Sympoietic Mapping;
Rotating Towards a Politics of Care

Sympoietic Mapping;
Rotating Towards a Politics of Care

Lilly Manycolors

Artist Lilly Manycolors brings our ecosystem to life through Indigenous ethics of interconnectedness

Mixed media artwork with two female figures side-by-side alongside a snake, a turtle, a spider and its web, and other objects layered upon a blue wavelike background.

Lilly Manycolors, Sympoietic Mapping (2022), mixed media on canvas 108”x84” 2021. Photo credit: Lilly Manycolors

You will have to navigate by your mother’s voice, renew the song she is singing. Fresh courage glimmers from planets. And lights the map printed with the blood of history, a map you will have to know by your intention, by the language of suns.
Joy Harjo, How We Became Human 

You will have to navigate by your mother’s voice…

Sympoietic Mapping, my multimedia cartographic painting, is the culmination of the last ten years of my survival and trauma navigation, ruddered by my own indoctrination into motherhood.  It is a visual representation of multidimensional geographies and reimagined mappings that show my daughter and I accompanied by seven other beings who show us how to navigate being-in-relationship – and more specifically, show me how to be a mother:

Teacher of care politics


Social, spacial, and spiritual cartographer

(to name a few)

You will have to navigate by your mother’s voice… Mother is our first teacher of mapping, navigating and charting. Mother is our first experience of bodyness, of place and belonging. Mother is our first instructor in the politics of care—systems, practices and behaviors that are grounded in consideration, compassion, courage and connection. But what happens for those of us who do not have, or have problematic mothers—mothers that perform colonial assimilation?—Mothers that chart from a place of pain or abandon us? Harjo’s subterranean poetic statement is painful for me as someone who is estranged from their mother. 

You will have to navigate by your mother’s voice, renew the song she is singing… What songs do mothers sing when they are passing on their trauma? Their anguish? Their hopes? Their dreams? What songs are buried beneath the generations of patriarchal-imperial-colonial consumption of bodies, imaginations, and animacy? 1 In Sympoietic Mapping, I attempt to curate a mothering practice that abides by sympoiesis, rotation and planetation—to give my daughter a visual song of care.

Sympoietic is my favourite word. It is a biology term meaning making with. 2 This word is very important to me as a single mother of mixed-race descent and multicultural location as it gives me permission to belong and participate with those around me—it allows me to rotate. I grew up without family from the age of fifteen on, and, in hindsight, was desperately sympoietically curating my selfhood with the world around me—Sympoietic Mapping

Sympoietic mapping is what I strive to do—a mechanism of worldbuilding that is rooted in interrelationality: a politics of care. Worldbuilding seems to be a massive term, Planetary in nature. Yet, what I have learned from my work with rehabilitating animals with Iranian Artist and Wildlife Rehabber, Sheida Soleimani, and partially growing up in the Australian outback, is that worldbuilding happens on a micro scale in every moment. Worldbuilding is defined as creating a tangible space where species are braided together. I believe people are capable of disidentifying with imperial-colonial mapping practices to worldbuild + curate reality otherwise. This most favorite and generous word, sympoiesis, provides me with ample instruction on what will happen when we rotate and take up the task of Hokulani A. Aikau’s challenge to go “beyond the why of settler colonization...” and figure the “how of decolonization.” 

Sympoetic Mapping enables this through two mechanisms. The first places me into what I have come to name as rotations, which is the psychological-spiritual-existential shift that occurs when I/you perform disidentifications and embody a politics of care. The second weaves care politics back into contemporary mapping practices which posit that all beings possess animacy (and/or sentience), and thus lessening the existential damage cartography can have.  

