“String figures are like stories; they propose and enact patterns for participants to inhabit, somehow, on a vulnerable and wounded earth.” Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 2016, p. 10/String design installed in the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden’s annual section to prevent geese from eating young seedlings. Photograph by Melanie Boehi, December 2016.
This talk is concerned with histories of South African colonial formations featuring gardens and plants. It is grounded in empirical research of multispecies histories in the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden.
Plants have featured prominently in imaginations and conceptualisations of South Africa throughout the colonial, apartheid and post-apartheid era. In the late 19th century, white settlers appropriated the indigenous flora as a marker of identity. The settler elite regarded the cultivation of scientific and aesthetic appreciation of the vegetation as a tool for promoting civilisation and patriotism. This occurred within the larger discourse of nature conservation, which served as a legitimisation of white land appropriation, forced removals and prohibition of subsistence land use by Africans and slave-descendants.
In 1913, the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden was established in Cape Town. Subsequently, Kirstenbosch evolved as the centre of a network of regional botanical gardens spread throughout the country. In 2004, UNESCO listed Kirstenbosch as a natural World Heritage Site and it currently attracts over one million visitors per year. Through plant collecting, design and what I term “monumental gardening”, Kirstenbosch gave rise to South African colonial and imperial formations. These activities expressed the aspirations of the Cape colonial elite and evolved in the context of both rising South African settler nationalism and British imperialism. In 1948, the Nationalist Party came to power and apartheid became the official state policy. Parallel to the rise of local and international criticism of apartheid, the South African state began to use Kirstenbosch as a stage for political spectacles, deploying botanists as well as plants themselves as ambassadors in what I call “floral diplomacy”. Standing in a genealogy of empire exhibitions and flower shows, plants from Kirstenbosch were displayed internationally. The state also invited international botanists to South Africa in an attempt to impose a positive image of South Africa to them. The apartheid state deployed flowers and gardens because they were widely regarded as beautiful and apolitical – an understanding that needed to be continuously reproduced and in the late 1980s was challenged by activists and artists opposed to apartheid. The South African National Botanical Gardens have continued to thrive in the post-apartheid era. They have been reframed as tourism destinations and sites of post-apartheid nation building. However, they have been continuing to reproduce “colonial presents” (D. Gregory, The Colonial Present, 2004) and “occluded histories of empire” (A.-L. Stoler, Duress, 2016).
The talk is concerned with such histories of South African colonial formations. They are addressed from a multispecies perspective, which acknowledges not only humans but also other living beings, in particular plants, as historical actors and witnesses. It does so by drawing on and combining a range of methods, including historiography, multispecies ethnography, critical plant studies, plant sciences, and floriography (the reading and writing with flowers).
This event is part of the personal exhibition of Uriel Orlow at Corner College, Geraniums Are Never Red.