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Archive: Theatrum Botanicum


Devenir fleur / Becoming flower | MAMAC, Nice | 2022

Catalogue published on the occasion of the group exhibition Devenir fleur / Becoming flower at MAMAC Nice, curated by Hélène Guenin and Rébecca François and part of the Nice Biennal of Arts 2022, with works by Laurence Aëgerter, Maria Thereza Alves, Isa Barbier, Yto Barrada, Hicham Berrada, Minia Biabiany, Melanie Bonajo, Bianca Bondi, Fatma Bucak, Chiara Camoni, Ali Cherri, Jean Comandon & Pierre de Fonbrune, Marinette Cueco, Odonchimeg Davaadorj, Andy Goldsworthy, Nona Inescu, Kapwani Kiwanga, Tetsumi Kudo, Marie-Claire Messouma Manlanbien, Ana Mendieta, Marie Menken, Otobong Nkanga, Dennis Oppenheim, Uriel Orlow, Gabriel Orozco, Giuseppe Penone, Pia Rönicke, Michelle Stuart, Anaïs Tondeur, NILS-UDO, Zheng Bo.

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The Botanical City | Matthew Candy and Sandra Jasper | 2020

Roadside “weeds” and other routinely overlooked aspects to urban nature provide a fascinating glimpse into complex global ecologies and new cultures of nature emerging across the world. This unique collection of essays explores the botanical dimensions of urban space, ranging from scientific efforts to understand the distinctive dynamics of urban flora to the way spontaneous vegetation has inspired artists and writers.
The book comprises five thematic sections: “Histories and taxonomies,” “Botanizing the asphalt,” “The art of urban flora,” “Experiments in non-design,” and “Cartographic imaginations”. The essays explore developments in Berlin, London, Lahore, Tokyo, and many other cities, as well as more philosophical reflections on the meaning of urban nature under the putative shift to the Anthropocene.

Featuring still images from The Fairest Heritage.


Conversing with Leaves

Publication released the occasion of the exhibition Conversing with Leaves by Uriel Orlow at Kunsthalle Mainz, November 30, 2019 – March 15, 2020.

The title derives from the book of the same name written by Luther Burbank, a nineteenth-century American botanist renowned for watching plants and conducted numerous botanical experiments. Significantly, he used his knowledge to teach plants, as it were, as he considered them to be learning organisms that could be optimized and enhanced for human use. Although more than a century separates Burbank and artist Uriel Orlow, there are considerable overlaps between them, regarding the relationship between plants and humans, and the communication between them. However, there is one fundamental difference as regards their visions: Burbank specifically wanted to shape, cultivate, and enhance plants; while also interested in human influence on plants, Orlow does not himself exercise it, instead providing space for the plants themselves to tell the story. In media such as film, photography, and installations he uses archive and documentary material, the city, architecture and real people, to tempt the stories out of trees, flowers, herbs, and seeds — stories that are deeply bound up with humans, our past, our place in the world today — in short: our lives.

It is clear that plants have long served people and have constantly been made into witnesses of history, memorials to certain events, and therapeutic agents. Plants have for centuries been put to many purposes foreign to them, and have been exploited by all of us. That said, the ways in which they are used differ greatly, as do the interests involved.

Stefanie Böttcher

Contributions by Uriel Orlow, Stefanie Böttcher, Lina Louisa Krämer, Shela Sheikh and Hans Rudolf Reust.

Monograph published in 2020 by Archive Books, Berlin.

More info can be found at Archive Books here.


A Prisoner in the Garden

Preface, Introduction and  Bibliography of Theatrum Botanicum publication
Access here

Introduction: “A Prisoner in the Garden”
Uriel Orlow and Shela Sheikh


A Prisoner in the Garden, courtesy The Nelson Mandela Foundation.

