As an exercise in intimacy – this week on Cultivating Place, we open the New Year with a breathtaking and heart-wrenching visit to some inspiring and inspired plantspeople in South Africa - home to 10% of the worlds flowering plant species and home to diverse cultures of people with both rich and complicated pasts.
Artist and plant lover Megan Godsell, botanist Rupert Koopman and their team including performance artist Tiffani Cornwall and photographers Boipelo Khunou and Neo Baepi explore these relationships in their project Turning Into Flowers, which strives to combine a wide variety of cultural perspectives to create a new relationship between human and plant communities.
“it all stemmed from conversations around intimacy with flowers and the restrictions on that intimacy that come from our historical and cultural background"
Turning Into Flowers, South Africa
New Year’s – new anything for that matter, new moons, new houses, new gardens, new days – are good transition zones for new thinking – for new intentions, goals, and resolve in ourselves – and therefore also in our gardens. They call on us to gird up our clarity and courage.
When I think of South Africa, two strong impressions come immediately to mind: incredible plant diversity from which the whole world has benefitted, incredible cultural violence and criminal social injustice. These two truths are of course true in just about anyplace that humans and plants meet, but South Africa has served as a crucible of sorts for the rest of the world to watch – and we hope learn from. I have never been to South Africa, but in the past few years I have been drawn to the work of a group who go by the name of Turning Into Flowers and their captivating and compelling visual and written work exploring the relationship – in all its complexity – between the beautiful plants and people of South Africa.
Artist Megan Godsell and Botanist Rupert Koopman join us today via Skype from South Africa to talk about their project – its path and its purpose.
Turning into Flowers is artistically and botanically exploring the relationships between plants and people, race politics and plant politics, how the violence against human communities and the violence against plant communities are intertwined and how the bridge to healing and restored relationships between plants and people can also be intertwined.
For the New Year and all of our resolutions, Megan writes: “The nature of the project is a combining of perspectives to create a new relationship between human and plant communities.”
This seems like a thought to hold onto in ALL Of our gardens. Happy New Year to each of you in your gardens – wild or cultivated.
"The land remembers long after we are gone - flowers connect us."
Turning Into Flowers, South Africa
The idea for this project grew out of my childhood journeys of plant exploration with my grandfather and the new context that conversations with my friend, a botanist working with critically endangered species, but also a man of colour in a predominantly white field. Our conversations put my childhood adventures of flowers during the last days of the Apartheid regime into a completely new context. At the very beginning, this started, for me, as a journey of undoing my "colonizer" assumptions and relationship with the flowers.
When my grandfather passed away, I inherited his books. As I began to explore them and learn more about the origin of botanical and horticultural terms, I started to learn a new language of my own garden. This grew into the Turning Into Flowers Project. I wanted to work with young performers and artists to engage and build relationship with their inheritance of flowers and plant knowledge. This was never a pedagogic journey of teaching someone the botanical names. Much more, spending time with young performers in this journey I am learning how to mend broken relationships with the earth and the plant communities. In South Africa, children born after 1994 are still called Born Free, a glib assumption that they are somehow untouched by the legacy of colonialism and Apartheid. The broken relationship between plants and natural space is part of this ignored damage. Because of the geographies of exclusion and bigotry, many of those who grow up in the densest urban areas with little access to green spaces are people of colour. Plant blindness in many communities is a direct debt of colonial practice.
For the performers, it is a work of mending relationships of love and knowledge of land and plant community broken in the violent process of exclusion. For me, it is mending the broken relationship of privilege, assumption and heritage of violence and domination against both plant and human communities built into my culture by my ancestors. My own plant blindness has a different form but is as damaging.
Inspired by botanical writings and art, drawing strongly from Robin Wall Kimmerer's Braiding Sweetgrass and Clare Marcus's Iona Dreaming we wanted to explore the language that art, poetry and performance could provide to the botanical spaces to make them more accessible for communities who have been actively shut out of claiming knowledge and relationship with the flowers
Rupert works always right on the edge of life and death. His work is centred on the critically endangered species of the Sandveld and Renosterveld in the Cape Floristic Kingdom. A passionate advocate for these delicate species, he is constantly in a position of making new discoveries only to return and find sites bulldozed for farming or municipal construction. One of the very few men of colour in a field that is still predominantly older, white and male in South Africa, race politics and plant politics are never far apart in his work. At the same time he is the holder of Linnaen taxonomy and the one who reminds us that the bread we are eating has a direct cost in flowers. My conversations with Rupert also lead us to explore the idea of how art can create a support space for those struggling with environmental grief. At Ruperts invitation we attended the Fynbos Forum- a conference for the protectors of native ecosystems in the Cape Floristic Kingdom with an installation of flowers and flower crowns. He presented a talk that we created the visuals for. I'll be uploading it to YouTube this week and can send a link if you would be interested. Rupert grew up with family who were passionate about gardening and the wild flowers, but also in the context of forced removals. Some of the most luxurious areas of high-end Cape Town suburbia were owned by communities of colour since the end of slavery and then forcibly seized and given to white occupancy only under Apartheid. The most globally famous of these seizures is District Six, but the most botanically painful was the seizure of what is now the Constantia area. This is some of the richest land adjacent to the city. The farms and wine farms continue to be abundant. Before the annexure this land was held in ownership of communities of colour and comprised small farms and nurseries. The land is also some of the most species-rich Sandveld and Renosterveld. Small farmers with love and knowledge of the native plants took vastly different approaches to large commercial farmers. Its a constant learning of how the violence against human communities and the violence against plant communities are intertwined.
