A Small Place

A Small Place

This place is part of myself...
My relation to this place is part of myself...
If this place is destroyed, something in me is destroyed... 
My relation to this place is such that if the place is changed, I am changed...
Arne Naess
(Drengson, 2008: 87-88)[1]

In the 1940s my maternal grandparents bought a small holding in the Breede River Valley, near the town of Worcester in the Western Cape. My grandmother named the farm ‘Raaswater’, after the raging sound of the Hartebees River that coursed through the property. The Hartebees River is one of the many tributaries originating in the surrounding mountain ranges. These rivers culminate in the Breede River that meanders gently through the centre of the valley.

Raaswater and its river formed a large part of my mother’s childhood memories. Her memories became mythological stories which taught us her understanding of life. The river gave, as its yellow ochre clay became whatever my mother’s imagination wished into shape. And the river took, as its wild waters washed precious toys, pretty ribbons and bright coloured bits of clothing away to other far off places. The river’s water was channelled via cement waterways to the cultivated garden which provided drinking water for the family. The continuous sound of its rushing waters was a reassuring presence which formed the backdrop of every moment lived on the farm.  

Raaswater became an idyllic place in my imagination. I yearned for being part of the peaceful symbiotic existence between the natural environment and humans, as suggested in my mother’s stories. By the time my mother was married, Raaswater had been sold and so we never had the opportunity to know it. In contrast to her childhood experience, we were raised in a newly developed suburb outside of Cape Town. To my mother’s dismay, the privilege to relate intimately to a natural force such as a river or mountain was not a part of our suburban reality. 

Many years later, after Apartheid was abolished in South Africa, I found myself feeling lost and without a sense of place in the world. As an Afrikaner female, I had no idea where I truly belonged. I realised that even though my ancestors had lived in Africa for over 300 years, I felt neither African, nor European. I noticed that I swing between the two continents, but never seem to feel rooted in either. It was during one of my travels to search for belonging that I met a Protea cyneroides in a glass house at the Hortus Botanicus in Amsterdam. As I recognised this living entity from the soil where I was born, I was struck by a deep sense of empathy for its uprooted and dislocated state.

Members of the Proteaceae plant family were rooted on the ancient landmass Gondwanaland before its split into several continents including Australia, South America and Africa. One could say that these plants truly belonged in the Western Cape. I wondered if these prehistoric plants could tell me what it means to be indigenous to a landscape. The one site I had some ancestral relation to was Raaswater. I decided to try and meet endemic Proteaceae species that shared the soil with my lineage in order to see what I could learn.  

Raaswater has changed hands many times since my maternal ancestors cultivated export grapes in its soil. A quick internet search revealed that it was currently run as a guest farm. I called the owners, explained that it was my mother’s childhood home and requested permission to visit. And so a week later my mother and I set out with boundless expectations to go and re-live her childhood memories in this exceptional place.  

The approach to Raaswater was ominous. After we passed a highway petrol station we drove between a densely populated suburb and dry desolate koppies adjacent to the ‘Karoo Desert National Botanical Garden’. My mother became disoriented and we missed the turn off to the farm. We reached a dead end at a bizarre sign advertising a private nature reserve where one could see the ‘big five’ in a ‘malaria free zone’. Eventually we found our way, crossed a bridge over the Hartebees River and turned into the electric gates of ‘Raaswater Country Stay Guest House’.

As one would expect, we found the old thatched-roofed farm house and its garden much changed. Remnants of the cement water channels and ponds that my grandmother built peeped through the lush cultivated garden. My mother remembered how Mona, the horse, was brought into the garden to drink from the channels in the early evening. But these channels were dry. We decided to take a stroll down to the river to see what indigenous vegetation we could find and to spend time with a part of the farm which we presumed would have remained much the same.

The approach to the river was through a fence and past an organic recycling dump in a field covered in fine grasses and very little else. It seemed like a landscape that had been ploughed too many times and only a limited variety of introduced plant species remained in the soil. I could not see any recognisable indigenous vegetation.  As we pushed through some thick alien tree species, the river came into view.

What greeted us was a silent river. The dry cobble stones and a few puddles of polluted water lay muted in a sulphur stench. A thick black telephone cable looped high across the river and continued over the barbed wire fence demarking the boundary of the property. In one of the still ponds floated the remnants of a child’s game: a plastic Barbie doll missing its arms and legs and a similarly dismembered baby doll. My mother had become as voiceless as the river and was slowly tracing its banks...I deeply regretted bringing her on this journey.

