Jim Crow Oil: Environmental Justice and Visual Culture in Houston

Monira Al Qadiri, detail from Crude Eye, 2022. Single-channel video, sound, 10 min. Commissioned by Blaffer Art Museum and the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts at the University of Houston, from the Blaffer Art Museum’s website.

A larger than life simulation, autonomously working, greets you as you step off the elevator of the fourth floor of the Houston Museum of Natural Science (HMNS). Surrounded by the sounds of clanging metal, simulated helicopters, and oil pumping equipment, you might be struck at the sight of an imaginary offshore oil rig seeming to work without anyone around. Museums have historically made use of the notion of ascension: the Museum of Modern Art, for example, was supposed to be a respite from the daily coming and goings of mundane city life. Indeed, the sociologist Emile Durkheim characterized the difference between practices of the sacred and profane in precisely those terms: the mundane versus the transcendent. If in the art museum one is supposed to ascend to realms of higher universal creative being, then at the HMNS one ascends the elevator into a truly otherworldly offshore oil rig. It presents the view of offshore oil that most closely resembles that of the western, managerial oil perspective: oil as commodity in a smooth movement: from underground to platform to market. It is the oil rig as viewed from Houston, the self-described “energy capital.”

Interestingly enough, you could have been forgiven for mistaking a recent exhibit at the Blaffer Art Museum for the initial view at the fourth floor of the HMNS. Entering the first large room of Refined Vision, an exhibition by the Berlin-based artist Monira Al Qadiri, an equally massive video features a reconstruction of an oil refinery. Set against a black backdrop, the refinery is brightly lit and seemingly running completely autonomously. Like the HMNS, technology runs itself. But unlike the HMNS, the mood here is dark, even ominous, like the black background. If the HMNS looks at the rig as a celebratory epic of engineering, Qadiri’s simulation seems to offer a sort of fatalism: we will keep pumping hydrocarbons into planetary, ecological oblivion, no matter what you do.

A life-size reproduction of an offshore oil rig greets you as you step off the 4th floor elevator and into the Weiss Energy Hall, Houston Museum of Natural Science. Taken from the Houston Museum of Natural Science website, March 19, 2024.

The similarity of the two quite different views of hydrocarbon technology didn’t hit me at first. Only more recently did I begin to realize their homology, that even in their very different positions on the oil and gas industry, they both utilized the same form: the autonomous offshore rig in one case, the refinery in the other. Why was it, then, that both of these representations would use simulations of technology without any of the social apparatuses that make it possible? Was there some more basic assumption that each shared? And could unraveling that assumption tell us something critical: about how we think about, visualize, and practice hydrocarbon extraction? To a significant extent, both the HMNS and Qadiri’s reproductions present a form of technological determinism, of blinders towards the complex arrangements of contracts, corporate enclaves, and tax havens. Doing so absolves the industry of the ways it builds on racial hierarchy and smoothes over complicated subcontracting networks. This matters, both for how we should want to change the hydrocarbon industry, for our understanding of Houston in a “post” colonial world, and for climate activism. 

To the left of the Weiss Energy Hall’s reproduction, several successive models of offshore platforms demonstrate the types of drilling technology used at greater and greater ocean depths. These models illustrate a history of ever more difficult to access hydrocarbons in ever deeper water. But importantly, they also indicate choices on where and how to drill. Offshore platforms are a product not just of necessity, they reflect choices made by the industry to drill offshore instead of using cheaper onshore wells. In no small part, offshore platforms are desirable because of the distance they create between hydrocarbon production and the undesirable environmental, social, and political effects of that production. Masking this choice as technological or economic necessity risks naturalizing the practice of the industry.

In 2016, the art collective Not An Alternative with t.e.j.a.s. (Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services) created the art exhibit Mining the HMNS, a tongue-in-cheek institutional critique of the Houston Museum of Natural Science and its deep ties to the oil and gas industry. “Is the HMNS,” they asked, “a museum, or a PR front for the oil and gas industry?” A good question considering the litany of names funding the Energy Hall and the museum more broadly. Mining the HMNS also pointed towards the magical autonomy of the technology in the hall. What was left out, their project argued, was the voice of fenceline communities - largely communities of color that disproportionately live at the fence lines of the petrochemical industry, from the Houston ship channel to Cancer Alley.

Exhibit view of Mining the HMNS, by The Natural History Museum (the mobile museum project by Not An Alternative) and t.e.j.a.s.

Not An Alternative thus echoed arguments made by environmental justice writers and activists: that harmful effects of the industry - like air and water pollution - are disproportionately distributed by zip code and race. In Cancer Alley and the Houston Ship Channel, brown and black communities live on the fenclines of major polluters like Exxon and Formosa Plastics. But following oil and gas companies not just along their fence-lines but also in their tax havens, corporate enclaves, and international agreements also helps us picture what is missing from the HMNS. 

Take an oil rig off the coast of Equatorial Guinea as described by Hannah Appel in The Licit Life of Capitalism (2019). Composed of workers from Venezuela, Philippines, Nigeria, and twenty other countries, British and American expats occupy the highest management roles on the rig, while workers from “developing” countries work under them. Working conditions - from pay, to lodging, to electricity and healthcare, to shift time - are segregated on racial and national lines. The rig itself is owned by a company that leases it to Exxon, flying under the flag of the Cayman Islands in order to better avoid maritime tax law. The contract between the oil company and the dictator of Equatorial Guinea that helped to bring the offshore rig was negotiated over the unequal terrain of national instability created by IMF loans and the long history of colonialism. Profits from the rig help to stabilize dictator Teodoro Obiang’s repressive regime and keep local dissent low for the oil company. This is the offshore rig exploding in all its differentially patterned social and historical fabric.

Jim Crow Oil: Barastis (palm frond huts) provided to the Saudi workers in Dhahran stand in sharp contrast to the California style ranch houses for the white drillers and managers. Courtesy of Georgetown University Library. Reproduced in America’s Kingdom.

“Jim Crow Oil,” as I’m choosing to call it here, is a term borrowed from historian Robert Vitalis’ America’s Kingdom (2006), a history of ARAMCO in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Vitalis shows how ARAMCO - collectively owned by Texaco, Exxon, and Mobil - set up segregated housing and employment in Dhahran that mirrored Jim Crow segregation in America. This labor segregation was the focus of repeated labor strikes by Saudi workers in the 1950s. Even when the company got rid of Jim Crow it seemed only in name, justifying a new hierarchy based on  “skills” and the “market.” Transforming our vision of oil, literally, is more than just about changing how it is pictured. It is also about a deeper transformation in how we describe things like the economy. According to big oil, profit comes from placing themselves competitively in the market. Jim Crow Oil shows us how the market is not something that one is placed in, but rather itself produced through colonial history. 

A visual culture and recognition of Jim Crow Oil is imperative to an understanding of hydrocarbon responsibility in Houston. We need to connect environmental justice with an understanding of the global project of Jim Crow Oil. Just as W.E.B. Du Bois connected black liberation at home with the decolonial movement abroad, our striving for a rapid and just transition from fossil fuels should also connect with the racial hierarchy of those firms abroad.

Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland, Géographie des plantes Équinoxiales: Tableau physique des Andes et Pays voisins, from Essai sur la géographie des plantes, 1805, hand-colored print, 24 x 36 in., Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, © Copyright The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
Arpillera made by women from the town Melipilla. Women make wool and cook in the foreground, 1995. From Art Against Dictatorship: Making and Exporting Arpilleras Under Pinochet by Jacquiline Adams