In 1977, in his thirteenth year of incarceration in Robben Island prison, a photograph appeared in the global press of Nelson Mandela, dressed in prison clothing, leaning on a spade. This image, which appears on the dust jacket of this volume, had been taken on 25 April, during a visit by local and overseas press organized by the South African Prison Authorities. The image was captioned “A Prisoner Working in the Garden” by the authorities.[1] Shortly thereafter, Mandela and 28 other co-signatories wrote a letter (the first page of which is also reproduced on the dust jacket) addressed to the Single Cells Section of the prison, protesting against the purpose for and manner in which the visit was organized and conducted. In the letter, they complain of the deliberate violation of the prisoners’ right to privacy by taking their photographs without permission, and of the specification by the Minister of Prisons that the visit only occur on the condition that no communication whatsoever take place between the press and prisoners.[2]

Beyond this protest against the self-representation denied to them, the letter challenged the manner in which the press visit was organized so as to “white-wash the Prison Department; pacify public criticism of the Department here and abroad; and counteract any adverse publicity that might arise in the future.” Moreover, this representational white-washing was slyly enacted precisely through a form of what one might nowadays call “green-washing”; as the prisoners relate in the letter, “on that particular day, the span from our Section was given the special work of ‘gardening’ instead of pulling out bamboo from the sea as we normally do when we go to work.”[3] As such, the image was used to cleanse the reality of the hard labor and lack of rights that the prisoners endured,[4] and the image of gardening in particular was fully capitalized upon. As the letter attests, prisoners and authorities alike were all too aware of the potential use of this image and of this seemingly leisurely, therapeutic, and apolitical activity.

But if the letter protests the lack of agency granted the prisoners, there is also a flipside to the image. As Mandela wrote in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, he had a “lifelong love of gardening and growing vegetables.”[5] A few years into their 18-year-long incarceration, Mandela and his fellow Rivonia trial inmates had in fact set up a garden in the courtyard of Robben Island prison.[6] This had started informally with a few tomato seeds given to them by well-meaning prison guards. On their way to the stone quarry where they were forced to do hard labor, the political prisoners collected ostrich droppings as fertilizer. In time they also planted chilies and other vegetables to complement their meager prison diet. Later, as Mandela was writing the manuscript for what became his autobiography, the completed pages would be buried in cocoa tins in the garden to hide them from the prison authorities. As such, the seemingly benign activity of gardening became a highly politicized gesture—that of claiming and cultivating a patch of land and using it subversively to undermine the oppressive regime—and as a consequence the garden itself became entangled in historical events.[7]


Access the full preface, introduction and bibliography here


[1] This image now forms the centerpiece of the Mandela Prison Archive, “a living record of Mandela’s 27 years in prison.” See Nelson Mandela, A Prisoner in the Garden: Opening Nelson Mandela’s Prison Archive (Johannesburg: Nelson Mandela Foundation/Penguin, 2005) and

[2] In their view, the minister acted with “impropriety” insofar as “total strangers are now in possession of photographs and films of ourselves.” In the letter, the prisoners protest against not being allowed to take and send their own photographs to their own families.

[3] More recently, the term “green-washing” has been used to describe the process by which a given organization, company, or institution’s products or policies are made to appear ecologically friendly, precisely through the use of the PR or marketing image, often masking their true ecological costs. However, this is nothing new and can be applied to environmental movements more broadly throughout history. For instance, the “green imperialism” described by Richard Grove can be read through this lens. See Richard Grove, Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600–1860 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995). In the words of Elizabeth DeLoughrey and George Handley, Grove’s history of ecological thought demonstrates that “the environmental sciences that tell us that we can no longer afford to ignore our human impact on the globe are an ironic by-product of a global consciousness derived from a history of imperial exploitation of nature.” Elizabeth DeLoughrey and George Handley, “Introduction: Toward an Aesthetics of the Earth,” in Postcolonial Ecologies: Literatures of the Environment, ed. Elizabeth DeLoughrey and George Handley, 3–39 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 12. See also the discussion of the paradoxes of conservation in the South African context in Bettina Malcomess, “appear and they…” in this volume, xx–xx.

[4] The co-signatories note the fact that they had not been given the status of political prisoners: “We are fully aware that the Department desires to protect a favourable image to the world of its policies. [sic] We can think of no better way of doing so than by abolishing all forms of racial discrimination in the administration by keeping abreast of enlightened penal reforms, by granting us the status of political prisoners.”

[5] Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom (London: Abacus, 2013 [1995]), 41.

[6] The Rivonia trial, which took place between 9 October 1963 and 12 June 1964, led to the imprisonment of Mandela and others. Mandela spent 18 of 27 years of imprisonment on Robben Island.

[7] As Mandela writes: “A garden was one of the few things in prison that one could control. To plant a seed, watch it grow, to tend it and then harvest it offered a simple but enduring satisfaction. The sense of being the custodian of this small patch of earth offered a small taste of freedom.” Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom, 592–83.