Furthermore, I employ my concept of rotations to do two things: first, to disidentify with the popular notion of ‘going back’/returning to Indigenous lifeways which stipulates that Indigenous people are of the past and there is something in the past to ‘return to.’ This idea upholds ideologies that time operates in a colonial temporality. In doing so, it invisibles existing Indigenous people and communities, contributes to land-grabs and resource extraction, supports the narratives that Indigenous and First Nations people are uncivilized +/ have gone extinct, and valorizes the past, effectively erasing the robust history of genocide and abuse by the original settlers and their descendants. Simultaneously, rotation challenges and disidentifies with the binary of the U.S. racial system that specifically renders Black, Indigenous and Brown people into commodities. 3 Rotation is meant to offer an option that does not require one to have historical amnesia or support racist ideologies that contribute to eco-genocide. Second, rotation allows one to understand that changing locations (perceptions) and changing positions (ethics) does not require one to physically move/migrate in order to participate in decolonization and thereafter. A tactic of settler +/ colonist conquest is changing physical location so that there is no accountability and responsibility for their actions. Instead, rotation is an existential shift without an untethering and severed connectivity and relationality to where one is. 

My cartographic painting is the result of my need to make material a politics of care. As Robin Wall Kimmerer (Potawatomi Nation) states, “A good mother grows into a richly eutrophic old woman, knowing that her work doesn’t end until she creates a home where all of life’s beings can flourish” (Kimmerer 2013:97). Sympoietic mapping is formed of tangible symbols giving substance to things often only felt or, in western circles, only theorized and abstracted. This painting is an arena where I worked out the concepts of rotation and planetation, states of being and practices that respond to José Muñoz’s disidentifications. 4 Disidentification is a term Muñoz defines as, “... managing and negotiating historical trauma and systemic violence” through the transformation of these systems into something else. That something, I hope, is love. 

Sympoietic Mapping is my own performance of disidentifications in that I work/ed to manage, negotiate and transform my patriarchal-imperial-colonial conditioning and trauma into something that is useful and nourishing. During this process, it became apparent how important trauma integration work is to the efforts of decolonization and rotation. As I painted, I listened to Dr. Akomolafe’s interview on the Green Dreamers Podcast where he shared these words of a Babalawo who he works with: “that wounds are sometimes not to be cured—that some wounds are portals, access points in a rhizomatic universe to other ways of being and becoming.”

This is an important component of sympoietic mapping: that wounds can be part of a cartographic process. How can our wounds inform a politics of care? 

Are the songs of our mothers, the ones woven with anguish, portals?

Present in Sympoetic Mapping are specific Animal and Spirit Nations who assist my daughter and I on our journey, demonstrating how to live well with others; how to rotate. My daughter and I have all we need as we traverse nebulous terrains, yet we are also seemingly suspended in place—movement without movement—a visible representation of rotating. We are rotating as a mechanism of sympoietic mapping due to us staying where we are, remaining in relationship to the histories and effects of what is and has happened, giving us the opportunity (with the support of the seven other elder-beings) to evolve/travel through accountability (able to account for), responsibility (able to respond to), and healing—to worldbuild responsibly. Rotation prevents historical amnesia, enabling one to stay responsible to the histories and realities of what it means to exist within a racist-patriarchal-colonial-industrial society, yet imagine and worldbuild towards a reality rooted in a politics of care. 

In my painting, the mixed media aspect assists me in my understanding of Mother-as-Cartographer—weaving people together—birthing realities—charting relationally, which results in multifaceted representations of interconnectedness. Relationships are not two-dimensional and temporally linear, as imperial-colonial cartography instructs, but are multi-textual, temporal, and dimensional. An example of this Mother-as-Cartographer is provided by Candice Fujikane, Japanese settler aloha ‘aina scholar and activist, of the Kānaka Maoli’s mapping practices in her book, Mapping for a Planetary Future. Fujikane highlights that the Kānaka Maoli chart inter- trans- relationally and perform auditory maps. In my own maturation into motherhood I have intimately learned that interrelationality is a foundational aspect of mapping via care. Fujikane focuses her research on the ways the Kānaka Maoli perform their methods of holistic cartography by engaging their creations stories, specifically the oral migration story of the Mo’o. Since the Kānaka Maoli’s mapping practices are embedded in their storied experiences of the Land, their bonds to it and to other inhabitants are not only strengthened, but multi-temporally anchored. 5 This embodies storying/mapping as a praxis of care for the Planet and its other inhabitants. This is sympoietic mapping. This is Mother-as-Cartographer. This is rotation.  

Sympoetic Mapping attempts to perform a cartographic charting of relationships between space, beings, and time, in a manner similar to the Mo’o creation story of the Kānaka Maoli where charting is not a controlled 2-dimensional space but rather visual, textual and experiential. Present in the painting are specific Animal and Spirit Nations who assist my daughter and I on our journey, reminding us of the politics of care.

