Sometimes we ask flowers to speak for us, to tell our love, jealousy or gratitude; but flowers can reveal other truths if we let them. They can tell about the love and hate of our past and the controversies of our present, unlocking the political history of their beauty and poetics. The same inquiry would unveil the sinless space of the garden itself as a place of symbolic and material production. It is here where the sublime beauty, accessible to few, emerges as the surplus value of the dirty hand labor of the many.
History Begins with a Garden is an exhibition by Khaya Witbooi, curated by Mariella Franzoni, that explores the colonial genealogy (or counter-history) of gardens and gardening in South Africa, bringing to light its relation with slavery, land dispossession and nationalist propaganda. Questions like, “how the beauty of South Africa’s nature is produced, protected and celebrated? For whom? At whose expense?” motivate the exploration of the notion of garden as an ambiguous space of beauty and violence.
In school books, the (colonial) history of South Africa is made to start with the creation of an innocent garden – a small portion of land in the Cape cultivated by the travelers of the Dutch East Indian Company to supply food for their journey towards and from India. But the genealogy of gardens in the region does not end with vegetables and fruits. Beside the utilitarian motives, 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.
Today, the celebrated beauty of South African botanical diversity conceals the side effects, on both social and natural environments, of the regime of botanical imperialism. In fact, the colonial enterprise was at the origin of the trafficking not only of human beings but also of plants and seeds, that spoiled the Cape of its original forests to make space for a new landscape – one productively cultivated for the benefit of few through the labor of the many. Sustained by the rhetoric of scientific knowledge and heritage conservation, the development of botanic gardens, and the native reserves likewise, was at the basis of what Mahmood Mamdani defines as the second phase of the British imperial statecraft. As the author of “Define and Rule” suggests, in the 19th Century the complex of knowledge production on indigenous people, animals and plants was aimed at their management and control.
In this way, while reflecting on the etymological nexus between the words “culture,” “cultivation” and “colony” in Latin as well as on the parallels between the colonial history, the Genesis of the Bible and the Songs of Songs’ “hortus conclusus”, History begins with a Garden aims to symbolically redeem the South African gardeners and domestic workers of yesterday and today from their segregation outside the realm of art and culture.
Through a rich and layered collection of images and hidden and explicit historical references, Witbooi continues his exploration of the dialectics between material and immaterial labor, fordist and post-fordist productive systems, innovations and maintenance tasks, pointing out how those intricate relations keep consolidating global asymmetries and the social hierarchies in contemporary South Africa.