Monday, 27 May 2013

Voices from the Forest - Another Useful Reference Book for the Kirstenbosch Biennale

Voices from the forest

by Tony Dold & Michelle Cocks

Publisher: Jacana
Genre: Botanical/sociological
Verdict: Celebrating nature and culture
Book Reviewed by: John Manning
 Voices from the forest: celebrating Nature and culture in Xhosaland.

Tony Dold & Michelle Cocks have been intimate with Xhosa culture for most of their lives -- they have grown up with and in it. Respectively a professional botanist and a professional sociologist, they are passionate about the link between cultures and the natural environment, a link that has been eroded almost to breaking point in modern societies. Voices from the forest is a celebration of the association between people and nature: the influence of plants, animals and landscapes on Xhosa language, stories, poetry, religious rituals, healing practices and the customs that define Xhosa culture.

Richly illustrated with contemporary and historical photographs capturing both the grandeur and domesticity of rural Transkei, and the often intimate details of its natural and cultural landscapes, Voices from the forest is much more than a fine ethnographic achievement - it uncovers the ford between nature and culture that has been largely and often disastrously buried under the rubble of progress.

Relating mainly to the uses of plants in the Fish River Region of the Eastern Cape, Voices from the forest is primarily an introduction to the role of plants in Xhosa culture, with reflections on the future of biodiversity. Chapters cover Xhosa medicine, magic and charms, rituals and rites, the rite of passage, pot-herbs and honey beer, ceremonial crafts, cosmetics, medicinal plants, and cultural-linguistic aspects. They range from the severely practical to the frankly mystical. Analagous influences, however etiolated, define all cultures however obscured they may have become in urbanised societies. Traditional superstitions are no more fantastic than contemporary beliefs in homeopathic remedies or electromagnetic bracelets in the face of a complete lack of evidence of their efficacy. At a fundamental level we all answer to the voices from the forest. Where we err is in pretending that we don’t.

Voices from the forest is a remarkable guide to the roots of Xhosa culture, and an invitation to all of us to reasses our relationship with the natural world.

Reviewed for FMR BOOK CHOICE August 2012 by Dr John Manning, Principal Specialist Scientist, South African National Biodiversity Institute, Kirstenbosch

For more information and to buy this book see

Friday, 3 May 2013

Flying into the Unknown and Winning Gold

On the evening of Sunday, 8th April 2013, and with my precious cargo of nine botanical paintings professionally packed and safe in the hold of the BA jet bound for Heathrow, I set off on the adventure of a life time.

This story began in September 2011 when the doyenne of South African botanical art and my good friend and mentor, Vicky Thomas, said to me: ‘Margaret, I think that you should try for the RHS in London’. This was a challenge that I could not resist. In July 2012 I heard that my work had been accepted by the selection committee of the RHS and that the date of the RHS London Orchid and Botanical Art Show was set for 12 and 13 April 2013. As the only South African and the sole representative of the continent of Africa at this prestigious Botanical Art Exhibition in London, I was filled with apprehension; I was flying into the unknown world of international botanical art.

What a beautiful venue the Lindley Hall in Westminster is, property of the Royal Horticultural Society. Together with 28 other artists from 10 countries around the world, we hung our paintings on the Wednesday of that week. At that stage I felt like a ‘wilted flower’, awed by the status of the occasion. There were some wonderful paintings, particularly those of the Korean, Japanese and Australian artists. With a day to spare before the welcoming cocktail party and preview, I was able to enjoy walking London from my most convenient hotel, a mere ten minutes’ walk from the RHS venue in Westminster.

Suffice to say that the duration of the exhibition passed in a whirlwind. The British public is very supportive (apparently over 4000 people came to the show) and it was an extremely busy time. I had left South Africa determined to show the world what beautiful Ericas we have in the Western Cape and, most importantly, to see and learn from the other artists. Hopefully I achieved both.

My own success was completely unexpected and enormously exciting. If only I had had family and friends with me to enjoy this momentous and wonderful occasion. When I saw the certificate of my award next to my painting, I grabbed the doorman and hugged him and, needless to say, my cell phone hummed from the moment that the news got out! With a Gold Medal, the award for Best Painting on Show at the RHS exhibition of 2013 and this particular painting, (Erica bodkinii), acquired by the RHS for their botanical art collection, I was completely overwhelmed.
Margaret (left) receiving her medal

Two of the judges arranged for me to spend time at the Herbarium and Library at Kew. There I was able to see the magnificent Erica paintings of Francis Bauer and H.C. Andrews, done between 1790 and 1820. I also visited the Shirley Sherwood Exhibition where, sadly, the main hall was being prepared for a new exhibition.

Back in Hermanus after a very protracted flight home, I walked out onto my front stoep to see the wonderful view stretching over the Fynbos, across the seas to the distant hills of Gansbaai. This was where yet another chapter began – the stoep was decorated with South African flags, balloons and a huge banner. My family, my friends, my town and my country have welcomed me home in an extraordinary way. I am so proud to be a South African and to live in such a generous and loving community.

I challenge all the Botanical Artists here in the Western Cape: have faith in your ability and go out and show the world. Live your dream – you can do it.

Margaret de Villiers
May 2013

And on behalf of all our BAASA members in South Africa we would like to congratulate Margaret on such an awesome achievement! Well done Margaret!

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Two major botanical art exhibitions planned for September 2014 in Johannesburg

Calling all botanical artists: In 2014 there will be two major exhibitions seeking some of the best botanical paintings, both locally and internationally. These exhibitions are scheduled for September.

The first exhibition will be at the Everard Read Gallery in Rosebank. The whole Gallery will be devoted to artworks depicting plants, with one or two of the rooms being devoted to skilled plant portraiture. For this section, we are looking for the very best work currently being done, what I call the "Kirstenbosch Golds". The exhibition will open on 4 September.

Artists will not be restricted to producing four paintings that hang well together, nor will there be a theme, but we would encourage artists to portray as many indigenous species as possible—be proudly South African. There will be a very strict selection process for this exhibition. We want to showcase the very best we have to offer and will have to compete with all the fine artists, including some very prominent names in the industry.

The second exhibition will be the 21st World Orchid Conference at the Sandton Convention Centre from 10 to 14 September. The theme for the Conference is "Orchids: Gold in the Green Age". As yet I am not quite sure how this exhibition will run. The event organisers are keen to have an on-line Gallery as well as paintings exhibited during the Conference. Traditionally this is a judged exhibition with medals for the best artworks.

I am urging artists to start painting for these two exhibitions now. Don't start thinking about it this time next year as you will be so limited with plant choices. Then, please keep your masterpieces and don't sell, (unless the offer is just too good to resist). You are welcome to contact me for further details, but they will be communicated to BAASA members through the Blog site.

Just another teaser, especially for those not living in Gauteng, The Standard Bank Art Gallery in Johannesburg will be having an exhibition covering 300 Years of Botanical Art depicting South African plants. This is planned to open on 7 October 2014.

We look forward to hosting you in Gauteng over those two months, as they will be events not to miss.

Happy Painting
Gill Condy BAASA Gauteng, contact:; 012 843 5052