In the arenas of worldbuilding and reality curation, our cartographic methods need to embody a politics of care where sympoiesis is the method of charting. The ways that those implicated in imperial-western cultures perceive land will shift to a perception rooted in animacy where society no longer requires people to derive their worth from property ownership and property no longer includes people’s bodies. Property politics will become a cautionary history lesson, and I dare to imagine the ways that we ‘design’ growing to embody Planetary intelligence. 6 We can look to the non-more-than-human animal relatives who perform sympoiesism and ask for instructions on how to… 

“heal the wounds, mend the bonds”

and simultaneously, we must assess which wounds from patriarchal-imperial-western-colonial society are portals, and which need to be bandaged, healed, and sealed. In what ways can our wounds from the perverted male consumption of all bodies, Land to human, become portals to other ways of being and becoming?

“Fresh courage glimmers from planets. And lights the map printed with the blood of history, a map you will have to know by your intention, by the language of suns.”

  1. My thinking around animacy is influenced by Robin Wall Kimmerer who states that, “a bay is a noun only if water is dead (but) the ver wiikwegamaa—to be a bay—releases the water from bondage and lets it live” (Kimmerer, 2013:55) and Mel Y. Chen, who states that, “interestingly, in most English language dictionaries, including Merriam-Webster’s and the Oxford English Dictionary (oed), the word animacy does not appear, though the related adjective animate does. The related senses of animate (ppl., adj., n.) found in the oed—of which only the adjective remains contemporary—are denoted as having the following Latin etymology: “ad. L. animātus filled with life, also, disposed, inclined, f. animāre to breathe, to quicken; f. anima air, breath, life, soul, mind.” As an adjective, animate means “endowed with life, living, alive”; “lively, having the full activity of life”; “pertaining to what is endowed with life; connected to animals”; and “denoting living beings.” Animus, on the other hand, derives from the Latin, meaning “(1) soul, (2) mind, (3) mental impulse, disposition, passion” and is defined as “actuating feeling, disposition in a particular direction, animating spirit or temper, usually of a hostile character; hence, animosity.” We might find in this lexical soup some tentative significations pertaining to materialization, negativity, passion, liveness, and a possible trace of quickened breath. Between these two, animate and animus, is a richly affective territory of mediation between life and death, positivity and negativity, impulse and substance; it might be where we could imagine the territory of animacy to reside.” (Chen, 2012:3)
  2. I first encountered the term sympoietic while reading Donna Haraway in graduate school. The concept of ‘making-with’ has been immensely instructive in my work for the reasons I outline above. While wanting to acknowledge the influence Haraway’s concept of sympoeisis has had on my thinking and making practice, I would also be remiss not to acknowledge that her work has recently been meaningfully critiqued by scholars such as Dixa Ramírez-D'Oleo in her essay “This Will not be Generative.” Ramirez-D’Oleo analyzes how Haraway’s language-use and potentially reductive turn to 'care,' disguises extraction from black people and presents a white fantasy of oversimplified togetherness between white and Indigenous people.
  3. The U.S is built on the unmaking and remaking of people from the west African continent into non-human/subhuman commodities to satiate the capitalist labor needs which is intrinsically tied to the genocide and assimilation, most commonly through residential schools, of Indigneous people of the now termed United States. Tiffany Lethabo King states that, “(i)n Red, White, and Black (2010), Wilderson, who also uses a triadic frame (Red, White and Black), reworks and alters Spillers’s conceptualization of flesh to elaborate on how the making of the human requires the unmaking of Black and Native bodies into nonhuman matter.” Throughout history it is obvious that the colonialist/European conqueror require an oppositional entity at all times to validate their superiority and since White=right/human then what/whomever is deemed opposition will be wrong/nonhuman. Vilna Bashi Treitler further illuminates the workings of racial issues by clarifying that “race is ‘new,’ having emerged as conquering European travelers deemed it necessary to make classifying distinctions between themselves and others.” Racism/racial systems that render Black and Indigenous people as nonhuman are deeply entrenched in property politics — most evidently in the quantity and quality of Black enslavement and Indigenous genocide.
  4. Planetation is a term I am using to reference the act of embodying Planetary ways of being which consists of engaging processes of death, birth, penetration, evolution, trans-species interactions, animalism, planetary consumption, decentralizing humans, and non/more-than-human perceptions. It is a term that is assisting me with my quest and request that humans/homo sapiens become animals again—not the animal that is perceived through the lens of human exceptionalism, rather in the animal lens that is rooted in limitlessness.
  5. I began building a relationship with the concept of ‘storying’ through Gregory A. Cajete’s work. Cajete is a Santa Clara Pueblo Indigenous professor whose book Indigenous Community: Rekindling the Teachings of the Seventh Fire got me thinking about mapping as-narrativizing as-storying. Cajete writes that “(s)tory is how we frame information and experience within a context that makes them meaningful. Even in modern times, we are one and all “storied and storying beings” (CAJETE 2015: 95). Storying in the context that I am engaging with it is an embodied practice rooted in interrelationality.
  6. My personal working definition of design situates design as a mechanism and the designer as an apparatus. This comes from my personal experiences participating in Indigenous North American and Afro-Indigenous ceremonies combined with my art practice which is completely driven by interventions and directions from non-human entities. From more mainstream authors like Arturo Escobar, I am encouraged by his inquiries such as, “can design be extricated from its embeddedness in modernist unsustainable and defuturing practices and redirected toward other ontological commitments, practices, narratives, and performances? Moreover, could design become part of the tool kit for transitions toward the pluriverse?” What would it produce to combine Escobar’s inquiry of what design could do with the task of engaging wounds as portals?


