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The botanical imagination

I was recently commissioned by the Serendipity Arts Foundation in India to write an essay for their platform Write | Art | Connect on the theme "ex natura" and intersections between art and science in a South Asian context. After researching a bit, I thought something on botanical art might be interesting – I didn't know a whole lot about it, but I was thinking of Anna Atkins and found some interesting contemporary artists using these motifs and ideas in their work. It was also around this time that I visited the exhibition Osmosis at TARQ Mumbai, and here I came across the work of Samanta Batra Mehta, which tied in nicely with my theme.

Below is an excerpt from my essay, published on Art | Write | Connect on 25 September 2019.

Samanta Batra Mehta, Return to the Garden, 2019, ink drawings made with hand-dipped stylus, vintage/antiquarian photographs, book pages, map (20 parts), installation variable, approx. 75 x 75 inches. Photo courtesy the artist and TARQ, Mumbai

It is a truth now universally acknowledged, not least in recent articles in The Guardian and the BBC, that the extinction of plants spells "bad news for all species," and is being rapidly exacerbated by human destruction of the natural world. According to Dr Rob Salguero-G√≥mez from the University of Oxford, plants provide us with "food, shade and construction materials," as well as "'ecosystem services' such as carbon fixation, oxygen creation, and even improvement in human mental health through enjoying green spaces." 

With the irreplaceable role of plants in our lives and surroundings, it is no surprise that artists have continually depicted the botanical world for both aesthetic and documentation purposes. Poised between art and science, botanical art has both aesthetic and utilitarian value. In India, this genre is largely associated with the Kampani (Company) school of painting, a naturalistic Indo-European style that became prevalent in the late 18th century when the East India Company sought to document the flora of the country. But depictions of plants go back much further in Indian art history, and were seen "on temple walls, pottery designs, motifs on woven carpets and embroidered textiles, [...] illustrated folios from medieval manuscripts of Hindu epics," and detailed in highly stylised forms in miniature art. 

It is not only plants that face extinction. In Marg magazine's recent issue (December 2018 - March 2019) titled Ars Botanica: The Weight of a Petal, historian and curator Sita Reddy says, "Today, with botanical art disappearing by the archive, and trees, forests or entire ecosystems at the whim of a malicious executive order, it seems more urgent than ever to compile some of these dispersed art historical resources. To refigure the botanical archive." 

While Marg drew attention to the rich, vibrant and largely unacknowledged history of botanical art in India, this essay seeks to explore the work of three contemporary Indian women artists who use plants as a motif, medium and metaphor to comment on issues of both personal and global significance. Belonging to a generation that has been educated in various sciences, the "diversity of interest [of these artists] allows for an exploration of the transcultural through the lens of the sciences, which function in a “universalist” sense wherever science is practiced – even if context favors one direction over another." Incorporating but looking beyond aspects such as documentation and revival, the artists explore the botanical as an inquiry and a recreation of memories, reminding us of the value of our ecosystems and why we should be concerned about their loss.

Read the complete article here.