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Learning from Artemisia

Artemisia afra, an indigenous medicinal plant, effectively treats and prevents malaria and can simply be taken as an infusion. Despite studies that show its effectiveness and the simplicity of its administration and sustainability of its local production, it is not recommended as a treatment by the World Health Organisation which appears to favour the pharmaceutical industry and its global reach.

Originally commissioned by the Lubumbashi Biennale, Uriel Orlow worked for several months with a women’s cooperative in Lumata, south of Lubumbashi, DRC. The cooperative is growing Artemisia afra with the proceeds funding a collective health insurance for themselves and their families. However, because of the lack of support on an international and local level few people are aware of this home-grown treatment.

For the Biennale, Orlow and the women from the cooperative planted a small Artemisia afra garden in Lubumbashi which was complemented by mural painted by Musasa and a live concert by the Lumata based music group Jeunes Etoiles des Astres who sing about the virtues of Artemisia.

Learning from Artemisia is an installation that consists of a three-channel video composed by a letter from the artist, a slide show of the process of production and processing by the cooperative, and a video of the song. The installation also consists of a series of small paintings commissioned by Musasa, visual research and Artemisia afra tea.

In 2019, Malaria continues to kill a child every few minutes and the parasite that causes it is becoming ever more drug resistant. In the 70s, research to develop new anti-malarial drugs led to the discovery and extraction of Artemisin from the Chinese variety of Artemisia used for two thousand years and now patented in medications. However, resistance is now also building up against the extracted artemisin. At the same time it has become evident that the non-extractive use of the whole plant is still highly effective, yet the plant is prohibited in many parts of Europe and scientific research is suppressed. Artemisia afra grows in different parts of Africa including the Congo and contains no artemisin (but a potent cocktail of minerals, including abundant copper) yet is still highly effective as an infusion; not only does it resist drug resistance but it also resists extractive medicine. In the context of the Democratic Republic of Congo whose colonial and postcolonial economy has been dominated by various forms of extraction (mainly of minerals) Artemisia afra can help us to imagine much needed non-extractive relationships to natural resources as well as local and sustainable healthcare solutions and forms of solidarity.

Uriel Orlow: Learning from Artemisia, 2019-2020 (trailer)