Many people consider botany, or the practice of botany, a passive and benign field of study. However, its origins lie in violent colonial histories, as it served as an integral activity to the expansion of various empires.

Botany emerged as a consequence of exploratory voyages by European colonial powers and, in this, botanists became agents of the empire itself. They would deracinate and take back alien species that fascinated them back to their homelands to study, archive, hybridise, propagate and potentially take to other colonised territories.

Alternately, European settlers and colonial powers would introduce the native plants they reminisced about, for it reminded them of their home, to the “new world” they had discovered. Plants respond differently to shifts in their surrounding climate — they often may not survive.

They may also survive but not flower or fruit, dampening the reasons for which they were cherished and introduced. Sometimes, they may also mutate and, conversely, they may also proliferate in their new environment — taking over and eradicating the native plants of that territory.

David Alesworth’s latest exhibition addresses the violent colonial history of botany

Artist, writer, gardener and researcher on garden histories, David Alesworth explores this multifaceted relationship between the colonial power and scientific knowledge in his latest exhibition ‘Hortus Nocte – The Dark Garden’, held at the Canvas Gallery in Karachi.

The phrase Hortus Nocte is derived from Latin and translates to “the garden at night time.” However, Alesworth, in his words, perceives it as an eclipse, a phase of darkness in the natural fertility, in the context of the climate crisis, capitalist strategies and global conflicts.

The exhibition comprises visuals in the form of palimpsests, archived botanical drawings, garden blueprints and a floral, Iranian carpet. Alesworth embroiders over the historically famous painter and botanist P. J. Redouete’s illustrated plants with primarily black cotton thread, besides other colours.

He reconfigures the paintings by obscuring the plant’s identity and leaving behind just a silhouette for viewers to make a semblance of. The embroidery over the labelling and signature matches the colour of the background, as if the artist does not want to provide the historical context behind these illustrations to the viewer and instead wants them to extract their frame of reference.

The thread not only conceals what is underneath but also manifests a sense of romanticism and care through its use for embellishment and darning. The blackening out is carried forth in the restored Kashan carpet, in which every floral element is woven in dyed black wool. The blatant eradication juxtaposes the tenderness with which the carpet has been repaired.

Through his intervention, Alesworth beautifully captures the irony in how humans perceive and cohabit with and within nature, particularly nature-lovers and gardening enthusiasts. Gardeners are arguably colonisers too, ruling over their yards’ worth of confined territory. They form curated communities of plants and decide which ones should live and which ones to exclude.

Pruning, uprooting and propagating essentially dictate their very being. And funnily, all this happens in the guise of a caretaker — someone performing earnestly with love and care for plants.

Alesworth’s other works introduce the use of minerals in his practice — chiefly clay and coal. Some gardeners deliberately burn coal to provide more carbon dioxide to their plants, as many opine a higher amount of this gas amidst the plants encourages their health and growth.

However, burning coal also leads to a global deficit of carbon, irreversible damage to the climate and overheating of the planet, putting at risk the same biodiversity it generated and leading towards impending doom. He addresses this precarious state, where a beneficial repletion and abundance of one thing can cause the depletion of another.

As a Pakistani national of white British ethnicity, David Alesworth has become sentient towards dichotomies and similarities between cultures and places, which he addresses through the lens of botanical and horticultural practices.

He understands the need for a balance and reciprocity required to co-exist — nature is a provider to humankind and so are gardeners, who must nurture and tend to plants. The exhibition opens the discourse on the diaphanous balance we thrive on and strive to retain within this microcosm, where humans and nature conflate to create a culture and place.

‘Hortus Nocte – The Dark Garden’ was exhibited at the Canvas Gallery in Karachi from January 24-February 02, 2023

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 19th, 2023

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