These bee sculptures are creating a hive of dialogue about Blackness and collective action
Charmaine Lurch's intricate work challenges us to reconsider our relationships with nature and each other
Black Light is a column by Governor General Award-winning writer Amanda Parris that spotlights, champions and challenges art and popular culture that is created by Black people and/or centres Black people. While Amanda is away on maternity leave, a different writer will be featured in a guest edition of the column each month. This month's edition is an essay by writer and editor Nehal El-Hadi.
The music video for Wu-Tang Clan's "Triumph" opens with an announcer delivering a Special News Bulletin: "We've just received news that New York City is under attack," she announces in a serious tone, "by swarms of killer bees." The news report is accompanied by aerial shots of New York City neighbourhoods swarmed by bees, followed by footage of running crowds with digitized bees flying above them. It's one of the most epic rap videos of all time, containing lyrical and visual comic book references, scenes from Birth of a Nation, an appearance by Quincy Jones, and plenty of Wu iconography and lore.
Directed by Brett Ratner in 1997 before he'd done any feature films, the video cost around $800,000 USD to make — an incredible amount for a rap video at the time. The money was spent on the then-cutting edge special effects that portrayed members of the Wu-Tang Clan dissolving in and out of swarms of bees. And in the clean edit of the track for airplay, explicit language is replaced with the sound of buzzing bees. It's one of my favourite music videos, and because of it, I've forever associated bees with the Wu-Tang's radical collective politics, and by extension, Blackness — and I pay attention when these come together elsewhere.
This convergence is strongly felt in Toronto-based artist Charmaine Lurch's ongoing apian project. Since 2012, Lurch has been making wire sculptures of bees, which she then invites others to wrap in yarn. For her, the project is an opportunity to discuss the many ways in which human life is intertwined with bees, and her work brings together Blackness, bees and collective action.
As an interdisciplinary visual artist, Lurch's work looks at the relationships between Blackness and the environment. Her charcoal-on-parchment series Being, Belonging and Grace presents five images of Black women in action: reading, turning away, halfway through a backflip. Her compelling exploration of the character of Sycorax (the mother of Caliban in Shakespeare's The Tempest) looks at the geographies and histories of Black women. Much of Lurch's work asks explicit questions about race — and this extends to the bees, even if the reckoning isn't as obvious as in some of her other pieces.
"If you're out of place, you're perceived as not belonging. Bees, if they're outside, you might tolerate them. But should they come inside, they're perceived as dangerous and you want to kill them or get rid of them," Lurch explains. "With Black people, they're considered more dangerous when they're in a place you think they shouldn't be."
Lurch's Wild Bees project appealed to me in several different ways. First, in my Wu-Tang-derived understanding of bees as a metaphor for radical Black collective action; second, in my work in reporting on environmental issues and research into how they are communicated; and third, in a personal fascination with the ways in which human-bee relationships take place in agricultural, beauty and military industries.
What we're learning about bees is that they occupy crucial places and roles in our ecosystems and production systems. And, more importantly, our survival is all tangled up in theirs: their collapse is ours.
When it comes to environmental issues, the threat to bees is pretty high on the list of what most people are concerned about. It's one of the things that people feel they can address: whole industries have come up around bee-friendly products, hobby beekeeping and save-the-bees fundraising. But all of these efforts and messages focus on one species of bee: the domesticated honeybee, Apis mellifera, which is only one of over 20,000 bee species in the world. For such an intense fascination with bees, we're mostly woefully ignorant about them, conflating them with hornets and wasps, and unaware of how expansive the bee universe is. Lurch's work goes well beyond the honeybee, making visible the wonderfully diverse world of bees.
Bees have a unique relationship with us unlike any other creature. We harvest and consume their honey and royal jelly. We employ — and I use this word very deliberately here to indicate the labour bees provide us — bees on an industrial scale as agricultural pollinators. Bees are inextricable from the military, even if many people may not realize it: the language of drones draws from melittology (the study of bees) and the first act of entomological warfare involved throwing hives at the enemy.
Lurch's bee sculptures are a portal into their wildly diverse lives. One of the biggest misconceptions that her work challenges is the idea that bees are hive creatures; in fact, 90 per cent of all bee species are solitary. Lurch's bees are female solitary bees, and while this flies in the face of what the Wu-Tang Clan had me believe, Lurch brings back collectivity in the collaborative ways that her bees are created. First, she makes the sculptures out of different colours and gages of wire, and then she invites other people — assistants, community members, schoolchildren — to wrap them with yarn and wool.
"Bees are hard to see unless they've landed on something or they're dead," Lurch says. "I wanted to see them more. The wire describes a shape, but you can see through it. I thought it would be a perfect way to capture that strength of the structure of the bee and get a sense of that invisibility as they move through space."
What we're learning about bees is that they occupy crucial places and roles in our ecosystems and production systems. And, more importantly, our survival is all tangled up in theirs: their collapse is ours.- Nehal El-Hadi
Lurch's interest in bees was fed by renowned melittologist Laurence Packer, author of Keeping the Bees, who supplies the bee specimens she models her sculptures on. When Lurch describes her bees, I'm caught up in the singularities she attributes to each one: their colours, their various proportions, their unkempt outlines. The bees are scaled up at around two feet long. Each bee is an individual, with varying colours and proportions, and different species are represented. Looking at them, I learn their names: cuckoo bees, mining bees, leafcutter bees, sweat bees. I also find out that only the female worker bees have stingers, which they keep out of sight — giving new meaning to this gendered kamikaze weaponry.
The bee sculptures are beautiful. The ones I have the opportunity to handle are surprisingly light, all wire and air, with varying proportions and uneven surfaces intended to echo the individuality of each bee. The changing passage of light through the bees adds a graceful dynamism through the movements of their shadows; Lurch's manipulation of the wire to consider this seems to be a way to contend with what is both within and out of control, allowing the bees to have a life beyond her production. And although the sculptures are thousands of times larger than reference points, they maintain the essence of the bee.
The work draws attention to not just the plight of bees, but also their beauty, evolution and industry. And of equal importance is Lurch's involvement of other people in the production of the sculptures. By inviting us — her audience and collaborators — into this world of bees, she challenges us to reconsider our relationships with nature and each other: here, the bees organize us collectively at Lurch's guidance.