual violence, Mutu’s “Tree Woman” (2016) confidently stands her ground.

Wangechi Mutu, “Madam Repeateat” (2010) (courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro gallery)

By contrast, Hayden’s “Nude” lacks markers of race or gender. But in the ICA exhibition, it was exhibited near a hooded police car, while an earlier title for the sculpture used in the exhibition, “Roots,” recalls Alex Haley’s culture-shaping and controversial novel and the eponymous TV series from the 1970s. The family tree of Haley’s novel had its roots in the 18th-century slave trade in the Gambia and traced the horrors of the North American plantations. Hayden’s work ties these genealogies of human and ecological harm to today’s environmental crisis. 

Unlike the exuberant, monstrous vitality of the other works mentioned here, Hayden’s hybrid is imbued with death, a sculpted emptiness. The relationship between human and plant is full of tension. Are the branches parasitic? Did they grow posthumously, or are they integral to a strange organism that can only be inferred from its remains? The haunting effect is reinforced by the monumental scale: The sculpture both commands and creates space, an environment for the viewer to circle around and peer through. The mood is elegiac, hinting at a past loss, or future extinction — of the human, at least. Whether the bare branches might sprout again, in a way no human skeleton can, is an open question. 

The plant-human hybrids of the Anthropocene call on us to urgently reimagine our embeddedness within the natural world while alluding to the violent histories that brought us here.

Editor’s Note, 10/26/2022, 7:13pm EDT: The original title of artist Hugh Hayden’s work “Nude” was previously included in this article. A clarification has been added to the text.

Yota Batsaki is the executive director of Dumbarton Oaks, a Harvard research institute, museum, and historic garden in Washington, DC, where she directs the Plant Humanities Initiative — a collaborative...