Can Plants Help Us Decolonise?

Plants in their natural habitat are not static, but they do move very slowly. They’ve served as witnesses to our history, and have their own stories to tell.



To most people, plants grow in the abstract. In South Africa, we’re blessed with lush flora, so much so that during the period of colonisation many of our indigenous plants were taken to Europe to be used in decorative gardens owned by the rich.

It’s this and more that Swiss artist Uriel Orlow tackles in his latest exhibition, Theatrum Bontanicum, opening at The Durban Art Gallery on Friday 14 September. During a visit to Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, Orlow noticed something strange: here, in Africa, all our plants are labled and classified in Latin and English. None of the other official and countless unofficial languages are represented in the largest curated garden in South Africa, and the Swiss National found that odd. We’ll deal with the irony of that later, as DIY sat down with the exhibition’s curator Russel Hlongwane.



Orlow’s been researching this project for the last 4 years, Russel tells me, looking into botany nationalism, biopiracy and bio-prospecting, which is the practice of European pharmaceutical companies pending patents on African plants with healing qualities and imposing quotas on them; like the case with Etheopia and their national staple food, injera. Russel says that Orlow has highlighted the politics of what’s commonly accepted as arbitrary, in particular how the Apartheid government used flowers as a means to perpetuate their agenda.



During his research across the country, Uriel Orlow stumbled upon a celebration of indigenous plants at the Killie Campbell museum right here in Durban. Each print of these plants had a white face attached to them, the only black people featured being those who tended the gardens. This raises questions about land and reform, and examines the credit many white people delight in for their manicured gardens, that were meticulously cared for by a grown man they call the “garden boy”. The work is used as a way of highlighting the absurdity that involves this world of plants, beginning the conversation about reclaiming them through language and institution. 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 from international botanists. The films’ protagonists – the scientists and visitors etc. – are all white; the only Africans featured are labourers. As a response 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.



Orlow’s research also examines the relationship between traditional healers and plants, the esotericism of which is removed under their European classification. One of the short films in the exhibition covers the trial of Mafavuke, a healer who was accused by pharmaceutical institutions of “stealing business” of untraditional practice because he was accumulating a growing clientele of white consumers for creating his own medicines from plants. Of course, under the old regime, his trial was lost. Orlow reimagines this trial with a different ending in this exhibition. This particular work is important because it examines the way traditional healers’ use of botany is invalidated through political structure and language. Through control of plants, colonisers managed to effectively also control the land.



Plants are less abstract than we imagine and their role in South Africa’s history has long been understated. On Robben Island, prisoners would use the garden they tended to communicate hidden messages to one another. Nelson Mandela is rumoured to have hidden the first manuscripts for Long Walk To Freedom in this garden. During the resistance, anti-apartheid activists would mark their safehouses with trees. “Once one starts to excavate the extent and depth of the role that flowers played in the colonial project it becomes really interesting.”

“Plants definitely play a role in the decolonial process,” says Russel, “and it’s a difficult process to start to decolonise science, but in some ways, the conversation about decoloniality is quite fashionable. Sometimes people engage with it from an idealistic point of view. In museums, so many plants are classified and understood in European languages and I think that position is to eliminate or undermine a traditional system. If you undermine someone’s language you undermine their sense of identity and belonging.”


Photo: Austin Malema


Russel says he recently discovered that space, as well as the 9 planets in our solar system, have their own names in isiZulu. “But the difference is,” he says, “the word for space, emkhathini, implies so much behind the rationale of the word. It loosely translates to abstraction, ambiguity, and space without time.” And to understand that involves an understanding of the logic behind it. Russel notes that when treating a patient, a traditional healer aims to treat the root causes of an issue, rather than just the symptoms as is the case with transactional Western medical practice. He says it’s this esotericism that’s been lost in our approach to plants, and what we need to regain in order to forward the decolonial process.



The irony of a European national exploring the colonial politics of plants in South Africa is not lost on Hlongwane. He notes that it’s been extremely important that Orlow has partnered with locals such as himself in his research and exhibition. “It was the first question I asked him when I approached him about this project, and one cannot ignore that fact. But the most important question was to ask about intent and I believe his intentions are good. During the research process, he didn’t dictate how it ought to be conducted, I was in charge of it in Durban. There were points in which I felt uncomfortable, lines I didn’t want to cross, and Orlow was understanding of that. That allowed me a sense of comfort with him as an individual. What he’s doing is looking at the colonial European history and taking it back home and saying ‘look at what our history looks like’.” Orlow is subverting his own background in a way by drawing attention to this. This project engages the subject matter in a diligent and delicate way. Specific to Durban, Russel says he’s taking this body of work and locating it within the Durban community of traditional healers and finding out what it is to them, “and to me,” he says, “as a custodian of culture in South Africa.”



The exhibition isn’t the final word on this subject. In fact, it’s the beginning of a discussion within local institutions, drawing the attention of the Indigenous Knowledge department at UKZN. In a European context, the purpose is to highlight the extent of the colonial project through a seemingly abstract medium. Locally, Russel says the purpose is to reposition a history that was never featured in the mainstream or public imagination and then start to engage much closer around issues of preservation of culture or indigenous practices. “It’s the start of a conversation.”


Join a walkabout the exhibition with Uriel Orlow and Russel Hlongwane on Saturday 15 September from 10.00am – 2.00pm: followed by panel discussion, recording session and lunch, at Durban Art Gallery.

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