European colonialism was both preceded and accompanied by expeditions that aimed at charting the territory and classifying natural resources while all the while paving the way for occupation and exploitation. The supposed discovery and subsequent naming and cataloging of plants disregarded and obliterated existing indigenous plant names and botanical knowledge and imposed the Linnaean system of classification and its particular European rationality.
In What Plants Were Called Before They Had a Name, Orlow connects ethnobotanical resources with encounters with indigenous spiritual guides of the Guatemalan Altiplano and elsewhere as a way of recovering memory and linguistic presence. Coming across a 1970’s publication by the Instituto Indigenista de Guatemala on medicinal plants, in which all the plants are labeled in Spanish, the artist embarked on a journey to recover the loss of indigenous languages, knowledge and cultural diversity and to counter the continuing epistemic violence within Western dominated knowledge systems. This project revisits the publication and opens it up to some of the many other languages which populate Guatemala: different Mayan spiritual guides write the plant names in their languages onto the pages.