Natasha Wheat’s Kerosene Triptych (2011) is composed of three images, one each from the digital files of the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Field Museum tropical research archive. The original photographs were taken by anonymous photographers, not as art but as documents of the building of the Panama Canal.
The laborers in the images are holding cans of kerosene and spraying it into the foliage. It was a common practice during the building of the canal for American companies and the military to import black workers from the Antilles Islands to spray kerosene to kill mosquitoes and prevent malaria. This practice resulted in massive health problems for the laborers and the disappearance of many species of local wildlife—not just insects but also plants and animals. With this work, Wheat uncovers and generates a space where the movement of objects (the movement of objects being the function of the Panama Canal) takes priority over life, art, and society itself. The coming together of the three images into a single work stands as abstract documentation of sterilization—both cultural and biological.