Plants have always traversed seas, intentionally and inadvertently in Shipping Roots, Keg de Souza draws on Royal Botanic Gardens’s Edinburgh’s collections telling the tales of eucalyptus, prickly pear and ‘alien’ seeds, tracing legacies through the British Empire and specifically linking Australia, India and the UK.
These stories relate to the artist’s own cultural removal, drawn from her lived experiences as a person of Goan heritage whose ancestral lands were colonised, to living as a settler on unceded Gadigal land in Sydney. Walking through the exhibit a sense of calm resonates and pulls you into the a maze of majestic sized Batiks, Installations and plants. (Main image: Keg de Souza )
The “set up” is absolutely beautiful as to get to Inverleith House you have to enter the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh (RBGE’s), the beauty continues in this breath taking exhibition. The story of plants in the passage of colonialism is a story one can not recall being told. In 2022 de Souza was artist in residence at the ( RBGE), her time was spent studying the research institutes collection this prepped her for Shipping Root’s exploration of the movement of plants between the UK, India and Australia.
de Souza said: “As I began to explore the stories behind these plants I discovered everything is interrelated. I want Shipping Roots to share this information and trace some of these connections whilst experiencing the stories on different levels.
Dr De Souza Goan heritage means her ancestral lands were colonised she weaves the story of plants into her own heritage and as a settler on unceded Gadigal land in #Sydney.
Curated by Emma Nicolson and commissioned by the Climate House programme De Souza puts a spotlight on how plants moved through the British Empire looking at eucalyptus, prickly pear and many seedlings which came to the UK in sheep fleeces.
The story of the prickly pear is indeed food for thought. Introduced as a habitat for the cochineal insect it spread rapidly “covering a space the size of Britain” the artist noted.. The cochineal insect had it s own importance as it could be turned into a cochineal dye to dye the British Redcoats the colour of blood. De Souza describes the East India Company’s ventures with cochineal as a series of “missteps and mishaps”.
For de Souza her works have to have meaning rooted in representing the voice of people silenced out by the mainstream.
She says “Stories that are lesser heard, highlighting some of the gaps in the archives. A lot of my work tries to highlight voices of marginalised people, First Nations narratives and colonised people, so I think the plants tell these and the transformation of the gallery is designed to do so in a multi-sensory way engaging with visitors of all ages.”
Head of Creative Programmes at Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh Emma Nicolson said: “Shipping Roots is a compelling invitation to consider how the introduction of plant material impacts landscapes and lives in a multitude of ways. Keg de Souza’s work with the team here at RBGE has highlighted that art has an important part to play in linking objects, images, processes, people, locations, histories and discourse in a physical space, opening up dialogues and imaginaries that could be critical in finding solutions to the climate crisis. Keg’s unique thorough approach has created not just an exhibition but a lasting dialogue around the impact of the colonial legacy of these plants. This one-of-a-kind exhibition, created in a curious multifaceted, multisensory approach has resulted in one of the most rewarding projects we have had the privilege of hosting here at Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.”
Within the exhibition the lesser know stories include Blue Haze, the journey of the Eucalypt away from its culturally significant context—the Aboriginal land it comes from—at the hands of the British, and spread across the globe to eventually cover a land mass area over 22 million Hectares worldwide, leading to devastating impacts such as lowering water tables and increasing fire risk.
Fleece Fugitives looks at how the movement and spread of plants has not always been intentional. When the fleece of Australian sheep made their way across the seas the British had originally brought them over on some were carrying native seed hitchhikers, or fugitives, hidden amongst them. The woollen industry in Scotland enabled these seeds to escape through effluent from the mills and the wool waste, “wool shoddy” which had the “alien” seeds hidden within. These seeds propagated around the mills, an effect of industry, and went out to diversify the landscape.
Green Hell explores the failures of the British to establish a cochineal dye industry within their Empire, for wealth-building—and to dye their Redcoats the colour of blood. Prickly pear carved out scenes of Empire in multifaceted ways. As an early coloniser it arrived on the First Fleet, introduced into Australia as a habitat for the cochineal insect, and used as an agricultural fence to divide up stolen land.
Shipping Roots draws on de Souza’s holistic practice engaging temporary architecture, politics of food, and radical pedagogy to explore colonial impact on place and communities.
Keg de Souza: Shipping Roots
Climate House (formerly Inverleith House), Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
Fri 24 Mar – Sun 27 Aug, 2023
Open daily 10:30 – 17:30
Shipping Roots is supported by the Outset Transformative Grant; the Australian Government and the British Council as part of the UK/Australia Season; the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body; the NSW Government through Create NSW; and a City of Parramatta Council Community Grant.