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Online Exhibition

 

Where should the plants sleep after the last breath of air?

 

Solo Project by

Rashmimala

18 February to 30 April 2021

     
 


How to See Plants in a Decolonial Biosphere
 

Deeptha Achar 

Increasingly, there have been new moves that question knowledge categories put in place by colonial modernity. These have drawn largely from Latin American thinkers such as Walter Mignolo and work with the idea that the production of knowledge in once-colonial territories needs to be disentangled from a western conception of the world in a way that is not merely or simply nativist. Indeed, the decolonial argument suggests that the way out of this stranglehold of the west is through “thinking and doing” in a way that complicates and problematizes Eurocentric claims to knowledge.[i] Rashmimala’s suite of works in “Where should plants sleep after the last breath of air?”  can surely be seen as a decolonial enterprise.  

What does the plant do in a decolonial biosphere? Rashmimala’s systematic and relentless focus on the plant in this show forces the viewer to interrogate the notion of the plant. The plant, repeated over and over, in excruciating detail and in multiple contexts, flesh out what a plant can mean and traverses spaces between the seen and the known. It is perhaps through such traversals that the plant here emerges not only as a meticulously rendered object but also as the site in which colonial taxonomies were imposed and particular ways of seeing, and rendering of the world, consolidated.  

Drawing on an array of plants, she represents complex networks in which the plant has been embedded. To be sure, this complexity does not immediately come to view: the representations of the plant are stark, in the traditions of scientific botanical illustration, cultivating a veneer of the objective or the copy from nature, bereft, in most cases of background, or even shadow. But on closer look, her work is imbued with layers of signification, invoking at the same time the historical and the contemporary, the scientific and the poetic, the eastern modes of illustration and the western.  

As in her earlier show transplant (2018),[ii] and continuing to work in a severe and realist idiom tied to scientific illustration, she lays out the economies of plant life, cultivated plants, as well as weeds; those plants that are barely glanced at, and those which are prized for their beauty and value, plants that have been carefully migrated to other geographies to get rooted in everyday cuisine and common landscape. Here, too, her works represent aspects of plants that are integral to the everyday, in the spices and seeds we use for tempering, the fruits we eat, the food we cook, the weeds that escape our gaze. However, Rashmimala seems to have moved away, in this project, from a concern with the geographical migration of plants across continents to a focus on the circulation of plants within the domain of contemporary Indian life.  

If at all she is interested in the question of migration, it seems to appear in her gestures to the multiple styles and techniques of representing plants that have crossed continents and eras, referencing eighteenth century works of Mary Delany in England and Shaikh Zain ud-Din in colonial India, as well as miniature illustrations of the pre-medieval and medieval periods in India to the fourteenth-century Japanese art of ukiyo-e woodblock printing of flowers and birds, she has inscribed a history of botanical illustration in this body of work. In doing so, she enables the engaged viewer to unpack the composite historical construction of the plant, to locate multiple sources of origin, to dismantle a singular conception of what a plant is. That she does so using a resolutely realist idiom is astonishing, particularly since realism is famously a strategy with which to establish meanings and fix the truths of the world. Nevertheless, her referencing of multiple realisms offers a cue to the possibilities of the language she has adopted, language that questions botanical knowledge consolidated in India in the late eighteenth century. It is a means through which she can examine not just the question of the representation of plants but also that of representation itself. It is this, then, that makes Rashmimala’s project decolonial. 

Botanical Illustration

Rashmimala says that this project took shape in and through her study of the botanical illustrations of the artist Shaikh Zain ud-Din, native of Patna, who was in the employ of Lady Impey in Calcutta during 1777 to 1782. He had been hired to make sketches and paintings of the zoological and botanical collections of the Impeys and he is today considered to be a formidable artist in his own right. Combining English botanical illustration with the Mughal Patna Qalam, his work is today celebrated for their “elegant economy of setting”.[iii] Rashmimala clearly draws on Zain ud-Din’s ability to compose an environment, flora and fauna, economically, in a way that offers a scientific example, a contextual setting and artistic expression all at once (See Shaikh Zain ud-Din’s ‘Brahminy Starling with Two Antaraea Moths, Caterpillar and Cocoon on an Indian Jujube Tree’, 1977). We can see it clearly in ‘Bird on an Indian Olive’ and ‘Red Fruit’.  However, though Rashmimala’s work almost seems to be a replica of Zain ud-Din, it is marked away by her choice of subject and the implied spectator, who is both contemporary and Indian. Her plants are drawn from the landscape of contemporary India in ways that are implicated in the economy, ecology and cultural ethos (‘Indian Jujube’ ‘Bheem Kol’). Hers, therefore, is not an attempt to establish a taxonomy in consonance with the Impey project, but an attempt to unpack it, show the edges of colonial hierarchies, the ascendancy of science, while at the same time shifting the focus to suggest similar structures of power at play now, in India today.  