The owner offered us a cup of tea and indulged my mother’s stories about the place. I enquired about the river and was told that it trickles in the summer months, and often overflows in the winter. My mother described how she used to swim in the river in the hot summers and that she could not remember it ever being that dry. From our conversation with the owner I gathered that the river had become an undesirable place. It was dangerous for her children to play there because it was polluted and it was frequented by unsavoury homeless characters. Once a year, as the snow melted on the mountain peaks, they lived in terror that their property would be flooded by the fast flowing and uncontainable river that sometimes broke its banks.

After our visit we tried to find some indigenous veld in the surrounding area, but it seemed that all the adjacent farms had been cultivated to the brim, destroying any remnants of what used to grow there.

The visit to the farm threw my mother into a depression that was palpable for weeks. My guilt over her state of grief was amplified by a realisation that my ancestors were unknowingly complicit in the destruction of the indigenous features of the landscape.  How do I connect with a place that is bereft of any indigenous life; a place that is now completely manipulated and changed by humans? How will I ever know what the landscape’s true nature is? The loss I felt raised new questions about what belonging to a place truly entails.

I recalled my meeting with the Protea cyneroides plant in Amsterdam and my hope that I could find answers from these ancient plants about belonging. But my chosen place, Raaswater, was stripped naked; any Proteaceae that used to grow there was uprooted to make space for the cultivation of ‘profitable’ species.  At this point I turned to the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) for assistance. They identified the flora that would have grown on Raaswater before its development as Breede Alluvium Fynbos. This endangered wetlands vegetation type contains a few Proteaceae species. 

One of these species had a common name that caught my attention; it was called the Worcester Silkypuff. Its Latin name, Diastella parilis, indicated a genus that I had not seen before. I was curious and did a virtual search for images. It was impossible to tell from the internet images what the size of this tender flower was. I knew it was a type of Protea and so in my imagination I created a flower that was about the size of a small fist. I fell in love with its delicate beauty.
Diastella parilis has been classified as critically endangered on the Red Data List. This means that there is an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild within the immediate future. According to the description on the website more than 75% of its habitat has been converted into vineyards, taken over by alien species, degraded through groundwater extraction and altered through the drainage of seasonal wetlands to serve agricultural expansion. 

At the time the species search website i-spot, failed to pin-point the location of the last remaining populations. As an amateur botanist, I felt completely overwhelmed to try and find such a rare flower in the vast Breede River Valley. To start with I would need permission to search for it on various pieces of privately owned land, be acquainted with its flowering time and know exactly what to look for.

SANBI has a division called CREW (Custodians of Rare and Endangered Wild Flowers) who specialises in searching, finding and documenting species in specific areas.  It happened that Worcester had its own local CREW group of volunteers and I asked to join them on their expeditions. I met Ishmael Ebrahim, the director of CREW, his assistants and the local people from Worcester interested in conservation. I spent many happy moments with them learning how to identify plants and shared their joy when we did find a rare species. The excursions familiarised me with the Breede River Valley landscape. Diastella parilis however eluded me. I realised that the CREW group had not visited Breede Alluvium Fynbos vegetation sites thus far and that is why I had not found any of the plants on my plant list. I came to understand that fynbos vegetation is very specific to its habitat and that certain plants would only grow in particular ecological circumstances. In fact, it is generally accepted that cultivating certain fynbos species is difficult.

Six months into my search, I decided to go and speak to the curator of the Proteacea family at Kirstenbosch, Louise Nurrish. Nurrish had been trying to cultivate Diastella parilis in her hothouse at Kirstenbosch. After a short meeting she announced excitedly that the plant has recently started to flower and that if I had time she could show it to me. We walked through passages of immature rare plants in containers until she stopped, lifted up a small pot and held it out towards me. I was astounded. It was indeed one of the most beautiful, gentle and vulnerable looking flowers I had ever seen. But instead of being the size of my fist, it was as big as my thumb nail. ‘Would you like to have one of these flowers?’ She asked me. I was dumbfounded. I silently nodded my head as she cut one of the precious blooms from the plant. That afternoon I made a small painting to celebrate my joy of meeting the physical flower at last. But my sense of dislocation continued.

Nurrish suggested that I visit the Herbarium to see what information they could give me about the location of the species. Thus I ended up at the local Herbarium where species from various landscapes meet in one filing cupboard under their collective genus which is filed within a plant family name.  I met the curator and requested to see the files on Diastella parilis. Again, I was amazed. Here, carefully adhered to a cardboard folder, I encountered perfectly preserved dried cuttings from as far back as the 1800s complete with handwritten notes. Each folder documented the date, month and location of the sighting. None I am afraid we seen on Raaswater.  Most of the inscriptions noted the location as the Slanghoek Valley and between the months of July to January.  I called Ishmael Ebrahim from CREW and asked him how I could access these privately owned farms to search for my flower. Ebrahim suggested I called an ecologist, Anso Le Roux, who was working in the Breede River Valley.

