September 27, 2016 - The Showroom - Uriel Orlow: Mafavuke’s Trial and Other Plant Stories
September 27, 2016

The Showroom

Uriel Orlow, The Crown Against Mafavuke (still), 2016. Two-channel video. Courtesy of the artist, The Showroom and LUX, London.

Uriel Orlow
Mafavuke’s Trial and Other Plant Stories
September 28–November 19, 2016

Preview: September 27, 6:30–9:30pm

The Showroom
63 Penfold Street
London NW8 8PQ
United Kingdom
Hours: Wednesday–Saturday 12–6pm

T +44 20 7724 4300

A new commission with accompanying works by Cooking Sections, David Goldblatt, Kapwani Kiwanga, Cedric Nunn, Subtle Agency and Philippe Zourgane

The Showroom presents a major new commission by London-based artist Uriel Orlow, which looks to the botanical world as a stage for politics at large through film, photography, installation and sound.

Working from the dual vantage points of South Africa and Europe, the project considers plants as both witnesses and actors in history, and as dynamic agents—linking 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.

Central to this is Orlow’s two-screen film The Crown Against Mafavuke, based on a South African trial from 1940. Mafavuke Ngcobo was a traditional herbalist who was accused by the local white medical establishment of "untraditional behaviour." The film explores the ideological and commercial confrontation between two different yet intertwining medicinal traditions and their uses of plants, with slippages across gender and race further questioning notions of purity and origination. Filmed at the Palace of Justice in Pretoria and at rural and urban sites in Johannesburg, the Western Cape and Kwazulu-Natal, the film installation touches on larger issues around indigenous knowledge and alternative medicine in post-colonial contexts.

Additional works by Orlow and invited artists will be displayed in an accompanying modular structure—a conceptual herbarium—in which each work acts as a "specimen" highlighting different histories and politics of plants. Soundworks, photographs, a slide projection and video by Orlow highlight botanical nationalism and other legacies of colonialism, plant migration and invasion, flower diplomacy during Apartheid, the garden planted by Mandela and his fellow inmates on Robben Island prison, as well as the role of classification and naming of plants.

Through the work of other artists, this multi-vocal archive opens up dialogues between South Africa and other parts of the continent. David Goldblatt’s photograph shows the remnant of a hedge planted by the Dutch in 1660 to keep the indigenous Khoikhoi out of the first European settlement in South Africa. This image acts as a botanical premonition to the marks left in the landscape by the war of resistance by the Xhosa against the Boer and British (1779-1879) depicted in Cedric Nunn’s photographs. A moringa cake by Cooking Sections makes reference to a new kind of hedge, the planned construction of a Great Green Wall to slow down desertification of the Sahara.

In contrast to Goldblatt’s image, a series of photographs by Philippe Zourgane show how vegetation is used as a way to construct zones of autonomy by descendants of slaves on Reunion Island off the East African coast, while another series of images by South African collective Subtle Agency convey something of the metaphysical experience of using plants for healing in South Africa. Elsewhere, Kapwani Kiwanga reconstructs a floral arrangement found on the negotiation table during the talks between The Liberation Front of Mozambique and the Portuguese that led to recognition of Mozambique’s right to independence.

For the past year, Orlow has also been working in The Showroom’s neighbourhood researching local medicinal plant use, which has informed the development of a cross-cultural medicinal plant garden at Penfold Community Hub (a neighbouring care home) and accompanying manual. The garden has been constructed in collaboration with gardener Carole Wright, Church Street Bengali Women’s Group, Penfold Hub Gardening Group, and Penfold Hub residents and centre-users.

Uriel Orlow Mafavuke’s Trial and Other Plant Stories is commissioned by The Showroom (London) in association with Parc Saint Léger, Contemporary art centre (France), Bluecoat (Liverpool), and Tyneside Cinema (Newcastle upon Tyne). The project is supported by a Wellcome Trust Arts Award, Arts Council England, Stanley Thomas Johnson Foundation, Pro Helvetia – Swiss Arts Council, A4 Arts Foundation, Film London Artists’ Moving Image Network (FLAMIN) and The Embassy of Switzerland in the United Kingdom. A forthcoming publication Theatrum Botanicum is supported by the Henry Moore Foundation.

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Mafavuke’s Trial and Other Plant Stories
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