Theatrum Botanicum

Uriel Orlow: Theatrum Botanicum

Edited by Shela Sheikh and Uriel Orlow
Contributions by Sita Balani, Melanie Boehi, Clelia Coussonet, Karen Flint, Jason T. W. Irving, Nomusa Makhubu, Bettina Malcomess, Karin van Marle, Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll

This publication is made up of two intertwining books: one documents the works of Theatrum Botanicum, including the scripts for two films; the second is a compendium of brief, commissioned essays that aims to offer an accessible snapshot of the complex and multifaceted issues that inform and are raised by the artworks. The independent but interrelated essays, which either speak directly to the artworks or follow lines of inquiry alongside them, cover perspectives from postcolonial cultural studies; art criticism and art history; natural history, botany (including ethnobotany and economic botany), and conservation; jurisprudence and critical legal studies; and critical race studies.

Design by In the shade of a tree (Samuel Bonnet, Sophie Demay, and Maël Fournier-Comte)

June 2018, English
21.5 x 29 cm, 368 pages, color ill., softcover
ISBN 978-3-95679-415-5
Sternberg Press


Access the preface, introduction and bibliography here



Brand New Life | Philipp Spillmann | June 2018

In his long-term artistic project Theatrum Botanicum, Uriel Orlow considers plants as actors on a political stage: protagonists of colonial trade, flower diplomacy, or bio-piracy. As such, they serve as a prism through which environmental colonial history can be re-negotiated. Theatrum Botanicum can be read as an attempt to decolonize both, history and nature. And for decolonizing nature, it is crucial how plants are considered as acting and living beings. If they tell stories about colonialism, how are they brought to speak? […]

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Imbizo Ka Mafavuke (Mafavuke’s Tribunal)

Imbizo Ka Mafavuke (Mafavuke’s Tribunal) is an experimental documentary set at the edge of a nature reserve in Johannesburg. A kind of Brechtian ‘Lehrstück’, the film shows the preparations for a people’s tribunal where traditional healers, activists and lawyers come together to discuss indigenous knowledge and bio-prospecting. The pharmaceutical industry has come to consider traditional medicine as a source for identification of new bioactive agents that can be used in the preparation of synthetic medicine. This raises new questions about intellectual copyright protection of indigenous knowledge. Imbizo Ka Mafavuke asks who benefits when plants become pharmaceuticals, given multiple claims to ownership, priority, locality and appropriation. The protagonists in the film slip into different roles and make use of real-world cases involving multinational pharmaceuticals scouting in indigenous communities for the next wonder drug. Ghosts of colonial explorers, botanists and judges observe the proceedings.



Muthi is the term for traditional medicine in Southern Africa. Before the establishment of cosmopolitan medicine, traditional medicine was the dominant medical system for millions
of people in Southern Africa. Europeans’ arrival was a turning for this ancient tradition. Muthi and African healers were perceived as unscientific and ineffective but their cultural dominance was considered a threat to British colonial rule and Christian missionary endeavours. Efforts were made to reduce their sphere of influence or eliminate them altogether. Yet colonialism and capitalism also helped medicinal plants to thrive. Urbanisation and the rise of consumer culture radically changed traditional healers’ practices and created a growing market for traditional herbal medicine which threatens sustainability and biodiversity. The pharmaceutical and food supplements industry has also joined in the trend and markets traditional plants to new consumers ignoring the cultural and spiritual contexts of the plants.

Today around 200,000 indigenous traditional healers practice in South Africa compared to 25,000 Western-trained doctors and over 60% of South Africans consult these traditional healers. The film follows the enduring herbal practices at rural and urban sites in Johannesburg, the Western Cape and Kwazulu-Natal. Muthi have curative, spiritual but also economic powers and are part of a larger system of knowledge, history and politics.



This series of photographs looks at the use of plants as part of fences, walls and security systems in suburban South Africa.


The Crown Against Mafavuke

The Crown Against Mafavuke is based on a South African trial from 1940. Mafavuke Ngcobo was a traditional herbalist who was accused by the local white medical establishment of ‘untraditional behaviour’. The film explores the ideological and commercial confrontation between two different yet intertwining medicinal traditions and their uses of plants, with slippages across gender and race further questioning notions of purity and origination. The re-imagined court case is filmed at the Palace of Justice in Pretoria, where the Rivonia trial was held that sent Mandela and his fellow accused to Robben Island prison.