It was almost a year later, in December, that I finally found myself walking on a landscape very similar in typography to that of Raaswater but on the mirror side of the valley. Le Roux had introduced me to a local farmer and he kindly gave me permission to walk on his property.
The approach begins at the flatter pieces of land further away from the mountain which has been easier to develop. It is only after passing through a setting of monotonous lines of vineyards that the topography starts undulating gently and the landscape with indigenous vegetation comes into view. The visual contrast between the sterile, regulated monocultures and the diverse fynbos veld, which was alive with bird and insect life, was a sobering reminder of an ecological system lost in service of agricultural production.

As I walked, I unexpectedly came across a section of veld scattered with small fluffy pink flowers shining through the green-grey vegetation like sparkling stars. It was Diastella parilis in its natural habitat! For nearly a year I had been searching for this flower, one of the rarest on Earth, and suddenly here it was, growing abundantly in a small field.

I was overwhelmed and knelt down onto the soil in order to observe the flowers more closely. Each tiny flower-head was a universe in itself that consisted of a red waxy cup holding an exploding cosmos of minute light pink feathers and luminescent magenta stems topped with bright yellow pollen spheres. The structure of the flower heads reminded me of a Protea but at a miniature scale. On one of the flowers sat an equally minuscule bright green grasshopper. I later learnt that Diastella parilis is one of the unusual species of its genus to be pollinated by insects because it produces nectar.
My research revealed that Diastella parilis was so prolific in this pocket of land because the area was ravaged by an uncontrolled fire three years previously. I learnt that the entire plant is destroyed in a fire but that the seeds survive because of its seed dispersal agents, namely ants. Ants carry the seeds into their underground nests where they are safely stored. When conditions after the fire are favourable, these seeds germinate and Diastella parilis appears once more. It felt strange that these precious little shrubs existed peacefully amidst a military-like expanse of vineyards.

On closer inspection of the veld I discovered that my feelings of impending danger were justified. Adjacent to this field were grave sized pits, dug out to test the soil for extension of the vineyards. I realised that the reason Anso Le Roux knew about these plants was because she was determining the ecological impact of their removal on behalf of the farmer. After owning the land for six generations, he was legally obliged to have an ecological assessment done in order to obtain permission to plough his land. The price of grapes had dropped and his business was suffering. He later explained to me that for the survival of his children and future heirs, he needed to expand.

The fertility of the alluvial soil of the Breede River Valley was the reason why Diastella parilis lost its habitat. I collected some of the dugout soil and took it to my studio to see what I could learn. These damp and silent interactions affirmed earth as the marker of death but also the holder of potential for new life. We all, human and non-human, come from and disappear into the soil. The soil my ancestors appropriated from Diastella parilis became the place where I met with ghosts from the past and I heeded their counsel.

Over time this little flower crept into my heart and seeded in my inner landscape. Through this single connection so many others were made. These connections have become part of an understanding of my position in relation to my ancestors, other human beings, organisms and our shared environment.

If the place where these flowers bloom had to be destroyed I know that something in me will be destroyed.

[1] Drengson, A. and Devall,B. 2008.The Ecology of Wisdom: Writings by Arne Naess. Berkeley: Counterpoint. 

Gardens of the Beloved


Garden of my Beloved II (2016)
250x195 mm
Oil on paper

Botanists preserve plant specimens by pressing them. The stains and traces left behind from this process is the inspiration behind the ‘Gardens of the Beloved’ series on paper. Most of the stains were created through blotting excess paint off more naturalistic paintings of indigenous flowers on board. The paintings represent interior landscapes as they record my subjective responses to threatened flowers. The pieces contemplate ecological recovery, the nature of plants to cross over boundaries and finding one’s heart within loss and bereavement. The titles of this series are inspired by the 13th century Persian poet, Rumi.

 My heart rushes into the Garden (2016)
210x215 mm
Oil on paper 

Garden of my Beloved I (2016)
255x210 mm
Oil on Paper

Become water and flow from Garden to Garden (2016)
240x195 mm
Oil on Paper

Garden of a broken heart (2016)
220x180 mm
Oil on Paper

Inheemse Gedenktuin [Indigenous Memorial Garden]

Inheemse Gendenktuin, is a memorial piece for the critically endangered vegetation type 'Breede Alluvium Fynbos' which is indigenous to the Breede River Valley.

