Mass Extinction: Art, Ritual, Story, and the Sacred

December 13, 2022

In January and February 2023, the Institute of Sacred Music is hosting a series of four webinars that explore topics relating to Mass Extinction: Art, Ritual, Story, and the Sacred. The talks are all offered via Zoom from 12-1 p.m.  EST. Anyone is welcome to join, though registration is required. Please register for each webinar event separately. 

Webinars at a glance

January 27: Sacred Lands, Sacred Ecologies: Poetic and Photographic Engagements with Craig Santos Perez and Subhankar Banerjee Register

February 3: Narrating Extinction in History and Myth with Sadiah Qureshi and Nancy Menning Register

February 17: Aesthetics of Extinction with Sugata Ray and Stefan Skrimshire Register

February 24: Remembering Lost Species: Rituals for the Anthropocene with Persephone Pearl, Emily Laurens, and Rachel Porter Register

Full details about the talks and speakers for each webinar are listed below.


Sacred Lands, Sacred Ecologies: Poetic and Photographic Engagements

  January 27, 12-1 p.m. Craig Santos Perez and Subhankar Banerjee   

Craig Santos Perez will speak on Pacific Islander Extinction Stories and Sacred Ecologies, sharing poetry and creative nonfiction about the mass extinction of birds in the Pacific Islands. He will also discuss how Pacific stories articulate indigenous concepts of sacred ecologies and multi-species kinships. 

Following with a two-person panel, Subhankar Banerjee will talk on The Garland Changes Everything: Religion, Ecology, and Justice in the Sundarban. His discussion will focus on a micro-scale story—a close reading of one single photograph, Dokkhin Rai, that Banerjee made in the Sundarban Tiger Reserve in India in September 2022. The photograph shows several different species of mangrove trees, a (plastic) red garland hanging from one of those trees, and a tiger just underneath and behind the tree, partially visible and looking askance at the viewer. The garland is the trace of an offering to the forest deity Bonbibi that was placed by honey collectors from a neighboring village after they came out of the forest with a successful harvest in spring. The story of Bonbibi which includes Dokkhin Rai, the demon god in the form of a tiger—is well known and written about extensively in Bengali and English. Banerjee offers a new way to engage with an old story by doing visual analysis on what appears to be likely a first-of-its-kind photograph taken in the Sundarban Tiger Reserve. Presented in a highly accessible manner, the brief remarks could be of interest to students and scholars from a wide range of fields, including religion and ecology, environmental humanities, biodiversity conservation, environmental justice, and photography.    

Craig Santos Perez is an indigenous Pacific Islander from Guam. He is the co-editor of six anthologies and the author of five books of poetry and the monograph, Navigating Chamoru Poetry: Indigeneity, Aesthetics, and Decolonization. He is a professor in the English department at the University of Hawaiʻi, Mānoa.

Subhankar Banerjee is a professor of Art and Ecology and founding director of the Center for Environmental Arts and Humanities at the University of New Mexico. Co-editor (with TJ Demos and Emily Eliza Scott) of the Routledge Companion to Contemporary Art, Visual Culture, and Climate Change (2021), Banerjee most recently served as the director and co-curator (with Jennifer Garcia Peacock) of “a Library, a Classroom, and the World” project for the 2022 Venice Biennial Art exhibition Personal Structures, which was organized and hosted by the European Cultural Centre in Venice, Italy, and won the 2022 ECC Award for University and Research Project. Banerjee wrote the Foreword for Audubon at Sea: The Coastal and Transatlantic Adventures of John James Audubon (The University of Chicago Press, 2022); is co-author (with Finis Dunaway) of an article “Beyond Fortress Conservation: Postcards of Biodiversity and Justice” scheduled to appear in the January 2023 issue of Environmental History; and is currently completing a book on shorebirds, Birds of Wind (Seven Stories Press, forthcoming).


Narrating Extinction in History and Myth

February 3, 12-1 p.m.  Sadiah Qureshi and Nancy Menning

Making Extinction Human in the Anthropocene will be the subject of Sadiah Qureshi’s talk. Extinction might be a natural process, but it is also how humans make sense of a world they’re changing in unprecedented ways. This talk will explore some of the ways humans have contributed to developing ideas of extinction, but also creating meanings from extinction that have contributed to empire and dispossession with important consequences for addressing historical injustice in the present day.

Nancy Manning will then discuss Two sparrows falling: Imagining avian exhaustion. The Noah’s Ark myth, a tale of rising seas and catastrophic loss of life, is ever present as we ponder ongoing climate collapse and mass extinctions. This presentation enters imaginatively into the early days of the Genesis flood, refracted through our current environmental crisis. How might the humans on the Ark have borne witness to the chaos, mourned their losses, and acted to secure the future?

