Trash Tree in Malabo

All humans’ stories are engaging; some are astounding. Here is Plácido Guimaraes, aka “Pocho,” community artist in Equatorial Guinea’s capital, Malabo.


Pocho left his country during the extrajudicial killings of the 1970s, made his way to Spain, the former colonizing country of his own. After five years there, he moved to Ukraine, where he studied urban architecture. In the 1980s he went back to Spain, this time to Valencia, where he looked at how to work textiles into theater, dance, and film. When the coast cleared a bit in the 1990s, he returned to Equatorial Guinea to “rediscover his roots.”

He is a man of language and spatial twists. Earth Day, 2016, was themed “Trees for the Planet,” and a community park called Alcaide was spruced up (pun forgiven, I hope) for the occasion. Embassies, oil companies, community activists joined to clear and paint the area on a Saturday morning, working around a live soccer game on the field. Trees went up, garbage was removed.

IMG_8588It was a tiny gesture in a yearly tradition started in 1970. The political climate in the United States was different back then. A Democrat from Wisconsin (Gaylord Nelson) and a Republican Congressman (Pete McCloskey) cosponsored the first celebration. Bipartisanship, imagine! Now 100 countries participate, and (supposedly) over a billion individuals in their various places. If this is more or less true, it would be the largest community (virtual) gathering in history.

Working quickly to execute a concept he had in advance, the artist had the idea to celebrate garbage’s removal by immortalizing the garbage itself, as a tree. A good joke on degradation, to exalt it. The tree here pictured has no natural materials, but is made of metal, cables, wire, and fragments of discarded plastic water bottles.

And here it remains after a week, anyway. Solid, adapted to change, likely to endure. Ominous clouds in the background contrast the burst of sunlight on the “tree” itself. Not to hyperventilate here, but note the same principles at work in Rembrandt’s “Windmill,” now on view at the National Gallery in Washington, DC.

Real trees are not symbols, but are loved for themselves. This lovely, phony one, entirely symbolic, will show up little in nature but lots in people’s imaginations and memories.

I don’t know if trees in clusters sense community, but humans have communities solely by sensing them. On some occasions, a lifted spirit turns the community’s attention to itself, through depiction, humor, and the physical markers that guide people’s attention and memories. It has to do with survival, since the alternatives are stark.

Dan Whitman teaches Foreign Policy at the Washington Semester Program, American University. As Public Diplomacy officer in USIA and the Department of State for more than 25 years, he drafted and edited speeches for U.S. ambassadors in Denmark, Spain, South Africa, Cameroon, Haiti, and Guinea-Conakry. A senior Foreign Service Officer, he retired in 2009 from the Bureau of African Affairs, U.S. Department of State.

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