It consists of 336 squares of burnt plant material or ash each representing a specific plant belonging to the group. The blocks of ash are mounted away from the substrate and appears to float off the surface. The 'painting' really happens in this space as the reverse side of each block is painted in a unique colour which reflects onto the white substrate behind. This creates a 'painting' which consists mainly of reflected light.

The ash lies loosely on the surface of each block and occasionally drop to the floor through gravitation. It is a curious work in that it has become unexpectedly interactive as viewers tend to touch the ash. The piece thus bears the traces of previous viewers.

Conceptually, I saw this as a large landscape painting with endangered flowers as subject matter.

The initial impetus of this work was to commemorate the plants of the Breede River Valley and to contemplate what comes after loss. Do new forms arise after extinction? How will we be able to remember the experience of being in the unique ecological environment of these plants?

The interference of my audience with the ash was an unexpected outcome; one which questions when a painting is completed. In allowing the surface to be disrupted by various interactive forces, the creative process continues beyond the artist and her studio. The human interaction also seems to point to each individual's way of relating to 'other'. Some of the marks came because of carelessness, some from curiosity and some were deliberately made. This occurrence also indicates how our engagement leaves traces or evidence behind.


The Three Ecologies by Felix Guattari


Even though The Three Ecologies was published in 1989, and offers some approaches to the global ecological crisis, most of the problems it highlights still continue today, some have even become more amplified as we persist to collectively commit ecocide as a species.

In this book, Felix Guattari re-defines the dictionary meaning of the word ecology, traditionally limited to the natural world, and extends its meaning to include human subjective ecologies and socio-political ecologies.  The main problem with the crisis of our era he asserts lies in the separation of these three registers.

What interested me as a painter is that Guattari suggest that we all become more like artists. He says:

It appears crucial to me that we rid ourselves of all scientistic references and metaphors in order to forge new paradigms that are ethico-aesthetic in inspiration.

My project Spore, used Guattari’s The Three Ecologies as a theoretical foundation. The main theme of the project was to look at a specific ecological crisis unfolding in the Western Cape, namely the disappearance of its endemic flowers because of the destruction of natural habitats. My medium for theorising was painting. Initially I assumed that the project would take on a botanical aesthetic and that I would probably end up producing many flower portraits. But Guattari’s insistence on engaging all three ecological registers took me on an unexpected journey.

One of the most seminal quotations of The Three Ecologies is:

We need new social and aesthetic practices, new practices of the self in relation to the other,
to the foreign, the strange – a whole programme that seems far removed from current
concerns. And yet, ultimately, we will only escape from the major crises of our era through
the articulation of:
-a nascent subjectivity;
-a constantly mutating socius;
-and an environment in the process of being reinvented.

What started off as a purely artistic pursuit, became an interdisciplinary research endeavor where I found myself traversing into the science of natural ecology, botany, conservation, agriculture, psychoanalysis, philosophy, politics and more. I decided to start with myself, as an individual ecology and look for related connections.

The Cape Floral Region is known for its unusually dense diversity. I needed to focus my project on a specific habitat in order to understand the problems contributing to its threatened demise. I thus chose a place I had some relation to. My grandmother farmed with export grapes at the foot of the Brandwacht Mountains in the Breede River Valley. Her farm was called ‘Raaswater’, named after the raging sound of the Hartebees River coursing through the property.

Upon my visit to the farm I found an empty river silenced by agricultural development. My initial idea was to find the physical flowers endemic to this place and work with them in painting, but this was not possible. I could not find any sign of the indigenous plants on the farm however, pliable clay still remained in the riverbed. I collected some clay and took it to the studio to see if I could converse with it and what it would reveal to me. Something of that can be felt in this quotation from A Thousand Plateaus, by Deleuze and Guattari:

we... know nothing about a body until we know what it can do, in other words, what its affects are, how they can or cannot enter into composition with other affects, with the affects of another body, either to destroy that body or to be destroyed by it, either to exchange actions and passions with it or to join with it in composing a more powerful body

In my initial works with river clay, I was still trying to represent flowers in some way. I then started to paint over my flower paintings with the clay and through a process of subtraction tried to reveal the form again. This painting made me see that the clay was capturing the properties of water, and I could almost hear the sound of the river in the marks it left. I decided to make a large scaled work to see if this waterfall-like mark could make the Hartebees River resound. With this goal in mind I set out to make the largest painting my studio could handle.

