Currently showing at the Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg CBD is a fascinating exhibition entitled Exact Imagination 300 Years of Botanically Inspired Art in South Africa. The third in a series of 4 exhibitions at the Standard Bank Gallery which focuses on the elements – the first two being Water : The Delicate Thread of Life (2011) and Fire! The Role of Heat and Light in African Art (2013) – this exhibition uses the theme of plants as a way to access the element of earth. The curator Cyril Coetzee, who used to be a colleague when I lectured in Art History at Wits and is now a practicing portrait artist and art-teacher, has brought together 3 different themes: botanical illustrations; contemporary art inspired by botanical subject matter; and art and artefacts that are made from plant matter. There are several reasons why this exhibition is so extraordinary. It is not only the quality of what is on show but also the sensitive way in which themes have been juxtaposed and ‘speak’ to each other, either through the visual and aesthetic connections or because of subtle thematic connections. It is also a very rare opportunity for the public to have access to such an
outstanding range of botanical illustrations, sourced mainly from the archives of the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), as well as seeing rare antiquarian books from the Mary Gunn Library at SANBI. Coetzee has also included a range of illustrations of South African grasses, tantalizingly juxtaposed with beautifully woven basket-ware, beaded Ndebele and Sotho calabash and wood dolls, and photographs of reed huts and large scale grain baskets. The botanical illustrations are breathtaking in their observation of minute detail; their delicacy and fineness; the demonstration of consummate skill and patience in the making process; and their remarkable state of preservation. There are illustrations dating back to the early 18th Century.
Intricate workmanship and skilled handling of medium is also seen in many of the works by contemporary fine artists as well as the producers of more traditional artefacts. They demand what I would call an ‘absorptive mode of engagement’. Works by Oltmann (Cactus and Disarticulated Flower ) as well as Esta Zulu’s Spiralling Energy involve an intricate
weaving –the former with aluminium wire and the latter with woven sisal and grass. The beautiful surface and exquisite crafting draw the viewer in, demanding an almost bodily empathy and identification with the making process. Other artists demonstrate an interest in underlying mathematical structures in nature: Stefanus Rademeyer uses generative algorithms (I still haven’t got my mind around what this means exactly) and Keith Struthers draws on the geometry of plants in his architectural designs. Some use plant material as part of the medium of their work (Karel Nel and Gerhard Marx); and some draw on the iconography of plants and flowers (William Kentridge, Helmut Starcke, Elizabeth Davison, Michelle Thomas).
Willem Boshoff’s large scale installation deals with endangered species, an area Boshoff has been recording since 1982. Entitled Garden of Words 1 (1982-1997) the installation was first shown at the Sandton Civic Gallery. The names (phylum, genus and species) of 4000 threatened species of plants world-wide, were pasted onto small wooden blocks and placed under 12 sheets of glass in 12 rectangles on the floor. Here only part of the work is exhibited. Alan Crump’s watercolours of what Skawran calls ‘wounded’ landscapes demonstrate a similar concern with the destruction of natural habitat.
The accompanying catalogue is very reasonably priced at R200 and is arranged in the same categories as the exhibition: the first chapters dealing with history of botanical illustration in South Africa, further chapters dealing with the use of grass and plant matter in South African material culture and the final chapters dealing with contemporary art inspired in some way by plant material and botanical art.
A series of lunchtime lectures is also scheduled , although as the programme might be subject to change, it is advisable to phone 011 631 4467 to check there are no changes to the programme.
5th November John Rourke History of Botanical Art in South Africa
12th November Braam Van Wyk Remarkable Wild Flowers of Gauteng
19th November Ben-Erik Van Wyk Indigenous plant-based medicines; The fiction and the fact
26th November Vivienne Williams The history of medicinal plants in South Africa
And if you are lucky there might still be some posters available. The exhibition closes on the 6th December.