Kirstenbosch Centenary Botanical Art Biennale attracts international artists

Celebrating “100 blooming years” Kirstenbosch and the Botanical Society of South Africa are enjoying a momentous landmark year and the Botanical Art Biennale from August 30 to September 15 will, without doubt, be one of the high points of the year. Sponsored by Old Mutual and taking place in the Conference Centre of the same name at Kirstenbosch, this Centenary event showcases top South African botanical artists as well as artists from different parts of the globe.

Focusing on medicinal and traditional use plants of southern Africa, (including plants used for food, shelter, decoration, adornment, health, devotional rituals and rites of passage) the quality of entries this year have surpassed all expectations. The symbiotic relationship between the plant and animal kingdoms and the plethora of uses of plants, highlight the vigilance required if the sustainability and long-term harvesting potential of these limited resources is to be ensured.

The 2013 exhibition is the seventh since its inception in 2000 and the extraordinary artistic challenges that confront artists in this genre are apparent in the intricate detail presented in the artworks.

From fine monochrome pencil drawings to delicate watercolour, the media used by the artists range from copper etchings and scraperboard through to pastel, pen and ink.  Whatever the medium used, the ability of the artist to bring these plants to life in their truest form is remarkable. Whilst the paintings are complex the viewer is drawn to the simple beauty of the plants and to the fact that these same plants have inspired many generations of botanical artists to record with extraordinary accuracy the wealth of the southern African flora.

International artists Kath Baker and Leigh-Ann Gale (UK,) Suzana Souza (Brazil)  and Suellen Perold (USA) add interest to the line up of exhibitors. Well known artists such as Eric Judd, Solly Gutman, Carol Reddick and Gillian Condy are joined by first time exhibitor Ann Kerr, while visitors will delight in the fine renditions from Jenny Hyde- Johnson, Jeanette Loedolff, Wilna Eloff and Lisa Strachen. Many more feature in the more than 50 artist line – up.

An additional highlight is the work of Cape based Margaret de Villiers, who recently won a gold medal and best on show at the annual Royal Horticultural Society’s Botanical Art show in London.

The selection process of artworks submitted is rigorous. Artists are judged on the botanical accuracy of their work, on composition and on the overall cohesiveness of the four works each artist submits. The panel of judges who determine the awards of  gold, silver and bronze medals consists of botanists, horticulturalists, botanical artists and art specialists. The botanists involved in this year’s judging panel are Dr John Manning (who is also a published botanical artist) and Dr John Rourke. The other judges are Vicki Thomas, a renowned botanical artist with the distinction of having her work in Prince Charles’ florilegium; Christopher Peter, from the Irma Stern Museum; Graham Duncan,  senior horticulturalist at Kirstenbosch, Sally MacRobert, curator of the Brenthurst Library and Collection in Johannesburg and Vulindlela Nyoni, senior lecturer at the Stellenbosch University Fine Arts Department where he lectures in drawing and printmaking.

This year’s Biennale has a historic component given that 2013 is Kirstenbosch’s centenary year. A slide show evoking the history of botanical art in South Africa has been put together for the occasion by Mary van Blommenstein of the Irma Stern museum, John Rourke, who was head of the Compton Herbarium prior to his retirement and the author of many books and publications, and Nicki Westcott, the curator of the Biennale. The work of artists from the early and late Victorian years as well as other little known work will be shown. Various originals will also be exhibited which will be of tremendous interest to art lovers and plant enthusiasts.

A second slide show on medicinal and traditional use plants is being prepared by Tony Dold and Michele Cocks from Grahamstown, both botanists, who recently published a remarkable work called “Voice from the Forest”. Their Biennale presentation, based on the traditional practises and beliefs of the Xhosa speaking people of the Eastern Cape, will highlight the context in which  knowledge about plants and their varied uses is passed down through the generations. It also deals with the very real threat to medicinal plants due to unsustainable harvesting methods.

Curator Nicki Westcott hopes to build on the success of the 2010 Biennale which was the first theme-based exhibition. This year’s focus on medicinal plants should attract the public to view the exhibition and to learn from the displays, walkabouts, lectures and audio visual presentations. The Keiskamma Art Project will be featuring an original work done in conjunction with a group of San artists based in Botswana.

There has been a very real revival of Botanical art in recent years. Both the Standard Bank and the Everard Reid gallery in Johannesburg will be holding major botanical art exhibitions next year. The Biennale provides a space where the public and collectors can view the very best examples of botanical art. Each successive Biennale has recorded a tremendous increase in the standard of work and an exciting record of the trajectories of many of the country’s top botanical artists. The theme of this year’s exhibition will once again highlight the vital connection between human beings and the plant kingdom and the precarious state of very valuable resources at risk because of unsustainable demand and careless harvesting practises.

Since Kirstenbosch has been a centre for the study and appreciation of plants since its inception, this international exhibition of botanical fine art is a fitting tribute during this Centenary year. The Garden attracts many thousands of visitors every year. It is the perfect site to showcase art that is intimately linked to the scientific work undertaken here.

Curator:  Nicki Westcott

Nicki started her artistic career studying Film and History of Art in Paris in the 1980’s.  She has directed and produced a number of documentaries, fiction and art  films some of which have been screened in SA and achieved  international recognition.

Nicki is a partner of the Harbour Road Art gallery in Kleinmond.  She is the managing director of Artlines, an art consultancy company, for private and corporate collections, which also provides artwork for specialist tourist destinations including game lodges and wine farms.

Through Artlines, Nicki has recently put together a unique note card collection showcasing the work of some prominent South African and African artists.

Keiskamma Art Project

Started in 2000 by medical doctor and fine artist Carol Hofmeyr, with the help of Jan Chalmers and Jackie Jezewski. Carol began teaching arts and crafts to a handful of women in the Eastern Cape by crocheting the plastic bags that littered the village into hats and bags.  Over the past 10 years the Art Project has grown to become the place where Art and Health intersect to create meaning and hope to a population struggling from decades of abuse and proverty.

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