I left the pictorial at this point and simply worked on black substrates. I then covered the boards in a thin layer of clay and systematically and meditatively washed it off with water, taking care not to impart too much of my energy so I would allow the clay to reveal its properties. The results were astounding. Instead of creating a waterfall effect the clay seemed to have formed visual soundscapes or landscapes with reed-like vegetation. Initially I was very disappointed and wanted to try making the panels again. 

Guattari says that artists start anew each time and are willing to divert from imagined goals to unexpected outcomes. This way he says should be adopted by scientists, psychologists, as a new practice. He says:

This new ecosophical logic... resembles the manner in which an artist may be led to alter his work after the intrusion of some accidental detail, an event-incident that suddenly makes his initial project bifurcate, making it drift far from its previous path, however certain it had once appeared to be..

I obtained a plant list from the South African National Biodiversity Institute to see what would’ve grown on Raaswater. My project evolved into a search for rare flowers throughout the Breede River Valley, which was a far more difficult task than I anticipated.  In order to find the flowers I needed to know what they looked like, when they would flower and have a vague idea of where they would grow. I also needed permission from landowners to step onto their properties. The flower portraits I did produce were mostly referenced from the ispot and red data list websites. It ended up being a deep and intense process where many connections were made. Instead of sitting in my studio making traditional flower paintings, I spent my time searching for plants, collecting matter from various sites, meeting people connected to the plants and theorising through my questions in the studio by employing the practice of painting.

Now more than ever, nature cannot be separated from culture; in order to comprehend the  interactions between ecosystems, the mechanosphere and the social and individual Universes of reference , we must learn to think ‘transversally’.

The last series of work I called the Subjective Herbarium. It consists of ink books and two canvasses, arranged in relation to each other.

Guattari discusses individual subjectivity throughout The Three Ecologies. Human subjectivity he asserts is as endangered as some of the species on the planet. As I crossed over into various disciplines I became aware of the importance of finding the point between binaries, such as the objective, or scientific, and the subjective, or artistic.

Subjektiewe Herbarium is a collection of ink paintings and stains reminiscent of a plant-press book. Instead of documenting the physical properties of the flowers, the books preserve subjective responses triggered by my journey with threatened indigenous plants. Each work consists of several pages making up a circular book without a starting or ending point. The paintings challenge the idea of linearity by bleeding through the pages to other moments in the book. This signals an in-between place where past remnants and future potentials are simultaneously present.

The idea of relationship, this state of being connected, is further explored in Spore. This work is made up of two separate canvasses exhibited opposite each other and is a continuation of my work where I allow matter to represent itself. Both paintings are based on a circle within a square. In Hindu and Buddhist belief the mandala is comprised of a circle within a square and is used to create a sacred space and aid meditation. In Jungian psychology a circle with a dot in the centre refers to the self; the unconscious and conscious parts of the self. The difference in this case is that the work concerns the space between two opposing circles. In other words, the space facilitates the experience of relationship. The experience is not static but one in process as both paintings continually shed burnt plant material, resulting in subtly transforming images. In artistic terms these works started to challenge the conception of what a painting is, who its author is and whether these very fragile and impermanent works are marketable.

I see the idea of the viewer standing between the transmuting canvasses as part of the underlying outcome of my theorising. In The Three Ecologies Felix Guattari suggests that we ‘escape the major crisis of our era’ by finding ‘new aesthetic and social practices, new practices of the self in relation to the other’. This mandate prevailed as I used painting to move through various streams of research.  The outcome is a diverse series of paintings that are not necessarily flower portraits but that have threatened indigenous flowers as their subject matter.
The final exhibition of the work has the quality of a work in progress, an environment 'in the process of being re-invented' as Guattari would say. This environment is not representational, but it represents a place in crisis and considers new potential ways of navigating through an ecology heading toward extinction.  What I found is a way of viscerally experiencing the position of interrelatedness: I listened and asked questions and found my place – not really a physical place but a non-physical place of relationship, which somehow anchors me.

The Subjective Herbarium


The event of flowering is a point in time when great potential exists. It is the culmination of past conditions manifesting as a procreative moment for future generations. As the crowning expression of genetic and circumstantial influences, the flower is also a revelation of the unique identity of a plant.

By pressing flowers, scientists can preserve this unique aspect as part of the documentation of plant species in herbaria. The body of the flower is dried by placing it between two sheets of absorbent paper and applying pressure to squeeze out the plant sap. The sample is then filed in a herbarium; the blemished paper is a by-product of the process.

