By Emet Lipson & the Draw Botanical Team
Black History is History and should be celebrated always; February being Black History Month is a great excuse to start a conversation about decolonizing botanical illustration and highlight Black culture and Black excellence within a botanical frame. “If we aim to start a conversation about decolonizing botanical science, we needed to start with acknowledging the legacy of the history of botanical science and colonial histories and how the absence of the Black experience perpetuates the ongoing exclusion of Black people within modern society by whitewashing history where racism, science, and colonial power are inherently entwined.”10 We can’t change the past, but we can strive to decolonize our present into a world where no one feels alienated. “Decolonization is both a movement on an ideology, to acknowledge, examine, challenge, and eliminate the disproportionate legacy of white European thought. So, in a nutshell, it’s about decentering white supremacy over the world, and particularly in the natural world.”10 Diversity is how our world thrives, and we want to aid in that thriving by educating ourselves and reflecting on our physical and virtual spaces to ensure we are not only appreciating, but also amplifying voices different from our own/voices that have been silenced/marginalized.
Botanical illustration began as the primary source of accurate and useful visual information for pharmacists and physicians, botanical scientists, gardeners, and more.12 “The practice can be traced back to sometime between 50 and 70 CE when an illustrated book titled De Materia Medica was created by Greek botanist Pedanius Dioscorides to help readers identify plant species for medicinal purposes.”12 During the Renaissance, particularly in northern Europe, realistic botanical art expanded outside of herbals (books describing the medicinal properties of plants) to include artists who paid close attention to realistic detail, but ultimately intended their work for decorative, rather than practical, purposes.5 Botanist and horticulturist, Martyn Rix defined c.1750-c.1850 as the peak of the “Golden Age of Botanical Art” due to advancements in printing techniques, the development of biology and botany with the focus on finding new species, and “the development of beautiful collections and books of botanical art sponsored by wealthy patrons.”13 During this time, many wealthy amateur horticulturists in Europe cultivated “exotic plants, notably tulips, in their gardens and greenhouses” and “employed artists to accurately record their treasured specimens.”5
In this discussion, it is essential to remember that those in power (wealthy, white, cisgender, heterosexual men) imposed their cultural rules upon every facet of society, including our understanding of nature and who should and could have access to natural spaces. Many BIPOC possessed knowledge of many indigenous plants, including their variety of uses, but only once they shared that knowledge with wealthy colonizers were these “new” species considered “discovered” by these white men (with little to no mention of the original BIPOC experts who helped them).
Though Botanical Art seemed to be reserved for the white and wealthy, BIPOC found ways to capture natural beauty in art, too. One example from the 1950s to 1980s is a small collective of primarily self-taught African American artists painted landscapes in (segregated) Florida. Though museums and art galleries refused to buy their work, the “Florida Highwaymen” sold their works to consumers along Florida’s Atlantic coast out of the trunks of their cars.3
You may know George Washington Carver for his impactful research on peanuts, but he was also a talented botanical artist! He originally enrolled in college to study art and piano. Despite his talents, [his art teacher, Etta] Budd worried that Carver wouldn’t be able to make a living as an artist, so she suggested that he take his plant illustration skills to the botany department at Iowa State Agricultural College,” where he received his bachelor’s degree in 1894 and his master’s in 1896 before starting a research position at Tuskegee Institute.2 In his research, he developed paints from peanuts and other plants that he used for his art. “In a way, Carver’s career had come full circle, from painting flowers for science to turning plants into paint.”2
Many exceptional artists of color found beautiful ways to portray nature that weren’t scientific botanical illustrations, including Horace Pippin. “‘Pictures just come to my mind,” Pippin famously said, “and I tell my heart to go ahead.’”1 Pippin was born in Pennsylvania and grew up in Goshen, New York, attending segregated schools until he was 15, when he began working to support his ailing mother. “During his life, Pippin was best known for his landscapes, domestic scenes, and religious paintings,”1 but he also “painted at least two dozen floral still lifes in the 1940s.”11
Despite all efforts to reserve botanical illustration for the (white) elite, there are a few renowned botanical artists of color, including Sibonelo Chiliza. Born in 1979 in Mtwalume (near Port Shepstone), Chiliza was always brilliant at design and realistically drawing biology specimens.8 The first time that Chiliza drew plants in color was during his second year studying Textile Design & Technology at the Durban University of Technology when his class was looking for textile design inspiration in the Durban Botanical Garden.8
