Verplant

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JH Neethling Building | Stellenbosch | 2019  

South Africa has recently witnessed more and more protests and debates over its origin, ownership, and in general, its cultural identity. Political statues as symbols of oppression and European imperialism are constantly removed or vandalized in an attempt to erase or rewrite South African history.

 

The topic of land ownership and expropriation led me to investigate the role that some plants have played in (mis)shaping the socio-, agricultural, and political landscape of the Cape. Like its human inhabitants, foreign plants were either introduced to the Cape, or native species were displaced and even systematically removed from their original environments. This deliberate manipulation of the landscape inevitably changed the natural appearance of the Cape forever. Before the arrival of the Dutch and the process of land and landscape colonization began, the natural vegetation of Table Mountain and its surrounds included a variety of fynbos, restios, and many slow-growing hardwood trees. Soon after the first settlements took root in its shadows, much of Table Mountain’s indigenous timber has been stripped for industrial purposes. In time numerous fast-growing “alien” trees like Oak, Pine and Eucalyptus would replace them.

 

In addition to trees for timber, the VOC also introduced many agricultural crops, some of which’s prominence have contributed in defining a unique and recognizable Cape landscape, like the planting of grapes for the production of wine, resulting in parts of the Cape being referred to as the “winelands”. Together with the newly constructed identity of the Cape as a producer of wine, the sheer amount of English Oak trees (Quercus robur) planted in Stellenbosch (initially planted for the production of wine barrels, but proven to be ineffective due to the Cape’s weather, which caused the wood to be too porous), resulted in the town’s nickname, the Eikestad (city of oaks).    

 

Perhaps the most (in)famous example of how plants were used as a political tool in shaping the Cape landscape, is “van Riebeeck’s Hedge”. In his daily journal, Jan van Riebeeck mentions the planting of Wild Almond trees (Brabejum stellatifolium), together with various fast-growing brambles and thorn bushes, as a protective hedge against the raids of the Hottentots. The act of constructing such hedges around farmers’ land was, however, not unusual, as van Riebeeck refers to European lords and squires planting hedges as a way of marking off the boundaries of their territories. The plaque on this tree in Kirstenbosch, which is presumed to be a piece of the original hedge planted by van Riebeeck, regards the planting of it as the first step towards racial segregation.

 

Although the introduction and presence of some of these plants are still highly contested by Capetonians, my aim for this exhibition, titled Verplant / Uproot was not to comment on the environmental impact it had on the land, but rather highlight the integral role they played, and continue to play in the construction of a country that is built upon a smorgasbord of cultural identities. Their cultural significance was highlighted by the method of illustrating them in a traditional botanical style.       

 

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© Willie Schlechter 2019

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