The Fairest Heritage

In 1963, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the founding of Kirstenbosch, the national botanical garden of South Africa in Cape Town commissioned a series of films to document the history of the garden, the Cape Floral Kingdom, and the jubilee celebrations with their ‘national’ dances, pantomimes of colonial conquests, and visits of international botanists. The films’ protagonists of scientists, visitors etc. are all white – the only Africans featured are labourers. Considered neutral and passive, flowers were excluded from the boycott until the late 1980s and so botanical nationalism and flower diplomacy flourished unchecked at home and internationally.

The films have not been seen since 1963 and were found by the artist in the cellar of the library of the botanical garden. Orlow collaborated with actor Lindiwe Matshikiza who puts herself and her body in these loaded pictures, inhabiting and confronting the found footage and thus contesting history and the archive itself.


The Memory of Trees

This series of large-scale black and white photographs shows trees as witnesses of history. They hold an embodied memory of events and, like ghosts, remind us of how the past lives on in the present.

Wild Almond Tree, Cape Town
The inside of the wild almond tree in Cape Town planted in 1660 by the first Dutch settlers to keep out the indigenous Khoikhoi and their grazing cattle from the vegetable garden set up to replenish the passing ships from the Dutch East India Company.

Lombardy Poplar, Johannesburg
This Lombardy poplar served as a landmark for fugitives from the apartheid security forces to find the safe house of Ruth Fischer, daughter of Braam Fischer (a prominent founder member of the SA Communist Party).

Saffron Pear, Cape Town
This saffron pear in the Company’s Garden was brought from Holland during the time of Jan van Riebeck, the founder of Cape Town over 350 years ago. Established by the Dutch East India Company in 1652, when indigenous hunter-gatherers and migratory pastoralists still roamed the land,
the Company’s Garden is a foundation stone of Western colonisation of Africa. The Dutch needed a victualing station to provide fresh supplies to sailing ships plying the spice trade between the East and Europe, and later, to support ships engaged in foreign wars.

Milkwood Tree, Cape Town
This ancient milkwood tree is over 500 years old and stands in Cape Town’s post-industrial suburb of Woodstock. It was in this spot, on Cape Town’s original beachfront, in 1510, that the famous Portuguese explorer, Dom Francisco de Almeida and his men were attacked and killed by the Khoikhoi, who revenged cattle raids, abductions and extortion. In later centuries, the tree became known as the Old Slave Tree of Woodstock. Under its shade, slave masters bartered away humans and from its branches ‘disobedient’ slaves were hung. In the early 19th Century the tree was renamed ‘The Treaty Tree’ to commemorate the start of the second British occupation of the Cape. It was here, following their defeat in 1806, that Dutch forces signed capitulation conditions, effectively transferring control of the Cape to Britain.

Palm Tree, Cape Town
This palm tree has lent its name to the second- oldest place of Muslim worship and one of
the oldest substantially unaltered buildings in Cape Town: the Palm Tree Mosque. Under Dutch rule of the Cape, Islam could not be practiced in public. They banished one of the founders of Islam in the Cape, Tuan Guru (‘Mister Teacher’), to Robben Island where he famously wrote his own edition of the Quran from memory. Restrictions were only relaxed when the British took control in 1795 and the free Tuan Guru soon established the Auwal Mosque (the city’s oldest mosque). In 1807, the community split and a second mosque was established and this palm tree planted in front of the building. In Islamic culture, palm trees are deeply symbolic: they appear around oases to signal water as a gift of Allah; they are said to grow in the Islamic paradise of Jannah; Muhammad built his home and the first ever mosque out of palm trees; the first muezzin would climb up palm trees to proclaim the call to prayer; and in the Quran Jesus was born under a palm tree.


Geraniums Are Never Red

The bright red geraniums that trail from the balconies of Swiss chalets and clamber up palm trees in California aren’t, botanically speaking, geraniums at all, nor are they Swiss or Californian; in fact they are pelargoniums. They were first brought to Europe – and misidentified – after 1652, when the VOC (the Dutch East India Company) established a permanent settlement and a Company Garden at the Cape and started to explore the surrounding ora to bring back new botanical treasures, which apart from pelargoniums included proteas, ericas and many other mainstays of European gardens. By the time the confusion between the two species was resolved, ‘African geraniums’ had been around for 150 years and British commercial growers and gardeners were reluctant to give up the familiar name.