The South African artist Lien Botha photographs the remains of what was once a flower in Moonflower stain from plant-press book, Betty’s Bay (Botha, 2009). The image is of a monochromatic mark on paper, the only remaining evidence of the flower’s existence. It is impossible to tell from this ghosted form what the physical flower used to look like. The stain is an abstracted flower that evokes subjective responses such as loss and nostalgia.

My series titled Subjektiewe Herbarium is a collection of ink paintings and stains reminiscent of a plant-press book. Instead of documenting the physical properties of the flowers, the books preserve subjective responses triggered by my journey with threatened indigenous plants. Each work consists of several pages making up a circular book without a starting or ending point. The paintings challenge the idea of linearity by bleeding through the pages to other moments in the book. This signals an in-between place where past remnants and future potential are simultaneously present.

It is unexpected to encounter so much pain on an expedition guided by flowers. One would think that a project in which one sets out to spend time with indigenous flowers in their natural habitat would be an experience of pure joy; instead it has been a pilgrimage through loss, albeit with some celebration.
The true value of my time with indigenous flowers lies in the relationships I formed through them: through this single connection so many others were made. These rare flowers seeded in an inner landscape and have become part of an understanding of my position in relation to other organisms and our shared environment.

Ecological writers such as Joanna Macy, Gregory Bateson and Arne Naess all advocate a new awareness of self which is situated in relation to a larger system. Macy claims that it is our ‘dysfunctional and pathological notion of a [separate] self’ that underpins the crisis threatening our planet (Vaughan-Lee, 2013: 149). Systems science offers a challenging perspective of self as an open, flow-through system, where ‘our very breathing, acting, and thinking arise in interaction with our shared world through the currents of matter, energy and information that move through us and sustain us’ (ibid.: 150).   

Naess describes this expanded perception of self as the ecological self. He explains that in traditional psychology the self is considered to develop from the ego self to the social self and finally the metaphysical self (which is considered to be the most mature form).  In this conception of self, nature is largely left out. The ecological self embraces the idea that from our beginning we are in and of nature (Drengson, 2008: 82).

The idea of relationship, this state of being connected, is further explored in Spore. This work is made up of two separate canvasses exhibited opposite each other. In seed plants spores develop internally into reproductive organs: female megaspores and male microspores. One canvass, titled Megaspore, is light in colour whereas the other, Microspore, is dark. Both paintings are based on a circle within a square. In Hindu and Buddhist belief the mandala is comprised of a circle within a square and is used to create a sacred space and aid meditation. In Jungian psychology a circle with a dot in the centre refers to the self; the unconscious and conscious parts of the self. The difference in this case is that the work concerns the space between two opposing circles. In other words, the space facilitates the experience of relationship. The experience is not static but one in process as both paintings continually shed burnt plant material, resulting in subtly transforming images.

I see this idea of the viewer standing between the transmuting canvasses as part of the underlying outcome of my theorising. In The Three Ecologies Felix Guattari suggests that we ‘escape the major crisis of our era’ by finding ‘new aesthetic and social practices, new practices of the self in relation to the other’ (Guattari, 2000: 45). This mandate prevailed as I used painting to move through various streams of research.  The outcome is a diverse series of paintings that are not necessarily flower portraits but that have threatened indigenous flowers as their subject matter.

Spore is an exhibition made up of individual pieces that stand in relation to one another and speak about a place. The place is a physical landscape, which also holds non-physical qualities such as socio-political systems, collective histories, individual memories, death and the potential for new life. These interwoven ‘ecologies’ are constantly mutating. Many of the works in Spore are created through shedding or subtraction to reveal form or colour. Reflective light as a symbol of hope shifts as the position of the viewer changes. Ultimately one could say that the viewer is standing in the spaces which connect things: the position of relationship.

By forming a deep relationship with the endemic plants of the Breede River Valley, I started to feel an intense sense of belonging in the world. I understood more about where I come from, and how and why the landscape came to look as it does today.  I listened, asked questions and found my place – not really a physical one but a non-physical place of relationship,[1] which somehow anchors me.

[1] On 1 November 2014, I was invited to give a talk and have a small exhibition of my paintings in a wine cellar, as part of an arts and culture route in the Breede River Valley. This event also sparked future possibilities to work with farmers who have joined the Biodiversity Wine Initiative in the valley. 

