Florence Barbour

"Palm God's Gift"

Section MS5, Lilly Markaki

Keywords: nature, moving image, body, performance

The relationship we have with products of care has evolved within the context of capitalist economies, epitomised by industries like Palm.

Palm has been hailed as God's gift,1 the elixir of life, a miracle biofuel, and a metamorphic sublime. OxG, a popular plague-resistant but impotent palm species, is commonly referred to as the "hope of America."2 It possesses mimetic and magical qualities, able to transform into diesel, paints, food, body products, and more. Moreover, it is cost-effective and boasts the highest yield per acre of oilseed crop, producing five times as much oil as rapeseed and six times as much as sunflower.

Approximately 70% of personal care products, including soap, shampoo, makeup, and lotion, contain ingredients derived from palm oil. However, there are over 200 different names for these palm oil ingredients, with only 10% containing the word 'palm'. With soap, shampoo, and moisturiser, we massage and leave on our skin, transcending both human and palm to become one. The paradox of these daily cleansing rituals and the reality of the vast exploitation and legacies of colonialism from which these products are derived confronts our understanding of what is 'clean' and what is 'dirty'.

As consumers, we can make choices about how we live our lives. We are complicit in our actions, whether choosing to eat meat or not. However, how can we avoid palm if it's so deeply integrated into our culture and rituals that we can no longer differentiate what contains palm and what doesn't? Even if a boycott were possible, simply replacing palm with alternative oils to satisfy our rampant demand could accelerate deforestation to match palm oil's yield. If we decide we must live with palm, the current certification process is crude and unsubstantiated. "Products can earn a certified sustainable label even if 99% of the palm oil included came from freshly deforested land."3 Therefore, we must assume that no palm oil is sustainable.

This project seeks to examine the nature of extreme consumption with everyday products of care, calling for urgent and deep consideration of the interactions we have with products, the life and histories of objects, solids, and liquids, and disentangling what we understand and accept to be a normal part of the 'everyday'. In the piece, a body is coated in 100% pure palm oil, representing the first iteration of the oil before further refining processes. The reminiscence of blood and violence in the red colour references the thousands of displaced people and other forms of life due to agribusiness. The violence that has disappeared into indifference is made starkly visible and unavoidable. Oscillating between domination and being dominated by the viscous and glutinous substance, one both embraces and is overwhelmed by the plant. The body becomes both the coloniser and the territory, iterating the inescapable symbiosis we have with these products. The emotional and repeated action of smearing, rubbing, and coating highlights the banality with which we perform these acts, revealing the tedium of the everyday.

1 Willie Mongin, Malaysian deputy minister at the Plantation Industries and Commodities, introduced the slogan “Palm oil is God's gift” after posting it on facebook alongside a verse from the book of genesis. This has been one of the official slogans in Malaysia since 2020. https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=pfbid02M6zZMkXdPVWtFLYQhuDvd9wqtcJGWsoSxVZm5aAxQPNVV1rtmkq18VEDDgAwQp7nl&id=338762906262441. 2 Michael Taussig,Palma Africana. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2018. 3 Paul Tullis, "How the world got hooked on palm oil," The Guardian, Feb 19, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/news/2019/feb/19/palm-oil-ingredient-biscuits-shampoo-environmental.