Sadiah Qureshi is a historian of race, science, and empire and is currently writing a history of extinction for Penguin Random House. Her previous book, Peoples on Parade (2011), explored the importance of displayed people for the remaking of race and anthropology in the nineteenth century. She cannot bear the thought of living in a world without tigers.

Nancy Menning is an independent scholar committed to enlivening the religious imagination. She writes on climate collapse and species extinctions through the lens of Noah’s Ark. Dr. Menning lives in the traditional homelands of the Kalapuya people in the Willamette River watershed of western Oregon, where she donates time to land restoration activities and joins with others to imagine decolonized futures.


Aesthetics of Extinction

February 17, 12-1 p.m. with Sugata Ray and Stefan Skrimshire

Sugata Ray’s talk centers on Dead as a Dodo: Visualizing Anthropocene Extinction in the Early Modern World. Among the many species that went extinct in the last five hundred years or so under colonial regimes globally, it is the ill-fated dodo (Raphus cucullatus) endemic to the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius that became an early icon of the Anthropocene Extinction. This talk turns to early modern visual representations of the bird by Western European artists such as Roelandt Savery to explore the unequivocal complicity between imperialism and aesthetic regimes in casting ecocide as the de facto story of European modernity’s global teleology. While much has been written on the biotechnological apparatuses that expedited the extinction of the dodo in the seventeenth century under Dutch colonialism, I argue that imperial artistic cultures played an equally vital role in presenting nonhuman extinction as a form of incommensurability with the socio-environmental transformations that were part and parcel of the global dispersion of Western European modernity.

Stefan Skrimshire will speak about Creating, Thinking and Feeling Through Extinction as he reflects on lessons learned from a collaborative project in the UK that brought together performing and visuals artists, refugees and asylum seekers, Buddhist monks, and members of the public, to explore embodied responses to the mass extinction crisis. He reflects on the challenges of exploring a topic at once conceptually complex, emotionally overwhelming, politically charged, and spiritually evocative, and ask: what role do the arts have to play in helping us negotiate these challenges? He hopes to show part of the video artwork by artist Lou Chapelle that was commissioned as part of the project.

Sugata Ray is associate professor of South and Southeast Asian art and architecture in the departments of History of Art and South and Southeast Asian Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Ray’s recent books include Climate Change and the Art of Devotion: Geoaesthetics in the Land of Krishna, 1550–1850 (2019; awarded the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain’s Alice Davis Hitchcock Medallion and the American Academy of Religion’s Religion and the Arts Book Award) and Water Histories of South Asia: The Materiality of Liquescence (coedited; 2020). He is currently writing a book on Anthropocene extinction in the early modern period.

Stefan Skrimshire is an associate professor of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Leeds, UK. His teaching covers two main areas: political/ecological theology and continental philosophy. His research focus is the theological and philosophical dimensions of climate change and ecological activism; more specifically, the legacy of Christian apocalyptic, utopian and eschatological belief on extinction narratives. I am leading three research projects in this area: ‘Religion and Extinction’, ‘Thinking Through Extinction’, and the Leverhulme Extinction Studies Doctoral Training Programme.


Remembering Lost Species: Rituals for the Anthropocene

February 24, 12-1 p.m. with Persephone Pearl, Emily Laurens, and Rachel Porter

Join Emily Laurens, Rachel Porter and Persephone Pearl, aka Feral Theatre—the co-founders of Remembrance Day for Lost Species—for a talk about the project and their journeys with it as performers and activists over the past decade. Their own offerings to this annually recurring world-wide initiative have ranged from rough theatre, puppetry and procession to Zoom conferences, experimental rituals and most recently spell-casting. Is ritual art? Is art a ritual? And what makes them believe that any of it can have an impact or be a meaningful form of eco-social activism?

Persephone Pearl is a Brighton-based arts producer and director who has led arts and environment organisation ONCA since 2012, devising and producing dozens of multidisciplinary collaborative creative projects. Her background is as a touring theatre and circus performer.  In 2011 she trained as a celebrant with Dead Good Guides. Persephone is an activist and facilitator now training in psychotherapy at Brighton University. 

Emily Laurens lives and works in Wales as a multi-disciplinary artist working with themes around colonialism and race, memorialisation and identity, healing justice and reparations. Emily has had a number of commissions including from National Theatre Wales, the Arts Council of Wales and National Museums Wales. She is currently training in art psychotherapy.  

Rachel Porter originally trained as an actress and theatre deviser with John Wright at Middlesex University. She later gained an MA at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in drama therapy. She is now a lecturer on that drama therapy training and an academic developing new ways of working, particularly with marginalised and disabled communities and with non-verbal communication. Rachel has developed a number of solo works performed in Belgium and the UK including Songs for Waiting and Silent Tarot. Lockdown periods encouraged her exploration of performing solo work through digital photography.