Spore. Tracing Threatened Indigenous Flowers in the Breede River Valley: An Exploration of Interrelatedness

Dear Readers,

Here is an overview of the project I worked on in the Breede River Valley during a MFA at the Michaelis School of Fine Art.
(If you scroll down in my posts, you will find the first chapter of my writing. Let me know if you are interested to read more via hanien@vodamail.co.za)

Spore can be dually read as an Afrikaans or English word. One of the meanings in Afrikaans refers to traces left behind in forms such as footprints, imprints, abrasions and memories. The word in both languages also refers to future potential in seed plants, as spores develop internally into reproductive organs: female megaspores and male microspores.

This double meaning aptly describes a personal journey of retracing past interrelated factors contributing to the current threatened status of indigenous plants of the Cape Floral Region, situated in the Western Cape. The interrelated ‘ecologies’ of the individual, the social and the natural, as described in ecophilosopher and semiologist FĂ©lix Guattari’s The Three Ecologies, informs the theoretical basis for the exploration. My praxis for theorising is mainly located in the medium of painting. 
In the first chapter, Hybridised Histories: A Sense of Place, I introduce my connection to the indigenous Proteaceae plant family by relating an encounter between myself, an Afrikaner female, and a Protea cynaroides plant in Amsterdam. It is through contemplating our mutual states of dislocation as a consequence of Dutch colonisation of the Western Cape in the 17th century, that I identify my need to belong to a place. The importance of having a relationship with a natural environment in order to feel a sense of place, as proposed by deep ecologist Arne Naess, is presented as a possible approach to understanding the interrelated conditions that contribute to an ecological crisis unfolding in the Cape Floral Region. I adapt Naess’s methodology of building a relationship with an environment, to forming one with the indigenous flowers of the Western Cape. 

Mutating Meaning: Context and Flower Portraiture explores how the subject of the threatened flower has manifested in visual art. I discuss how shifting contexts of presentation can create new meanings in viewing flowers in different types of painting. The discussion makes reference to the indigenous flower’s dependence on its natural habitat (or context) for survival, and narrates my fruitless search for specific flowers endemic to a place to which I am related. The outcome of this journey takes the form of portraits of flowers I have not met in the physical world, titled Invisible Flowers

The Voice of Water – Location: Raaswater introduces the degraded ecological status of a farm called Raaswater. This is a landscape where my maternal grandmother farmed export grapes in the 1940s and 50s. The name of Raaswater marks its ecosystem’s strong association with water, as signified by the presence of the Hartebees River and the endemic wetlands vegetation called Breede Alluvium Fynbos. Upon my visit to the farm, I find a silenced river and a location bereft of its original plant life. It is through making paintings with the Hartebees River clay, the same clay my mother played with as a child, that I attempt to allow the water to resound. 
Matter’s ability to represent itself, or to ‘voice’ itself, is further explored in The Voice of Earth – Location: Slanghoek Valley. My search takes me to the neighbouring Slanghoek Valley, where small pockets of Breede Alluvium Fynbos still exist amongst agriculturally developed tracts of land. In this valley I encounter the ‘war’ that refuses to acknowledge ecological and ethical limits, as conservation and agricultural development are polarised. The fertile alluvium soil is the material I relate to as I grapple with the possibility of the extinction of both human and plant life. Earth – as a marker of death and burial, as well as the holder of potential new life – becomes a material which links the past, the present and the future. 

The emergence of new forms of life after death is the subject of The Voice of Ash – Habitation: Death and Resurrection. This chapter explores the reality of mass extinction and the hope for life by expounding the unique ability of fynbos to renew itself through fire. 

The imprint that bodies in relationship leave on one another is explored in The Subjective Herbarium – Position of Relationship. Harnessing the visual language of a plant press book, I document my personal journey with threatened indigenous flowers in ink. The paintings become a way to process the diverse connections made through relating to endemic flora. The stains that seep between the pages in the book come to represent a new, ecologically-inspired way of being, in which linearity and separation make space for a location between things. So I find my unique co-ordinates in the overall order: the position of interrelatedness. 

Hybridized Histories - A sense of Place

I have decided to share some of the writing for my MFA on this blog for those who would like to read about my journey with indigenous flowers.

