By Semine Long-Callesen and Nancy Valladares
In winter of 2020, we travelled to Honduras to visit Nancy’s family. Driving across the country from south to north and along the west coast, we passed an endless landscape of banana and coffee plantations. One day, approaching Santa Rosa de Copan, we made a pit stop at a small stall where carts were spilling over with little round red fruits. Nancy jumped out of the car and returned with rambután. Curiously, the deep-red almost black fruits with the distinct long hairs were so similar to the rambutan that Semine knew from Malaysia. Indeed, in Malay, rambutan literally means hairy fruit. How did this fruit and its Malay name migrate across the tropical belt and become ubiquitously sold and eaten in Honduras?
One of the earlier recordings of the rambutan is the William Farquhar Collection of Natural History. The encyclopedic watercolors of Malaya’s flora and fauna were painted by unknown Chinese artists under the patronage of William Farquhar during his posting as Commandant and Resident of Malacca (1803-1818) and Resident of Singapore (1819-1823). The collection of drawings offers insight into fruits endemic and foreign to the Malay world at the time and includes several depictions of red and yellow rambutans, stating that the fruit is of Indo-Malay origin.
About a century later, the rambutan appeared in William Popenoe’s Manual of Tropical and Subtropical Fruits. An American agricultural explorer, Popenoe crossed the tropics in the 1920s to document and identify profitable crops that could be transplanted to Central and North America. When not travelling, he managed botanical stations, not least Lancetilla Botanical Experimental Station in Honduras, which carried out experiments that had huge impacts on the ecological systems of Honduras and its trajectory towards becoming a “banana republic” under the shadow of the US.
Nancy tells that the rambutan most likely first was planted in Honduras in a horticultural station like the one on the humid north coast in Lancetilla where a family member worked as a gardener. Like other botanical gardens that were entangled with imperial searches for revenue, Lancetilla germinated exotic fruits from around the world to see if they could yield profit.
Over time, Popenoe’s tropical botanical gardens became manufactured sites of biodiversity that did not mirror the exterior landscapes of large-scale industries with monocrops such as bananas and coffee. The botanical gardens were fantasies of a disappearing paradise that served colonial, industrial demands for resources and pursuits of revenue. Paradoxically, colonized nature was an “untouched” and “unspoiled” terra incognita that was being shaped by imported species; tropical nature was imagined as an abundant garden of Eden, its soil suitable for extraction while at the same time being unhygienic, degenerated, and dangerous.
Botanical gardens contributed to rendering the colonized territory readable and visible to industries and governments[i], for instance, by dividing the world into distinct biomes: by means of taxonomic illustrations and notes like that of Farquhar and Popenoe, fruits were evaluated in terms of profit and climate fit. With botanical travellers and plantations, the tropics became a uniform landscape.
Our discovery of the rambutan’s journey made us curious about the overlapping flavors in Honduras and Malaysia, geographies that were nodes in the same imperial networks. Using the surprising culinary similarities, we created Garden Blues with Agnes Cameron, a virtual garden where each flower holds a recipe that reflects this tropical transversality. Farquhar and Popenoe’s botanical explorations resulted in streamlined tropical biomes, which also manifested themselves in a shared sensorium of flavors. Garden Blues demonstrates that food culture depends on a territory much greater than national boundaries and that nothing is inherently Malayan or Honduran. The economy of imperial circulation created an in- and outflow of species which continues to unsettle the idea of local nature.
[i] James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).
Semine Long-Callesen holds a BA in Art History with Distinction from the University of Cambridge and a Master in Architecture Studies in the History, Theory, and Criticism of Art and Architecture from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her research examines colonial museums and archives in Denmark, Malaysia, and Singapore, and artistic practices that respond to such institutions. She is a former Fialkow Fellow and Paul Sun researcher at MIT, and is currently a NEH Graduate Fellow at the Currier Museum of Art, and a researcher at the architecture practice APRDELESP.
Nancy Dayanne Valladares (b. 1991) is an interdisciplinary artist from Tegucigalpa, Honduras currently based in Boston. Her work traces the colonial legacies and agricultural histories of Central America through the lens of human and non-human migration. Her practice intersects various fields and practices—drawing from economic botany, archaeology and archives to re-configure historical narratives through biofiction. She is currently a fellow at Harvard University’s Film Studies Center. She received a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a Science Masters from the program in Art, Culture and Technology at MIT. Her work has been exhibited at The Art Institute of Chicago, Sullivan Galleries, SUGS Gallery X, ExFest Film Festival, The Research House for Asian Art, Columbia College, and Roman Susan Gallery in Chicago.