The World was My Garden, a solo exhibition of Christopher Joshua Benton’s (SMACT ’23) works, uses the palm tree as a metaphor for migration, labor economies, and the history of slavery in the Gulf. Charting a path from Zanzibar to the Khaleej and finally to the United States, the exhibition takes as a point of departure the coercion of the palm tree and the date as it probes into issues of the archive, lost genealogies, and American identity politics.

Combining film, installation, and sculpture, the show juxtaposes two stories: how the date palm lead to the height of the Indian Ocean slave trade around the turn of the 20th century and how that same palm tree ended up in California, which today is the second largest producer of dates. The centerpiece of the exhibition is the “My Plant Immigrants,” which features a 5-meter tall medjoul date palm tree that’s magically suspended in the air, just like the commodities we buy, sell, and trade everyday.

The result of an extensive research process, the exhibition features various collaborations with academics and institutions. The film “The Kite Has Come” centers around Benton’s access to rare archival images of Zanzibar from the Winterton Collection of the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies at Northwestern University. Additionally, the film “Welcome to Mecca, California” features narration and archival material from Sarah Seekatz, PhD, a historian of the Coachella Valley and professor of Mexican American and U.S. History at San Joaquin Delta College.

Curated by Till Fellrath and Sam Bardouil of Art Reoriented (Co-directors, Hamburger Banhof; Artistic Directors, Lyon Biennial; Curators, French Pavilion of Venice Biennial 2022), the exhibition is the culmination of a year-long process of mentorship and support through Abu Dhabi Art’s Beyond: Emerging Artists program, which commissions three artists to create a significant new work with a $25,000 grant. The exhibition ran from November 16 – December 8, 2021.

About the Artist
Christopher Joshua Benton (b. 1988, US) is an American artist working across photography, film, and installation art. Christopher works closely with communities and neighborhoods to instigate collaboration and share stories of power, labor, and hope. His practice explores how the working-class uses cultural innovation to stage resistance to postcolonial and neoliberal forces. Past work has been presented at museums and institutions across the Middle East, including Alserkal Avenue, the Fikra Graphic Design Biennial, and Jameel Arts Centre. He is currently pursuing his MS in Art, Culture, and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology through the generous support of the Salama Bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation.