Andrew Putter writes:
Flora Capensis explores the historical possibility of a novel, hybrid culture that might have emerged from a different kind of relationship between the Khoekhoe and the Dutch. Inspired by the place-name 'Hottentots Holland', the series begins with a question: what if the 'Hottentots' and the Hollanders had liked each other?
For thousands of years, the Hottentots - who called themselves Khoekhoe - lived where Cape Town now stands, in a landscape abundant with useful plants, fresh water and game. From the time the Dutch colonists arrived in 1652, the Khoekhoe's lives began changing dramatically, and within a century their culture had been virtually extinguished by the Europeans.
In 1657, Jan van Riebeeck - the commander of the small Dutch colony that was then establishing itself at the Cape - wrote in his journal:
In the vicinity of a very beautiful river, on the sides of which bitter almond trees grew in profusion and in such fine, fertile soil, ... [we] found two native encampments numbering 500 or 600 people ... who ... called this place their Fatherland or Holland, to give our men an idea of the abundance of food and the excellent pasturage to be found there. (Peggy Heap, The Story of the Hottentots Holland, Cape Town: AA Balkema, 1970, p5.)
This is the first recorded mention of that corner of the Cape which would become known as the 'Hottentots Holland', home to a large society of indigenous Khoekhoe. The name is a suggestive one. Whereas history saw the Hollanders taking the Khoekhoe's land for themselves, the place-name accords the Khoekhoe superior status. This is the Hottentots Holland, the name bearing the glimmer of a heartbreaking possibility: that the Dutch and the Khoekhoe might have found ways of coming together in friendship.
The Flora Capensis series invokes the 17th-century Dutch through their exquisite flower paintings. Recalling the Khoekhoe is a more difficult task, since almost nothing remains of their 2 000-year-old culture. They are invoked obliquely, through the materials from which the still lifes are composed. The flowers, rocks, insects and vessels in these images are all indigenous to the pre-Dutch Cape, the ancestral world of the Khoekhoe.
The status of indigenous Cape flowers today is in some ways emblematic of the history of the Khoekhoe. Although there are more kinds of plants in the Cape Floristic Kingdom than there are in the whole of the northern hemisphere, many of these plants are now extinct, endangered or rarely seen. Centuries of European-dominated taste for exotic plants have led to a radical reduction in the extraordinarily diverse veld that once covered the Cape. For millions of years most of these flowers would have grown within walking distance of the studio where the photographs were taken. But to collect the flowers for these six photographs it was necessary to travel more than 2 000 kilometres, zigzagging across the Western Cape.
At narrative level, these photographs raise various imaginative possibilities. If the camera had been invented 1 000 years earlier, it might have recorded these scenes in a Khoekhoe home, 500 years before any Europeans set foot in the Cape. Might the Dutch have learnt to make these kinds of compositions from the Khoekhoe? On this level, these photographs are a kind of utopian make-believe, an if-only-things-had-been-different fantasia. This speculative mode is a reminder that buried within history are forgotten counter-tales, utopian narratives running at tangents to the 'official' views that hide the surprising web of mixtures, connections and mutations that colour reality.
Embodied in the making of these photographs are processes of collaboration and forms of kindness that an imaginary rapprochement between the 17th century Khoekhoe and the Dutch would have entailed. About 40 people assisted. The flowers in the final images were arranged by Christopher Peter, the well-known South African floral artist, who has been planning to produce his own series of photographs recalling Baroque flower paintings. Similarly generous were Alison Prest (who made all the arrangements for the test shoots), the experts and guides who gave freely of their time, and those who made their gardens, veld or reserves available for the collecting of flowers.
The importance of remembering the atrocities of the Dutch against the Khoekhoe is unquestionable. But to accept these occurrences as the only possible historical relation between the Khoekhoe and the Dutch is to blind ourselves to alternative stories of connection and hope that might exist in the archives of the period. Even if very few such stories are found, using all our creative faculties to reimagine the past might, today, suggest unexpected strategies for building more compassionate, considerate bonds with people whose cultures differ radically from our own.
The artist sincerely thanks the following people for their generosity and support:
Photography and compositing: Tony Meintjes
Flower arrangements: Christopher Peter, Alison Prest, David Patrick
Guides: Belle Barker, Christa Clark, Helene Preston, Libbes Loubser, Judy Wood, Maggie Fowle, Henrietta Melck, Koos Myburgh, Patrick Kettledas, Grant van Gusling, Melanie Slabber, Bernard Brown
Flowers and botanical advice: Dr John Manning, Koos Myburgh, Dr Tim Maggs, Willemien Swanepoel, Marlene and Sid Cywes, Lynne and Ian Duckitt, Henrietta and Philbert Melck, Olivier and Melanie Slabber, Philip le Roux, Brenda Szabo and Lianne Thomson
Wood carving: Gert Ferreira
Research assistance: Professor Gerald Klinghardt, Tanya Barben, Adrian Hope, Tim Lewis
Insects: Dr Mike Picker, Professor Henk Geertsema
Sets: Clive Pollick, Gerard Back
Thanks: Dr Dan Sleigh, Jenny Young, Flora Barrow, Jacqueline Nurse, Elna Slabber, Annette Roupe
© 2008 Michael Stevenson. All rights reserved.