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Seeds of change wins prestigious international award; The Vera List Centre Prize for Art and Politics

23 December 2016

A Bristol art project about migration has won the 2016-2018 Vera List Centre Prize for Art and Politics. Presented every two years to an artist, or group of artists, whose work furthers social justice, this year the winner is Brazilian artist Maria Thereza Alves, who created Bristol’s Floating Ballast Seed Garden, in collaboration with the University of Bristol Botanic Garden, Bristol City Council and Arnolfini.

The garden, which was berthed in Bristol’s floating harbour between 2012 and 2016, formed part of Berlin based Alves’ Seeds of Change project and was brought to Bristol in 2011 at the invitation of Bristol City Council and Arnolfini.

Making use of a derelict concrete barrage owned by Bristol Harbour Authority, the artist worked closely with Arnolfini, the University's Botanic Garden plant curator Nick Wray and designer Gitta Gschwendtner to develop a ballast garden design featuring plant species not native to the UK.

The Seeds of Change project was developed in 2002 as a way to explore the social, political and cultural history over centuries of “ballast seeds”. These dormant seeds from ports and lands far from Bristol were carried in the ballast (earth, shell, stone and even trees) once used by trading ships to stabilize themselves in the harbour. Much of this ballast was dumped onto the riverbanks to control the ship’s balance leading to many of these non-native seeds to germinate and grow where they fell, creating exotic landscapes up and down the Avon riverbank.

For Alves, ballast seeds and flora function as metaphors for trade routes, and with it, the movement of humans around the globe.

Maria Thereza Alves, said: “Investigations resulting in site specific Seeds of Change installations in several ports throughout Europe proposed the creation of ballast gardens.  However, it was only in Bristol, with the support of the city council that I was able to realize the Floating Ballast Garden celebrating the micro histories of plants and humans together.”

Since its inception, a number of versions of the project have been situated in port cities around Europe including Marseille, Reposaari, Exeter, Dunkirk, Liverpool, and Bristol.

Councillor Estella Tincknell, Deputy Mayor and Cabinet Member for Culture, said: “We were honoured to have Maria agree to come to Bristol and to bring with her the idea of using a garden to represent the story of human migration. I would like to warmly congratulate her on receiving this reward, a just recognition of her vision and ability to connect the complex tales of human and plant migration in such a beautiful and evocative fashion. As a trading city that once stood at the forefront of international trade it is important to remember the part our city played in this story, for good and bad, and to reflect on the significant economic and social impact trade has had on Bristol.”

Nick Wray, Curator of the Botanic Garden, added: “One of the aims of the project was to re-establish the intimate connection between Bristol’s cosmopolitan floral history and the port city’s economic and social histories. The floating ballast seed garden has provided thought provoking planting, delivering a multi educational message and initiating discussing and debate.  I am thrilled Maria has been awarded this prestigious prize and that through the project the people of Bristol have had the opportunity to learn about the city’s plants, trade and maritime past.”

Helen Davies, Director of Audience Engagement at Arnolfini, said: ”We are so proud of Maria Thereza’s award and to have worked on this project for Bristol, which has grown from our Port City exhibition in 2007.  Maria always had ambitions to realise a permanent garden in the city, which, with partner support, has delivered a vibrant public engagement programme, including talks, performances and artist commissions. This engagement has extended citywide into 11 ballast gardens in schools and 5 community groups across Bristol to increase our understanding of different heritages and engagement with the city’s trading and maritime past, creating a living history of our city.“

On awarding her the prize, the Vera List Centre said the project “…weaves together the fields of art and politics in the most exemplary ways… The history of human migration has never been more relevant.”

David E. Van Zandt, the New School’s president, said in a statement.  “Through creative and scientific expression, Alves has made our past come to life through visual and oral art forms and, at the same time, highlights the importance of migration in the history of society.”