Invisible Flowers

In her review of Seeking Eden, an exhibition held at the Casa Labia, Lucinda Jolly describes my flower paintings:

"The passage area ... holds ...Hanien Conradie’s quietly dramatic, glowing flower series. Religious tracts and science both have it that before Eden there was the void sometimes known as the pregnant void.  The delicate blooms on Conradies’s small unframed canvases seem to emerge from a dark background as if from an alchemical bath, the way the image on photographic paper emerges lying submerged in its chemical tray. It’s highly suggestive of what the Vedic monks are said to have the sensitivity to experience – the point at which matter rises from the void to become form."

This series of works developed in a location to which I, as an individual ‘ecology’, have some relation. My grandmother farmed on a smallholding at the foot of the Brandwacht Mountain near Worcester. It is situated in the Breede River Valley which happens to be a current focus area of SANBI. As a result of agricultural development, it contains a large percentage of highly threatened indigenous flora in critical need of protection.

Upon investigation, I was informed that the indigenous vegetation that used to grow on my grandmother’s farm before its agricultural development was Breede Alluvium Fynbos. In the Breede River Valley it is estimated that only 30% of this vegetation type remains. A significant part of its habitat has been occupied by vineyards, cultivation and urbanisation.

In order to familiarise myself with the vegetation type, I obtained a detailed plant list from CREW (Custodians of Rare and Endangered Wild Flowers) with the idea of searching for the remaining 30% of Breede Alluvium Fynbos in the Breede River Valley. This task was much more difficult than I expected: I needed knowledge of the flowering time of each plant, its approximate co-ordinates and its physical appearance for identification, and I needed permission from owners to walk on their private properties. In addition, I was looking for some of the rarest flowers in the world.

One strategy was to join the Worcester CREW group on local field trips in the hope of finding some of the species I was looking for. This proved to be unsuccessful, since they were working in other vegetation types such as Renosterveld, and not specifically in Breede Alluvium Fynbos areas. Eventually, I sat down in front of my laptop and looked for the flowers in virtual space, specifically the Red List of South African Plants and iSpot websites. Even on these search engines, some of the plants could not be seen because they were too rare and no digital photographs of them existed.

I titled this series of flower paintings the Invisible Flowers Series. The series is named after Italo Calvino’s book, Invisible Cities (1972). In this book, the explorer Marco Polo describes the cities that he experienced from memory. It is hard to tell whether he is building the city around the meaning he experienced, or describing the meaning he experienced around the actual city. This complex relationship between form and meaning is similar to the manner in which I approached the flower portraits of this series. Because of the difficulty of engaging or seeing the real flowers overall, it has been an encounter with meaning more than with form; an experience of invisible flowers that seeded in my imagination.

The Red List of South African Plants Online provides up-to-date information on the national conservation status of South Africa's indigenous plants ( ); iSpot is a website that aims to assist the public in identifying any plant in nature. It is an interactive website that allows registered users to upload photos and location co-ordinates of plants that they have encountered (