Lutfi Janania

The Honduran-born botanical artist creates objects and sculptures coined from the natural world

The Central American country of Honduras is rich in flora. So immense that it runs miles, canopied amongst mangroves, cloud forests and long lines of coast stretching across the Caribbean Sea, to the north, south and Pacific Ocean. It’s marked by high and rainy mountainous slopes of the country’s highlands, dense in oak-pine forests and delicious woodlands that spreads for valleys upon valleys. Yet despite its vast occupancy of luscious lands and lively fauna that inhabit it, Honduras has also undergone some dramatic environmentalist issues. This includes the loss of soil fertility and soil erosion, plus the depletion of forests where trees have been harvested for lumber, firewood and land. Its fragility is only increasing, but it’s also these very pines, leafs and flowers that serve as a delectable backdrop and inspiration for one particular artist working today, Lutfi Janania.

Lutfi is a Honduran botanical artist who was raised amongst the rainforest and mountains of San Pedro Sula. After emigrating to New York City, the artist was in search of a new utopia – one comparatively different to the green facades of his upbringing. And, in doing so, he started working in the fashion industry whereby he learned about construction, colour and texture; the key elements to his work now. A few design roles later, and he finally ventured out on his own as a stylist, working on editorials and employing the use of flowers within the backdrops and more subtle accents of the shoots. This is the moment when he realised he’d found his utopia, or better yet his “passion for creating fantasy through experiences that could be harnessed through botanical design,” he tells me. Naturally, this led to the launch of his own design studio, Rosalila, during which he works with botanicals to build objects, sculptures and installations.

Corallia. Shot by: Maksim Axelrod

“I live for the idea of creating a fantasy, transforming a dream into reality,” he continues, noting how this was fully harnessed once he’d moved to the USA. “I imagine it as materialising an enchanting and otherworldly environment and the creatures that live in it.” Through freshly cut tropical plants used in installations through to various assortments of trimmings and flowers, Rosalia is indeed a “fun, flirty, exotic yet very elegant” outlet for his goals and view of the world. “Think of that sensation when taking in the lively rays of sun in the tropical beaches of Honduras while holding a delicious spicy margarita in your hand.”

Lutfi’s reasons for venturing into the field of botanicals stems wholly from his past. His familial home, for instance, is located on a nature preserve, built by his grandfather amongst the wild forest. Describing the environment as being “literally Jurassic in size”, Lutfi had the entire ecosystem at his fingertips. “The trees tower over my house and provide habitat for a variety of tropical birds and giant variegated monsteras, and other plants which climb and drape all over their entirety. Coming of age in such company really shaped my understanding of colour texture and light.”

The typical compositions of a forest tend to be centralised, as the plants reach for the light in their journey to photosynthesise. Lutfi’s work, however, completely defies the laws of gravity, and of the rainforest for that matter. He relies steadily on light, weight, balance and, of course, gravity, to stretch and spread his pieces to achieve questionable angles. Reaching branches are paired with dried florals, “which seem to simultaneously bloom and weep”, while curved woods and obscure silhouettes are formed through the skill of finding stability within his striking sculpture pieces. It’s an art form in itself.

Looking inwards, and beyond the outer layer of wildness and beauty, you’ll notice how Lutfi’s structures are more than just a display of expansive nature. He picks his materials depending on the stories that they speak, especially those that tell tales of their homelands. “And because of my upbringing in the bioreserve of Honduras, my relationship and experiences with the natural world have led my inspiration to be often rooted in nature,” he explains, weaponising both permanent and sustainable objects in order to reach the studio’s environmentally conscious goals. “At Rosalila, we have a conscious practice; we don’t believe in a wasteful way of designing. We repurpose our materials, pushing their limits and boundaries.” 

Leafy Sea Dragon. Shot by: Leon Hernandez

The Leafy Sea Dragon sculpture embodies this entirely, as its’ construed of hand-preserved botanicals, manzanita wood branches and crystals. “The piece explores negative space, grandeur and fantasy with an emotional connection,” adds Lutfi, who collaborated with a family-owned fabricator in Queens to create the Italian rainforest marble base, and a Brooklyn-based metalworker in Brooklyn to weld the brand stand, before adding in the botanical work crafted by the studio. It’s an immeasurable piece with strands and spikes alluding to the ever-growing quality of nature; punches of pinks are tossed amongst the desolate, earthy tones of the environment, causing a fiery juxtaposition of fertility and sterility that plausibly takes a stand against the dwindling lands of the rainforest.

All of Lutfi’s pieces encompass a myriad of materials, be it marble, quartz, brass, manzanilla wood, curly vines and hand-preserved botanicals. And through the marriage of the man-made and natural, his pieces are greatly provocative. “My desire is to convey emotions, feelings and sensations and the dualities in them,” he shares on a final note about the work’s impact. “When compiled together, these vignettes with crooked leaves generate sorrow, curiosity, anticipation and longing. In stirring such emotions, the environment begins to take shape and the life within the work becomes evident. The dried, dehydrated material is not just preserved, it’s persevering and actively creating. What appears to be dead is very much alive.”

Portrait in front of sculpture. Shot by: Ricardo Rivera
The Mirror. Housed by: @Ashya.co. Shot by: @equatorproductions
Corallia. Shot by: Maksim Axelrod

Have You Ever Seen a River Stop?