Aikau, Hokulani K., et al. “Indigenous Feminisms Roundtable.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, vol. 36, no. 3, 2015, p. 84., doi:10.5250/fronjwomestud.36.3.0084

Bashi Treitler, Vilna. The Ethnic Project: Transforming Racial Fiction Into Ethnic Factions. Stanford University Press, 2013. Bennett, Joshua. Being Property Once Myself: Blackness and the End of Man. Harvard University Press, 2022.

Cajete, Gregory, and James Sa'ke'j Youngblood Henderson. Indigenous Community: Rekindling the Teachings of the Seventh Fire: toward an Evolving Epistemology of Contemporary Indigenous Education. Living Justice Press, 2015

Chayne, Kamea. “Bayo Akomolafe Speaks about Slowing down and Surrendering Human Centrality.” GREEN DREAMER, GREEN DREAMER, 16 Sept. 2021,\

Chen, Mel Y. Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect. Duke University Press, 2012.

Coulthard, Glen Sean. Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition. University of Minnesota Press, 2014.

Escobar, Arturo. Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds. Duke University Press, 2018.

Fujikane, Candace, and C. M. Kaliko Baker. Mapping Abundance for a Planetary Future Kanaka Maoli and Critical Settler Cartography in Hawai'i. Duke University Press, 2021.

Haraway, Donna Jeanne. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press, 2016

Harjo, Joy. How we became human: new and selected poems. W.W. Norton & Company, 2002

Jackson, Zakiyyah Iman. Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World. NYU Press, 2020.

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. Milkweed Editions, 2013.

King, Tiffany Lethabo. The Black Shoals: Offshore Formations of Black and Native Studies. Duke University Press, 2019.

Latour, Bruno, and Catherine Porter. Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy. Harvard University Press, 2009.

Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford University Press, 2005

Muñoz José Esteban. Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. University of Minnesota Press, 2015

Ramírez-D’Oleo, D. (2023). This Will Not Be Generative. Cambridge Elements: Feminism and Contemporary Critical Theory, 1–67.

Tuck, Eve, and K. Wayne Yang. “Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, vol. 1, no. 1, 2012, pp. 1–40

Lilly Manycolors is a self-taught performance and mixed-media artist. Her art serves as a safe space for viewers to discuss decolonial futures, the underpinnings of their racial and cultural identities, and their relationship to others — both human and non-human. Her identity as a mixed-race person and single mother helps guide this practice. Manycolors is currently a Lecturer at the Rhode Island School of Design and a Youth Arts Programming Coordinator.

We welcome your questions, comments, and suggestions. Please share any thoughts to

Further Reading