Plants and prejudice pondered through powerful art
The strange story of an enigmatic palm, misunderstood for more than 200 years, celebrated by a living wake, and finally accepted for what it was, stands at the core of a new art exhibition in Inverleith House Gallery at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.
Beautiful, powerful, and thought-provoking, Silent Archive, features the work of 16 international artists who have taken their inspiration from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) collections.
In the opening room of the gallery, the haunting words of Karine Polwart, accompanied by the music of Pippa Murphy, set the backdrop for Wendy McMurdo’s vivid photography, plant cuttings, historic documents and a towering triptych created by RBGE’s own botanical artists, when a lofty 60 ft (18m) Sabal palm was dismantled in the Botanics’ Tropical Palm House four years ago. It is a poignant homage to the misjudged, setting visitors on a course of real-life human stories, coursing the centuries and reaching out from Dundee to Kolkata, Mauritius to Uist and beyond.
Image: artist Sonia Mehra Chawla
Setting out to explore some difficult truths, historic ‘discoveries’ and fresh perspectives on human and plant relationships, Silent Archive shines fresh light on the complex links between the lives of jute workers in Kolkata today and the 19th century mill girls of Dundee’s notorious “Juteopolis” period. Equally revealing are the seldom told stories of the Scots banished to hard labour on the plantations of the Caribbean, and the French colonials who populated Mauritius with plants and people against their will.
Image: artist Shiraz Bayjoo
The ways plants learn to adapt to survive different living conditions, the modern-day impact of stress on our bees and the often ignored worlds of cryptogams and fungi all bring extra layers of fulfilment to the narrative.
Emma Nicolson, Head of Arts at RBGE, explained: “Our million plus visitors a year are well aware of our outstanding Living Collection of plants. But, we need to explain how our Archives are also alive in the day-to-day lives of our staff, students, volunteers, associates and partners around the world. By examining the preserved plants, handwritten journals and botanical artworks in these extensive Archives, we can build a clearer picture of the people representing RBGE over three-and-a-half centuries and their attitudes to world events happening in their midst.
“While it sets out to re-contextualise the historical collections of a 354-year-old botanical institution, Silent Archive is brimming with a rich mix of human stories, and it is the power of art to inspire and make us think deeply that drives exhibitions like these.
“In this remarkable showcase, our artists present their individual interpretations on the overwhelming need to foster discussion and encourage meaningful and healing dialogues within the art community and in wider society. Silent Archive aims to contest preconceived notions of botanical archives, while creating a space for diverse perspectives to interact and inspire positive action”.
The contributing artists are: Amanda Cobbett, Amanda Thomson, Annalee Davis, Cynthia Fan, Hannah Imlach, Işık Güner, Jacqui Pestell, Janise Yntema, Karine Polwart, Laurie Clark, Pippa Murphy, Sarah Roberts, Sharon Tingey, Shiraz Bayjoo, Sonia Mehra Chawla and Wendy McMurdo.
Silent Archive is open daily from 9 February -12 May, 10.30am - 4.15pm (4.45pm March - May). Admission is free.
Main image: artist Cynthia Fan
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