Soil of the land pours fourth from a concrete fissure. Protea graves lie on an earthy deathbed. The indigenous plants strewn across the floor. Blood-red seeps from a glinting gold surface. A legacy of Eurocentricity. Wilting in the sun. “The garden itself as a place of symbolic and material production, where sublime beauty still emerges as a surplus value of the dirty hands of others labor.”
History Begins with a Garden is captured within the surrounding greenhouse-glass walls of Gallery MOMO. Artist Khaya Witbooi collaborated with Italian born, Barcelona based curator Mariella Franzoni to put the show together. In his work Khaya digs up the roots of a colonial history. In exploring the, “genealogy of gardens and gardening in South Africa, bringing to light its relation with slavery, land dispossession and nationalist propaganda.”. Gardens appear at the intersection of both beauty and violence.
“The rhetoric of aesthetic and civilization was at the origin of the colonial and apartheid enterprises that built the Company’s Garden and, later, Kirstenbosch in Cape Town as symbols of power.”. The systematic trafficking of plants mirrors the enslaved movements of human migration during colonisation. Rich and vibrant in colour, Khaya’s complex images juxtapose a history of iconography grown from the garden of colonial South Africa with contemporary popular culture.
Queen Elizabeth II, Jan van Riebeeck and Cecil John Rhodes are used to access the historical narrative of South Africa. Problematising their prevalence. Their positions of power are subverted through the use of CCTV cameras, the moon landing and Tweety Birds. South Africa’s historic mining practices are referenced through featuring the yellow Looney Tunes character – canaries were carried down to the depths of the earth in mine shafts to test for fatal levels of carbon monoxide or methane. In his pieces, a matrix of meaning are articulated through subtleties – a visual critique of the colonial seed.
“For a colonized people the most essential value, because the most concrete, is first and foremost the land: the land which will bring them bread and, above all, dignity.”
― Frantz Fanon