In his work, Rupert is constantly bringing new awareness of both of these. His job for Cape Nature is government based, but he is also a passionate advocate for conservation and native plant species on twitter and instagram ( @rk_ct) He has the patience to bear with our wild and weird art practices and to see where the journey of images will take him.
This project is a challenge in the art space. We are working intuitively and trying to be guided by and listen to the plants we are representing. Tiffani and I have worked together for seven years now, but never as performer and director. This gives us a fluidity and an established relationship. Tiffani's openness and vulnerability in her approach to the flowers, to letting them guide each performance moment and to her quickly growing relationship with them has made this journey possible. She finds stories between her past, her current life and the history and community of the flowers that continues to bring me to tears. We began work filming in my garden in December 2017 and each new film or photographic shoot or rehearsal session takes us deeper into the pain and joy of human/flora relationships. The journey of flowers has spilled out of our performance and writing. From the first her engagement ring became an accidental feature of the early filming when we found that one of the colloquial Afrikaans names for Agapanthus is Bride's Lily. I'm now growing the flower for her upcoming wedding in the same garden that filming took place in and her special developing relationship with Arum ( Calla) Lilies and the history they hold for her family and wider community means they will be a big feature of her bouquet.
Tiffani's background in interactive and improvisational theatre has shaped the in-person performance of Turning Into Flowers but also allowed her to create small intimate performances on film and in photograph where she connects with the wisdom and spirit of the flowers. We'll often find afterwards when we do the research for narration and the writing, that some particular moment that took place in the filming has a link to the particular name or traditional use as the flowers. When filming on site with Protea Repens, Tiffani chose a golden cloth to work with just the colour of the bossiesstroop or flower syrup that is a traditional remedy made from the nectar of these proteas. This style of intuitive work has allowed us to dance with the flowers and create stories and images in which they are centred and speaking. In this journey we are trying our best to listen and be guided by our plant partners. Its easy to fall into voyeurism with such beautiful visual guides, but by choosing to work without a script and instead be directed by the plants we find. This is a delicate and precarious process, but Tiffani's joy in connecting with the flowers and learning them has allowed us to go deeper and deeper into these intuitive spaces. In our recent Journey to Spring we were often working without a map- driving in the direction we needed to go and then trusting that the flowers we needed to find would call out to us from the side of the road. Again and again this worked. Tiffani approaches her work from a space of deep spiritual connection. She believes in work created to a purpose and following the voices and guidance of Spirit.
Boipelo Khunou and Neo Baipe
Boipelo is an artist, currently in a residency in Braamfontein and completing an MA program at Wits. Her photography is influenced by her artists narrative and her work as botaki, a traditional name for artist/creator.
Boipelo came to the project through her own work. A friend told me that a photographer was creating a floral series that I should investigate. I saw her work on Instagram and instantly knew that her vision and aesthetic fit with the existing team. Over our initial conversation, she described her connection with flowers. She also told me a story. On the University Campus where she studied, red Coral Trees bloom every year. She loved the flowers and went to the library to look up the name. The book of trees she used was old and the name given to her contained a racial slur. Many of the old Afrikaans and British names for native plants contain racial slurs when plants were primarily known for traditional usage. In one word this was a tactic to dismiss both the plant and the traditional practice and knowledge around the plant. In some instances these have been corrected, replaced or erased but some botanical gardens and many texts still contain racial slurs. Boipelo described this moment as feeling like she had been slapped. This flowering tree that she considered hers and had developed a relationship with had a name specifically designed to alienate and belittle her.
From that initial conversation her vision, observations and journey have been key to the storytelling of the project. I wanted to work with young photographers of colour creating images of young women of colour. My vague idea that this would allow stories beyond my limited imagination to come to life has blossomed so beautifully. Between Boipelo and all the performers, but particularly between Boipelo and Tiffani and visual mythology of the flowers has been framed and highlighted. These feel like stories just waiting to be seen. Boipelo's intuitive approach to the flowers allowed a narrative of Arum and breasts that we later connected to the myth of Hera and the lilies.
