This September the work of Uriel Orlow titled Theatrum Botanicum project will be realised across several venues in three cities in South Africa. This weekend the project opens at the Durban Art Gallery with an exhibition opening on Friday 14 September at 6pm and a walkabout with artist Uriel Orlow and curator Russel Hlongwane on Saturday 15 September from 10am to 2pm. The exhibition will stay open until 28 October.
Using the medium of film, photography, installation and sound, and working from the dual vantage points of South Africa and Europe, the project considers plants as both witnesses and actors in history, and as dynamic agents—connecting nature and humans, rural and cosmopolitan medicine, tradition and modernity—across different geographies, histories and systems of knowledge, with a variety of curative, spiritual and economic powers. The works variously explore botanical nationalism and other legacies of colonialism, plant migration and invasion, biopiracy, flower diplomacy during apartheid, the garden planted by Nelson Mandela and his fellow inmates on Robben Island prison, as well as the role of classification and naming of plants. Khadija von Zinnenburg Carrol describes how the project looks to the botanical world as a stage on which these histories interact as agents:
“Theatrum Botanicum is not Botanicum, it is the theater in which a ghost of botany enters. The species is theater, its genus is botany. The title Theatrum Botanicum is a binomial like the Linnaean Latinate variety central to Uriel Orlow’s critique. Theatrum Botanicum is not botany as theater either, but a theater in which botany is among a cast of colonial protagonists, the powerful influence of which Orlow portrays.”
The project developed out of a research residency undertaken in 2014 and evolved through successive trips between 2015 and 2017 in which Orlow undertook extensive research in archives, and collaborated with traditional medicine practitioners as well as those with legal and botanical expertise, traversing Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town.
The project has evolved over several exhibitions including: The Showroom, London (2016); EVA International (2016) curated by Koyo Kouoh; the 2017 Sharjah Biennal 13 (where it won a major award); and Kunsthalle St Gallen, Switzerland (2018). The South African iteration sees the project return to its geography of origin, giving local audiences and practitioners – some of whom helped shape the project – an opportunity to critically and generatively respond to the body of work.
Durban Art Gallery is one of South Africa’s major public art collections showcasing contemporary and historic art practice from the continent. This project forms part of a special programme of Pro Helvetia Johannesburg, the Southern African liaison office of the Swiss Arts Council, celebrating twenty years of collaboration and exchange with the region.