“I am far from convinced that being released from the African witch doctor was worthwhile if I am now — in order to support the moral contradictions of and the spiritual aridity of life — expected to become dependent on the American psychiatrist. It is a bargain I refuse. The only thing white people have that black people need, or should want is power — and no one holds power forever.” –James Baldwin, Letter from a Region in my Mind
In November 2017, at the University of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, French president Emmanuel Macron delivered a speech that cracked open a pandora’s box of sorts. “I cannot accept that a large part of cultural heritage from several African countries is in France,” Macron told a rather skeptical audience, further proclaiming that he expected within five years “the conditions to be met for the temporary or permanent restitution of African heritage to Africa.” Whether or not this was intended as a diplomatic platitude, almost a year to the day a landmark report on the question of repatriation, commissioned by Macron, was published. And with that report, a wider crack appeared.
How does one even begin to identify and address such accriminations of the past? This is one of the more pertinent existential matters of our time. There are many avenues for exploring this rich field from legal, philosophic and historic questions to practical matters of logistics. In such uncertain times the ability to address this complex web falls within the purview of art — a mantle recently taken up by Swiss artist Uriel Orlow in a body of work and exhibition titled Theatricum Botanicum.
In 2014, Orlow undertook a research residency in South Africa with the intention of investigating the lives of local plants. Over the course of the next two years the artist returned to the country several times, visiting various archives, and collaborating with traditional medicine practitioners, legal and botanical experts, actors and a film crew in order to realize his project. The result is Theatricum Botanicum, an exhibition comprising film, photography, installation and sound, which considers in the brief words of a statement “plants as both witnesses and actors in history, and as dynamic agents — connecting nature and humans, rural and cosmopolitan medicine, tradition and modernity — across different geographies, histories and systems of knowledge, with a variety of curative, spiritual and economic powers.”
This pithy description fairly sums up the exhibition’s content. A more thematic precis describes how the work “variously explore(s) botanical nationalism and other legacies of colonialism, plant migration and invasion, biopiracy, flower diplomacy during apartheid…as well as the role of classification and naming of plants.” This dense array of ideas operate like a sort of mechanism on the viewer, which prompts a question: what is the work’s function?
The main material of Theatricum Botanicum is history. Through extensive archival research and interviews with modern practitioners of traditional medicine, Orlow presents a wealth of information that reveal several simple truths about our Modern world. In The Crown Against Mafavuke, a film depicting the 1940 trial of Mafavuke Ngcobo, a traditional herbalist accused by the local white medical establishment of “untraditional behavior”, we are shown through re-enacted court transcripts how Western medicine typically sought legal measures to control and capitalize on indigenous forms of knowledge. What Plants Were Called Before They Had A Name is a sound installation that uses more poetic means to articulate the subversion of epistemologies, combining slides of pressed plant specimens beside hanging speakers sounding off the original names of botanical species in several African languages. It’s not clear from the work which names are meant to accompany each of the near ghost-like pressed plant projections. The sense of being cut-off from these once familiar words further drives home the sense of loss that has come with the supposed ideals of Progress.
Describing this sense of alienation unique to the modern condition, psychoanalyst Erich Fromm wrote how “man has created a world of man-made things as it never existed before. He has constructed a complicated social machine to administer the technical machine he built. The more powerful and gigantic the forces are which he unleashes, the more powerless he feels himself as a human being. He is owned by his creations, and has lost ownership of himself.”
And so, back to the question of function.
A clue can be found reading an exhibition catalogue essay by author and academic Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll titled ‘Restitutions to Nature’s Ghosts.’ In the essay, Carroll unpacks the historical context in which plants around the world went through a process of renaming under the Linnaean nomenclature. This classification system, pioneered by a nineteenth century Swedish botanist named Carl Linnaeus, sought to standardize plant species into singular names, as a counter to the “splitting proliferation that naturally occurs through linguistic diversity around the globe,” writes Carroll. In so doing plant species were grouped into binomials, which formed part of the broader project of colonialism. So why go about revealing this historical juncture?
“All my work is about restitution,” Orlow tells Carroll. This is a critical reading of the work for Carroll. “Restitution is not merely a question of returning material,” she writes, “although the material mediates the process of repatriation, the object falls away in a political act that is about dedicating attention.”
Theatricum Botanicum evolved over the course of several exhibitions. Having travelled to the Showroom in London and EVA International in 2016, it went on to be shown at the 2017 Sharjah Biennal and Kunsthalle St Gallen in Switzerland. Last year was the first time it was experienced in the country of its origin, being hosted between the independent art space POOL and the Market Photo Workshop in Johannesburg, the Institute for the Creative Arts (ICA) in Cape Town and the Durban Art Gallery.
In finally realizing this exhibition in South Africa, Theattricum Botanicum achieved a restitution of sorts. This act took the form of an opportunity for attention, and with it a recognition of the dissonance that has been sewed into the country’s culture. Is awareness then the function or is it something deeper, which extends to the very existential core of restitution in all its forms?
The Algerian-French artist Kader Attia has dedicated much of his artistic practice to the notion of repair. For Attia repair is intrinsically tied to injury, and by trying to mend something by removing traces of the cause, we inherently misunderstand the nature of its existence. Repair then, Attia once explained to me, is “an endless process of intellectual, cultural, and political adjustments that humanity carries on in parallel with its natural process of evolution.” Perhaps this then is the function of Theatricum Botanicum and the type of process restitution attempts to produce.
Robin Scher is Head Of Communications at Goodman Gallery, South Africa. He is a graduate of Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU, has a Masters in Cultural Reporting and Criticism, and is the former editorial assistant at ARTnews magazine.