In the journey of creating her portraits of the flowers and the humans, Boipelo's story has itself become a focus and she has several times traded her role of creator to that of subject in the space. This has given her a unique perspective on shaping the visual story of the flowers.
Neo Baepi is an award winning young photographer based in Cape Town. Their passion for creating portraits that celebrate bodies and lives outside of the cishetero patriarchal norm creates a dazzling language of image. Their passion for investigating gender and racial binaries through moments captured in image helped us to create key elements of exploring the sensuality and radical power that come with reuniting excluded bodies with the land. Neo's gift for finding the heart of the moment in a relaxed and free form process held us from dawn shoots in the Veld to ramadan shoot in the city. allowing the political to become intensely intimate and personal.
Follow Turning into Flowers work and journey online: www.turningintoflowers.com, or on Instagram @turningintoflowers
THINKING OUT LOUD this week..
Ahh here we are in the fresh air of a fresh new year. Megan’s touching on the concept of intimacy in reference to our human relationships with flowers, with plants – with all that is more than human is at the heart of why I wanted this episode to be the one to kick off the new year of Cultivating Place episodes. That along with the idea of the immense species diversity in South Africa and that region of the world being the original seat of much of the world’s speciation outward. From there to here.
Megan’s use of the word sent me straight to my Oxford English Dictionary – not because it could gloss for me anything more important than what my own intuition already knows, but for the historic tracing of the word and its etymological origins. Two things were of note to me – the first being a lower level definition of Intimacy as: inner or inmost nature, intrinsic, an inward quality or feature. And next – the glossing of the word Intima: from anatomy or zoology meaning the innermost coating or membrane of a part or organ, esp a vein or artery.
Now, I am no linguist – and perhaps these two words are not in fact related. One is not the root of the other. BUT the poet and gardener in me know there is a direct correlation between what we know of our plant companions – wild or cultivated – and their intimate relationship to our very selves. We are them – they are us. Without them – we are little – without them we are lost.
Megan describes: “the dynamic of intimacy that I was introduced to very young MY own BEGINNINGS WITH FLOWERS” her gradual and growing awareness of the plant kingdom in which what could be (and often is) seen as a “blur of green in the background” comes into meaningful focus as masses and masses of individual, colorful, unique flowers and plants all with their own places and natures.
This sharpening focus can come with its challenges and discomforts – as Megan describes as she realized and began to appreciate the often violent white privilege baked into the traditional study of horticulture. This is a hard truth to face for us all, the discomfort of understanding, following, and facing how white privilege and the colonial process of violating taking and claiming, then naming and appropriating are baked into so much of horticulture as our mainstream culture teaches it, but without getting to this understanding and through it we can never reach the comfort of true caring and intimacy with our planet and its plants and people – with our own very inner cores and natures and places. And that intimacy that Megan and Rupert are exploring and building into their artistry, their science and their conservation strategies – it gets us to a place we all want to go I think.
In today’s conversation, Rupert points out the benefits of technology and social media in helping to break down cultural barriers that are firmly entrenched in physical life. Which I loved – there is much negative to say and report on the use of technology in our lives, but like any tool – well used – they bring great possibility. Out of control, they are harmful – well and thoughtfully employed with your own values and objectives in mind – they are wonderful resources and aids – be they apps, or phone cameras, gps, your Instagram community, or your podcast line up.
As Rupert notes: Ultimately the work they (Turning Into Flowers) do is trying to reestablish people’s relationships with plants. The seeds for the Turning into Flowers project as they describe it are an unlikely marriage of overwhelming joy at knowing flowers and overwhelming grief at nature lost while most of us are not paying attention. Megan expresses how she feels that This spectacular beauty and joy and then this deep grief needs a language beyond language – a space where humans and plants blend into each other – a space where the similarities between our shapes and the plant shapes have space where we can see and feel how a flower petal holds the same shape as the eye.
In the January A View From Here Newsletter going out later this week (subscribe HERE to receive the newsletter if you don't already :) I outline some of the resolutions and intentions for 2019 sent in by some of you, with this inaugural episode of the new year with Turning Into Flowers, my greatest wish for you and me is this: let yourself, make yourself, allow time for yourself and your community of family and friend to: “Go into the space with the flowers and just listen to the stories they share.”
Now back to our conversation with the South African team of botanists, artists, performers and heartfelt activists known as Turning Into Flowers
We are all custodians of the wildflowers – be they common or rare and endangered.
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