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Archive: Theatrum Botanicum

Beautiful But Dangerous

Colonial plant migration did not just include new garden plants for Europe. Over the past three and a half centuries almost 9,000 different exotic plants have been introduced in South Africa for the purposes of providing timber and fuel, food and to beautiful gardens with plants from ‘back home’. Some 200 of these new arrivals naturalised over time and became invasive, having devastating effects on endemic flora and threatening biodiversity. Awareness of the problem of so-called ‘invasive aliens’ has grown over the last decades, with publications, posters and eradication campaigns trying to save indigenous biodiversity but also producing a new form of botanical nationalism whose language of invasion can be seen to mirror the political climate of the time.

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What Plants Were Called Before They Had A Name

European colonialism was both preceded and accompanied by expeditions that aimed at charting the territory and classifying its natural resources, in turn paving the way for occupation and exploitation. The supposed discovery and subsequent naming and cataloguing of plants disregarded and obliterated existing indigenous plant names and botanical knowledge and imposed the Linnaean system of classification and its particular European rationality. In What Plants Were Called Before They Had a Name (Guatemala) Orlow connects historical ethnobotanical resources with contemporary encounters with different indigenous spiritual guides of the Guatemalan Altiplano and elsewhere, as a way of recovering memory and linguistic presence. Coming across a 1970’s publication by the Instituto Indigenista de Guatemala on medicinal plants in which all the plants are labeled in Spanish, the artist embarked on a journey to recover the loss of indigenous languages and consequently of cultural diversity and to counter the continuing epistemic violence within botany and science. The project revisits the publication and attempts to imagine a different history but confronting it to the many languages which populate Guatemala: Mayan spiritual guides write the plant names in their languages onto the pages of book. 

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Grey, Green, Gold

Nelson Mandela and his co-accused Rivonia trial ANC comrades were imprisoned for 18 years from 1964 to 1982 in a special section for political prisoners at Robben Island prison, off the Atlantic coast in Cape Town. In the prison they founded a garden that was to play an important role during their time there. For example, it helped hide the manuscript of Mandela’s biography, which was eventually published under the title Long Walk to Freedom.

In the late 1960s, rare yellow flowering Crane Flowers (Strelitzia Reginae / Bird of Paradise Flower) were found at Kirstenbosch, the South African National Botanical Gardens in Cape Town. These native flowers of South Africa are usually orange. A process of selective breeding was started, pollinating yellow flowers by hand with each other. It took almost 20 years to build up stock of seeds of the highly prized yellow Strelitzia Reginae – roughly coinciding with the time Mandela was in Prison in Robben Island.

In 1994, after Mandela became the first black president of South Africa, the flower was renamed Mandela’s Gold. At Kirstenbosch the grey squirrel that the colonialist Cecil Rhodes brought with him from England and which has naturalised there, will consume the entire capsule of seeds if unchecked. In order to protect the seeds from this European ‘predator’ each fertilised flower is enclosed in fine-mesh chicken wire.

With thanks to: Ahmed Mohamed Kathrada, Laloo Isu Chiba, Sahm Venter and The Nelson Mandela Foundation, Johannesburg, Melanie Boehie, Phakamani Xoba, Alice Notten and Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, Cape Town.

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