Nature and Ecology

Both Zain ud-Din and Mary Delany were producing their works when the idea of “nature” was acquiring a “newly personified” form that suggested both “redemption and renewal” in Enlightenment thought and the cure for an “artificial” and “obsolete” society in the Romantic conception. Raymond Williams has shown that since the late eighteenth century, Nature has come to mean “goodness and innocence. Nature has meant the ‘countryside’, the ‘unspoiled places’, plants and creatures other than man.”[iv] As botanical illustrations, insofar as they laid claim to accuracy, that had to serve the needs of the taxonomies established by Cuvier,[v] their work may have been hard to place within the domain as ‘nature’. Delany’s collages were thought to be so accurate that the botanist Joseph Banks declared that he could use her work to “describe botanically any plant without the least fear of committing an error”.[vi] Yet, it would be hard to categorize her work and Zain ud-Din’s as merely botanical, for they laid claim to the aesthetic as well. The aesthetic aspect of their work certainly aligned them to the idea of nature that was then emerging. Rashmimala, in her work that references Delany (‘Double Portrait’) and Zain ud-Din (‘Datura’ and ‘Weed’) thematizes this play between science and art, and underlines the uneasy relationship between scientific realism and aesthetic realism. More, Rashmimala’s work also gestures towards the gap between botany and ecology. Ecology, which emerges in the late nineteenth century, looks to examine the interaction between organisms and an environment. By extending the interaction between flora and fauna that is found in Zain ud-Din within an environment, she comes to represent more complex interactions that obtain in a biosphere (‘Fire in the Backyard’). This appears also in the way insects, caterpillars and bees find their place across these works.

Plants and the Social

On one hand Rashmimala shows the way science becomes powerful simply by its ability to name genus and species—these scientific names are marked in Zain ud-Din’s illustrations as also Delany’s—by mimicking the pencil marks and copper plate writing of eighteenth-century England, she does so also by including scientific names in her own process of naming, almost as a parody of the sheer Orientalist power wielded by the British in India. On the other hand, she thematizes contemporary questions of ecology (‘Fire in the Backyard’), marginalization (‘Weed’ Series), urban spaces (‘Weed’ Series and ‘Datura’) and food insecurity (‘Double Portrait’; ‘Cash Crops’). One can read these works as opening out the connections between plants and social worlds, extricating them from the domain of nature and relocating them at the site of culture. In an overarching way, perhaps one can argue that Rashmimala recognizes that plants appear almost inconsequential in human life: and her interest is to turn the spotlight onto this arena of the minor: We see this in the care with which she renders plants, and the unadulterated focus that she has on them. Her interest in the minor is evident also in the care with which she places insects all through the suite. Plants become the signifier of the social. And a metaphor for the minor. 

What We See

Taken together, one can consider this suite of works as an entry point into the question of representation; more specifically one can read these works as an exploration on a variety of realisms that have been invoked to create these images of plants. Quite apart from the realist detail and obvious skill that Rashmimala displays here, it is also interesting to see these works as an exploration of realism itself. Rashmimala has juxtaposed a variety of realisms, drawn from different periods of history (pre-medieval, fourteenth century, eighteenth century), geographies (Central Asia, India, Japan, England) and cultures (Japan under the influence of Zen Buddhism, the long tradition of miniature painting in India carrying Buddhist, Jaina, Hindu and Mughal impress, the western realist tradition of Europe). One effect that this juxtaposition has is to show realism to be a historical entity and a cultural code. In a way the coming together of multiple realisms mimics the Zain ud-Din interweave of the Patna Qalam and the traditions of western academic realism. But there is more to this. In one of her conversations, Rashmimala said that that this project has been enabled by “the abundance of seeing.” She talked about the new digital access that people got to museum collections during Covid times as museums opened out their digital collections to a new screen-bound public.[vii] It was this that she pointed to when she indicated, on one hand, to the very ability to see collections that one hardly had access to before and on the other the ability to see them differently, to zoom in to details that may not be available to the human eye in the normal course. Digital realism may have been the condition of possibility for this research-centric exhibition, and its silent exploration of the way we see.
 


[i] See Walter Mignolo, Local Histories/Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges, and Border Thinking (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2012) for more on the decolonial and border thinking

[ii] transplant. E-catalogue of Rashmimala’s work. (Vadodara: Nazar Art Gallery, 2018)

[iii] Andrew Topsfield, “The Natural History Paintings of Shaikh Zain ud-Din, Bhawani Das and Ram Das” in Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company, William Dalrymple, ed. (London: The Wallace Collection and Philip Wilson Publishers, 2019) 40-75

[iv] Raymond Williams, “Nature”, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985) 219-224

[v] See Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (London and New York: Routledge, 1989) for an account of Georges Cuvier’s work on botany.

[vi] “Late Bloomer: The Exquisite Craft of Mary Delany”, The British Museum Blog, https://blog.britishmuseum.org/late-bloomer-the-exquisite-craft-of-mary-delany/ Accessed 31 January 2021.

[vii] Rashmimala’s references had been gathered even before the onset of the pandemic, but it was in 2020 that there was an exponential increase in the number of museums opening up collections for digital viewing.
 

About the Author

Deeptha Achar is a Professor at the Department of English, Faculty of Arts, Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, Gujarat. Her publications include ‘The Age of Adventure: Childhood, Reading and British Boys’ Fiction’ (2010) and she has co-edited ‘Towards New Art History: Studies in Indian Art’ (2003), ‘Discourse, Democracy and Difference: Perspectives on Community, Politics and Culture’ (2010) and ‘Articulating Resistance: Art and Activism’ (2012) apart from catalogue essays. Her research interests include visual culture and childhood studies.

       
 

 

 

 

   


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