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. 


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