I am imbedded in a history of imposed silences, tortured voices, disrupted languages, forced idioms and interrupted speeches – While I Write, Grada Kilomba.
History is soiled and fraught with rotten produce of conquest, theft, disposition and displacement – legacies of colonialism often covered with mulch to hide trauma and pain. ‘Theatrum Botanicum’ , a new body of work by Uriel Orlow, highlights as well as contests colonial provisions of plant migration and invasion, biopiracy, flower diplomacy and the classification and naming of plants. It attempts to untangle colonial constructions and illuminating silenced, tortured, disrupted and forgotten traditional knowledge systems.
‘Theatrum Botanicum’ is resultant from ongoing research spanning at least three years and multiple iterations. The project reflects on new ways of thinking around accepted and unquestioned theories of pedagogy and medical practices – what is knowledge, who produces this knowledge and who benefits from it? An outcome of the project, a monograph by the same name, coalesces contributions by artists, writers and cultural practitioners including; Shela Sheikh, Sita Balani, Melanie Boehi, Clelia Coussonet, Karen Flint, Jason T. W. Irving, Nomusa Makhubu, Bettina Malcomess, Karin van Marle and Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll. The publication, made up of two intertwining books, comprises scripts from the films presented in the exhibition as well as commissioned essays exploring the complexities of natural history, botany and conservation through the lens of art criticism and art history.
Working from the dual vantage points of South Africa and Europe, Uriel Orlow’s Theatrum Botanicum considers plants as both witnesses and actors in history, and as dynamic agents – linking 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 peripatetic show was presented in three separate regions across South Africa: Johannesburg (POOL and Market Photo Workshop), Cape Town (Institute for Creative Arts at the University of Cape Town) and Durban (Durban Art Gallery) – all spaces that tend towards the dialogic.
The manifestation at POOL in Johannesburg, presents dramatised interventions in the form of video installations: The Crown Against Mafavuke, Mafavuke’s Trial and Muthi alongside large scale photographic works.
The Crown Against Mafavuke, Mafavuke’s Trial is based on the 1940 trial against traditional herbalist Mafavuke Ngcobo – accused (by the white establishment) of ‘untraditional behaviour’ for using ‘non-native’ ingredients in his practice. The 18-minute long film inspects the ideological and commercial confrontation between two intertwining medical traditions (western vs indigenous) and their uses of plants. The film is directed by Orlow and produced by local film director Sifiso Khanyile. The local cast; Nhlanhla Mahlangu, Antony Coleman, Pule Welch, Ayanda Seoka and Keith Tyler, deliver a strong performance that further accentuates the critical context of race and gender. The court case is filmed at the Palace of Justice in Pretoria, where the Rivonia trial took place — a disturbing site, if ever there was one.
Uriel Orlow is a multi-disciplinary artist working primarily between London, Lisbon and Zurich. Orlow’s artistic practice is wide ranging – spanning photography, film, drawing, installation and sound. Orlow completed a Phd in Fine Art at the University of Geneva in 2002, perhaps explaining his proclivity towards research and process. Orlow is best known for his investigations and probing of spatial manifestations of memory and blind spots of representation and forms of haunting. His practice is deeply rooted in localised collaboration, as seen through the multiplicity of contributions within this project.
Theatrum Botanicum is communicative, extensive, challenging and unreserved. It offers multiple touch-points and new languages of rebellion against the towering colonial constructs of hierarchies in healing, botany and medicine. It does not purport to offer clear solutions or easy remedies but rather stretches, twists, warps and unsettles our understanding of the history of botany in South Africa and offers immense contribution towards the discourse of decolonising knowledge. Orlow succeeds in bringing very complex concepts to the viewer in a manner that is engaging and informative. With this project, history continues to unfold and sprout as we continue to unearth, digest and reconstruct our understanding of it.