This is the first chapter called Hybridized Histories- A Sense of Place

It was in 2008 at the Hortus Botanicus in Amsterdam that a Protea cynaroides plant seeded a yearning which grew into this research project. This plant, also known as the king protea[1], was being cultivated in a glasshouse dedicated to Southern African plants. It struck me that unlike the rest of its family in the Western Cape (which was in full flower at the time), this specimen was not flowering. The horticultural reasons for the lack of flowers were not what troubled me. It was rather my empathic response to the awkwardness of being uprooted and transplanted, of not belonging to a place, which unsettled me.
The Proteaceae[2] plant family survived and evolved for millions of years in the Western Cape; one could say they truly belong to the landscape. Primitive representatives of Proteaceae were present on the ancient land mass Gondwanaland, soon after flowering plants first appeared on Earth, which was approximately 125 million years ago. Today, because of human interference with their habitats, up to 35% of South African Proteaceae is recorded as threatened.
The beginning of the destruction of indigenous habitats in service of human settlement and the dislocation of the king protea plant can be traced back to the 17th century, when the Dutch established a way-station in the Cape en route to the East Indies. European botanists started to collect indigenous plants and send samples to the Netherlands for scientific documentation and research from as early as 1597. Eventually plants were cultivated in artificial climates such as the glasshouse at the Hortus Botanicus, which is dedicated to Southern African plants to this day.
My own sense of dislocation is more complex. Another consequence of Dutch colonisation is my Afrikaner culture and language: a hybridised form of Dutch that has its origins in the 17th century cultural landscape of the Western Cape. 

Today, the Afrikaans language is spoken by approximately 7 million South Africans, only 3 million of whom are white[3]. The white Afrikaner culture is associated with the National Party, which ruled the country during the apartheid years. After the abolishment of apartheid in 1994, many Afrikaners experienced an identity crisis triggered by the loss of ruling power.[4] My personal response as a teenager was an unfolding awareness that I did not genetically belong to the soil where I was born; in fact as a hybridised human being, I had no idea where my body belonged.
My visits to the Netherlands were superficially driven by commissions to create indigenous flower paintings for Dutch clients, but on a deeper level I was curious to see if I could find a sense of belonging there. My experience was one of disorientation: I recognised the sound of the Dutch language but could not fully understand it; I understood some of the cultural nuances but found it foreign. It was as though I could hear a vaguely recognisable echo of my roots, but my body felt out of place. In fact, the reason I went to the glasshouse dedicated to Southern African plants was because I was unsettled and wanted to be with living things from my home environment.[5]

It was during this time that I discovered the writing of Arne Naess, a co-founder of the Deep Ecology movement. Naess speaks about ‘PLACE’ within the context of ecological crises:

There seems to be no place for PLACE anymore... But the loss of place is felt, the longing persists, and so we feel the need to articulate what it means to belong to a place. The movement toward the development of a sense of place is strengthened through a tightening of the interrelation between the self and the environment.

In his writing about the loss of place, Naess attempts to explain some of the feelings people have when they witness the destruction of a place for which they have an ‘intense feeling of belonging’. He concludes that because of our relation to a place, the destruction of a natural environment is a threat to our inner selves. We are thus not protecting ‘something out there’ but a vital part of ourselves. Naess encourages us to go deep into ourselves, our local places and nature, so we can trace the roots of ecological crises in our own contexts; he says this would assist in understanding global environmental contexts.
The encounter with Protea cynaroides at the Hortus Botanicus in Amsterdam was a profound moment of recognition of mutual displacement, many years after the event of colonisation. My empathy with the Proteaceae plant family was the beginning of a relationship[6] with the threatened indigenous vegetation of the Western Cape, where I was born. The landscape and the soil we shared became the place where we met and I listened.

[1] Protea cynaroides is the national flower of South Africa.
[2] Proteaceae is the name of a family of plants that consists of various genera, of which Protea is one. The Protea genus consists of various species, such as Protea cyneroides
[3] ‘White’ refers to South Africans descended from Europeans.
[4] It is almost 20 years since the abolishment of apartheid, and numerous discourses on the reinterpretation of Afrikaner identity and the Afrikaans language exist. It has in fact been so widely debated that Afrikaners have been accused of being overtly ‘obsessed with their identity (Visser, 2007: 16). In general, however, the discourse has become more nuanced and inclusive. Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, a respected Afrikaner intellectual, proposes that the term ‘Afrikaner’ will in future be associated with a new set of values yet to be determined. He recommends that those who want to identify themselves as Afrikaners will have to start by reshaping and refining their value systems (Slabbert, 2000: 80-82,85).
[5] It is important to clarify when speaking about the South African landscape and ‘belonging’ that this project is not an enquiry focussed on identity and post-colonial or post-apartheid discourses. These political registers rather form part of an interdisciplinary ecological enquiry where ‘a sense of place’ and ‘belonging’ form parts of an ecosophical approach to the global environmental crisis.
[6] The definition of ‘relationship’ is: ‘The way in which two or more people or things are connected, or the state of being connected’ (Oxford Dictionaries, 2014).