Foreword Phakamani m’Afrika Xaba
The year 2013 marks the centenary year of Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden and to celebrate this milestone, the theme for this year’s botanical art biennale at Kirstenbosch is medicinal and traditional use plants of southern Africa. The theme pays homage to the evolution of botanical art from the beautiful hand-drawn illustrations of plants collected from around the world for ancient herbals. It also highlights the rich history of traditional plant use among indigenous people, while aiming to raise awareness about unsustainable over-exploitation.
Southern Africa has a range of biomes which translate into our extensive floral diversity. Over millennia indigenous inhabitants of the region have used plants for food, medicine, crafts, construction, and rituals. Over 3 689 taxa have been recorded for their use in traditional medicine in the region.
In the last two centuries drastic changes in land use have accompanied commercial agriculture and the introduction of exotic food plants. Food security coupled with effective primary health care has driven rapid population growth which has quintupled in South Africa over the last century to more than 50 million. However, the use of traditional medicines remains high, practised by an estimated 70 percent of the population. The bulk of the demand for medicinal plants is from urban populations in trade estimated to be worth R2.6 billion a year. The two largest trading markets in South Africa are the Durban Muthi market and the Johannesburg Faraday (Mayi mayi) market. Most urban users reside in poor urban areas (townships) and have little contact with the natural environment.
In this context, harvesting plants in the wild is unsustainable. Many plants are being pushed towards extinction in the wild. Over the last decade SANBI, and Kirstenbosch in particular, has promoted the sustainable use of indigenous plants by creating a Useful Plants demonstration garden, by working with traditional healers and communities to promote knowledge of growing traditionally useful plants, and in piloting community and school gardens planted with useful plants.
The biennale showcases works by 54 botanical artists and includes a lecture on the history of botanical art in South Africa, two art installations and a film. It also sees the launch of the new yellow Strelitzia juncea cultivar ‘Centenary Gold’.
This year’s judging panel includes Graham Duncan (author and senior horticulturist at Kirstenbosch who has been a judge since the first biennale), Sally MacRobert (curator of the Brenthurst Library and Collections in Johannesburg), John Manning (senior scientific botanist, author, and well-known botanical artist), Vulindlela Nyoni (artist, print-maker and senior lecturer at Stellenbosch University’s Fine Arts Department), Christopher Peter (who runs the Irma Stern Museum in Cape Town and has been a judge since the inception of the biennale in 2000), John Rourke (retired curator of the Compton Herbarium, specialist botanist, author of many books, and an authority on botanical art), and Vicki Thomas (renowned botanical artist whose work is featured in a number of important collections, including Prince Charles’ Florilegium).
Many people and organisations have contributed to the success of this biennale and we would like to thank:
- Old Mutual and the Hans Hoheisen Trust for their generous sponsorship;
- Groot Constantia for providing the wine for the opening ceremony;
- the Kirstenbosch Branch of the Botanical Society of South Africa for facilitating the administration of the event;
- The core team, Nicki Westcott, Sarah Struys, Alison Pekeur and Cathy Abbott who assisted with all aspects of the exhibition with generosity and humour;
- Robbie Phillips for assistance with equipment and lighting;
- Philip le Roux, curator of Kirstenbosch, for his enduring support for the Biennale;
- John Rourke and Mary van Blommenstein for their tireless work on the audio-visual presentation on the history of botanical art in South Africa;
- Mary van Blommenstein again, for researching, procuring and hanging all the 19th century original artwork on display at the biennale;
- John Manning and Vicki Thomas for their involvement, thoughts, ideas and expertise in the planning of this event;
- Gill Condy for her ideas and suggestions;
- Elsa Pooley for the opening address;
- Phakamani Xaba for running the opening night function;
- Linda de Wet, Basia Hitchcock, Solly Gutman and the whole committee of the Botanical Artists’ Association of South Africa (BAASA) for assistance at all levels;
- All the participating BAASA and other artists for their work and assistance throughout the duration of the exhibition;
- Pat Bowerbank for general assistance;
- Joy Woodward for assisting with the judging procedures and note-taking;
- Tony Dold for his slide presentation on medicinal and traditional use plants in the Eastern Cape;
- Alice Notten for her research on medicinal plants and for labelling the entire exhibition;
- John Manning, John Rourke, Graham Duncan and Ernst van Jaarsveld who checked the botanical classifications of the artists’ work and who assisted artists whenever asked;
- David Davidson for graphic design services;
- Beryl Eichenberger for media and publicity;
- Shauna Westcott for editing;
- Stephen Gibson of Art Assist for the design and printing of the Lifetime Achievement Award portfolio;
- Fran Siebritz, the Kirstenbosch horticulturists and Ginny Hulse for the plant display;
- Jeanne Miles for assisting with the hanging; Jenny Edge and the Christian Barnard Metropolitan Hospital for providing the medical containers used for the plant displays;
- The Pharmaceutical Society of South Africa, Nu Pharmacy at Cavendish Square, Synergy Pharmacy in Belvedere Road and Judy Whittaker for pharmaceutical containers on display;
- John Manning, Vicki Thomas, Vulindlela Nyoni, Christopher Peter, Sally MacRobert, Graham Duncan and John Rourke who judged the art work and awarded the medals.
Introduction Nicki Westcott, Curator
This year’s biennale takes place in the centenary year of the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden which has given a historical dimension to the 2013 exhibition. A wonderful display of original artworks by 19th century botanical artists marks this occasion as well as an audio-visual presentation on the history of botanical art in South Africa. The exhibiting botanical artists have risen to the challenge of painting medicinal plants which are generally not known for flamboyant, sculptural beauty. The standard of this year’s artworks is very high and these remarkably detailed portraits will enchant viewers.
The theme of medicinal and traditional use plants is suitably topical. Despite the fact that some of the compounds once derived from plants are now chemically generated, the exhibition highlights the increasing fragility of the supply of products deriving from the natural world. Medicinal plants feed a huge industry and the question of sustainability has become urgent as many plants near extinction in their natural habitats. The slideshow on the use of plants by the isiXhosa-speaking people of the Eastern Cape contextualizes these practices and enlarges our perceptions and understanding.
One of the curatorial aims of this exhibition is to situate botanical art clearly within the domain of art. For this reason other artists have been invited and their work sets up a reverberating conversation with the botanical work.
Renowned South African artist Robert Slingsby’s work intersects with the concerns of the biennale and the work of the exhibiting artists. His newly detailed portrait of a traditional healer resonates with the dedicated observational detail of the plant portraits on the exhibition. His portrait evokes the foretellable extinction of ways of life, belief systems and cultural practices. He shows the indivisibility of the plant and animal worlds.
Stefanie Schoeman, recent graduate of the Michaelis School of Fine Art in Cape Town, designed and executed the aptly named installation Strained.
The Keiskamma Art Project, with whom Kirstenbosch has an on-going relationship, is back with a moving display arising out of their collaboration with the Kuru art project in Ghanzi, Botswana.
Botanical art is coming into its own as public enthusiasm for all the activities and products allied to the natural world continues to increase. But there is another reason. Botanical art brings us back to the fundamentals of visual representation – to the minute observational skills, the ability to draw accurately from real life; to capture an intrinsic inner stance in the world; an understanding of the laws of proportion; a rendition of complex and varied colours, shades and tones. Above all else, perhaps, its paradoxical simplicity engages with the viewer in a forthright, direct manner. It requires no brief of the artist’s trajectory and no access to the private conversations which can make some post-modernist artistic output inaccessible. In short, it is simple in its intent and fascinatingly complex and diverse in its rendition.