Amazonian fires, dams and the occupation of indigenous land; Barbican Centre’s new series of films looks at climate justice in Brazil

The river is rich in symbolism. It denotes nature, just as much as it suffuses the landscape with moisture, hydrating the soil to bring growth, food, air and life. But in equal parts, the river represents the manmade, and the lengths in which humankind will drain the organic resource to manipulate, guide and provide water to its growing population. And in the case of the climate emergency, the river is perceived as a goldmine. Many are without adequate water supplies and the world is becoming ever-more thirsty. Wild fires are increasing, droughts are more frequent and the reliance on our rivers is becoming imperious. 

This is a global situation, but one that’s particularly prevalent in Brazil – a topic that’s explored in a new series of short films hosted by London’s Barbican Centre, titled Have You Ever Seen a River Stop? Brought in conjunction with an exhibition, Claudia Andujar: The Yanomami Struggle – a show dedicated to the work, photography and activism of the Brazilian artist who defended the territory of the Yanomami, one of Brazil’s largest indigenous peoples, from illegal gold mining – the film series considers the problems of Brazil’s attempt to modernise, and the impact this has had on its civilians. Think dams, highway constructs, infrastructures and more, all of which are perceived through the lens of contemporary art and in films titled YWY, a androide by Pedro Neves Marques; A Gente Rio , Carolina Caycedo; Equilíbrio and Yawar by Olinda Muniz Wenderley.

“It is not difficult to imagine why Brazil comes to mind when we discuss climate justice,” explains Francesca Cavallo, researcher, writer, curator, and organiser behind the event. “The fires in the Amazon region, the recent disputes around the occupation of indigenous land, the enormous economic interest that international banks and corporations have in the country, and Bolosnaro’s handling of it all are among the most shocking examples of how climate change is not a thing of the future, but something we should deal with now.”

Indeed provoking change, the event shifts its focus onto those who are directly affected by climate change in Brazil; it’s a welcomed turn, “especially if we think that what we mostly hear from public figures are top-down, techno-modernist solutions,” adds Francesca. “These approaches do not consider that it’s the affected people, indigenous or not, that should decide how change should happen.”

Additionally, those behind Have You Ever Seen a River Stop? wanted to examine how these topics of environmental disasters in Brazil could be brought outside the usual spheres of protest, and instead mobilise the power of art and cultural institutions to reach a wider audience, including those “that are not those already ‘converted’.” This is achieved through working with London’s Barbican, and it gives what Francesca describes as “another important layer” – brought into light through discussions contextualised in Claudia Aundujar’s work and exhibition. “Indigenous people are taking ownership of media tools and of the narratives that, for too long, white people have been telling about them.” says Francesca. “These voices are important if we want to re-asses how we can live tougher on a planet that is warming up.”

Beforehand, as phrased by Francesca, people used to talk of “natural disasters”, yet in the case of the Anthropocene – a unit of geological time used to describe the recent period in Earth’s history wherein humans started to have significant impact – these disasters are never just “natural”. They’re man-made and they’re devastating. As such, the films address the “factual, political, the imaginative and the spiritual”, showcasing different moods and sentiments, rather than the typical documentary manner of things.

Carolina Cyacedo’s film A Gente Rio, for example, indirectly discusses a one of the worst environmental disasters in Brazil caused by the mining industry, whilst showing how livelihoods depend on the river. “The collapse in 2015 of the Samarco dam destroyed and polluted the Rio Doce’s region with poisonous minerals,” says Francesca. “For the post-show discussion, and thanks to Carolina’s fascination (who also renounced her screening fee in favour of the organisation), we were able to invite MUB, the Movement of People affected by Dams, to talk both about their issues and the collaboration with Carolina. In this case, it was terrific to ask the activists themselves what they got from this collaboration. Sometimes people pretend a bit too much from artists that engage with these issues; artists are always prone to criticism for exploiting other people’s tragedies.”

Other works analyse the more science fiction, like Pedo Neves Marques YWY a androide, as the film navigates a plantation of transgenic crops and an Android, played by indigenous activist Zahy Guajajara, talks to the plants about seed sterility and reproductive rights. “The long close-ups on Zahy’s face, the proximity they create between the viewer and the android make a supposed fiction all too familiar if one thinks of how transgenic seeds have been imposed by international corporations, such as Monsanto, across South America and the world,” Francesca explains. While Kaapora and Equilibrio, two interconnected films by Olina Muniz Wanderley, are seen as a reckoning of the filmmaker’s identity as an indigenous woman, “as she becomes inhabited or possessed by this spirit that protects the forest, Kaapora, and how this encounter informs her life and work at the farm.”

The river, then, not only serves as a metaphor throughout this series of events but also across the wider spectrum of things; it’s the veins that run through the earth, keeping it fertile and, more importantly, alive. Yet within Have You Ever Seen a River Stop? these issues of climate justice are raised as if they were poetry, shying away from the political or factual point of view and instead offering up the world on a cinematic platter. “Moreover, these films show for me the interdependence of issues of inequality, race, exploitation, representation and environmental degradation,” concludes Francesca. “One cannot even conceive of climate change without thinking of climate justice, nor can one neglect how spirituality and the imagination can give strength to accept or challenge the current situation. More than anything, all these films are, for me, profoundly poetical.”

Have You Ever Seen a River Stop? is available to watch online until Monday 19 July 2021