“When asked what it is about plants that he enjoys, Sibonelo Chiliza explains, ‘it has to do with the freshness and colour. When you are sitting out there and you are working you don’t feel like you are working, in a botanical garden you hardly get people disturbing you.’”8 Chiliza works from live plant subjects and takes accurate measurements to scale, as many of us do following the Draw Botanical method. He uses Lyra pencils, which are “oil based and have an incredible range of colours. For Chiliza the complicated part of botanical art is getting started, in planning the composition. He usually starts at the bottom of the plant, meticulously working his way up.”8
Liberty Shuro is most well known for “his large-scale, photo-real drawings of endangered wildlife species.” He has always been an artist, but because he spent a lot of time pursuing other fields to please his parents, he didn’t receive much formal art training.9 Shuro and Chiliza are both involved in the Grootbos Florilegium, whose vision is that “this important collection of botanical work will grow and expand beyond the borders of Grootbos itself and out into the communities that surround it. Increasingly, there is an awareness that historical modes of art production and collecting need to work harder to reflect new and exciting voices in the field, and integrate with social practice. Through their involvement in the Grootbos Florilegium, Chiliza and Shuro are positioning themselves at the cusp of this movement.”9
Natural history museums are more racist than anyone would like to admit, due in part to the “hard science” lens used in creating natural history exhibits to portray plants as taxonomists see them.6 Though “hard science” may seem like an objective lens through which to view natural history collections, it doesn’t acknowledge broader cultural perspectives, including how colonial powers shaped those collections. Included in a fascinating article written by Subhadra Das and Miranda Lowe is a section on hidden figures: “the collectors, elders, artists, and assistants of all kinds from porters to cooks to scouts, who were essential to the work collectors did all over the world.”6
Kwasimukamba, or Graman Quassi, was a healer and botanist from Ghana who was taken as a child slave to a Dutch colony.4 He bought his freedom with financial success that “was due in part to his discovery, around 1730, that Quassia amara could be used to treat infections caused by intestinal parasites if drunk as a bitter tea.”4 Carl Linnaeus officially established the genus within European botany and is considered the founder of the genus, but in this instance, he gave Quassi a rare shout-out by naming the plant after him.4
Head of Collections at the Linnean Society, Dr. Isabelle Charmantier, talks in this video about how, “Artists of collections of botanical work are usually unnamed and remain unknown today. 11 of the 147 drawings [in the Linnean Society’s collection] were signed by John Tyley from Antigua, a free person of color, hired by Alexander Anderson when he was curator of the St. Vincent Botanic Gardens from 1785 to 1811.”7
Ali, a teenager from Malay, was servant to Alfred Russel Wallace, a co-founder of evolution. “Ali contributed substantially to collecting a large proportion of the 125,600 specimens which were foundational to Wallace’s work.”4 Charles Darwin also could not have co-founded evolution without the knowledge of taxidermy, taught to him by John Edmonstone, a Guyanese freed slave, from 1831 to 1836.4
Graman Quassi, John Tyley, Ali, and John Edmonstone are only four people we never learned about in history class. There are so many more whose contributions were fundamental to our understanding of the world, but who were intentionally excluded from records due to racism and colonial powers’ desire to claim everything as their own (even if it originally belonged to others, especially if it originally belonged to those they deemed inferior).
“How we relate to one another is essential to environmentalism. If you’re not talking about human rights, economic equity, mutual respect, you’re not really dealing with the environment. Trees are wonderful. Birds and flowers are wonderful. They’re all part of the environment. But we’re part of the environment too and how we treat each other is fundamental.”3 [Excerpt from John Francis interview with Grist]
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- Aldredge, Michelle. “The Life and Art of Horace Pippin.” Gwarlingo, 31 Jan. 2013, https://gwarlingo.com/2013/horace-pippin/.
- Amsen, Eva. “George Washington Carver Was an Artist Long before He Became a Peanut Scientist.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 7 Feb. 2021, https://www.forbes.com/sites/evaamsen/2021/02/08/george-washington-carver-was-an-artist-long-before-he-became-a-peanut-scientist/?sh=6c39e3081cf4.
- Collection of Collections, LLC. “Black History in Nature – Blog.” Black People with Plants, 7 Mar. 2019, https://www.blackpeoplewithplants.com/black-people-with-plants/tag/black+history+month.
- Das, S. & Lowe, M. (2018). Nature Read in Black and White: decolonial approaches to interpreting natural history collections. Journal of Natural Science Collections, Volume 6, 4 ‐ 14, http://www.natsca.org/article/2509
- Elia T. Ben-Ari, Better than a thousand words: Botanical artists blend science and aesthetics, BioScience, Volume 49, Issue 8, August 1999, Pages 602–608, https://doi.org/10.2307/1313435.
- Flannery, Maura. “Plant Humanities and Decolonial Collections.” Herbarium World, 14 Dec. 2021, https://herbariumworld.wordpress.com/2021/12/14/plant-humanities-and-decolonial-collections/.
- John Tyley and His Botanical Drawings, L: 50, Linnean Society, 29 Oct. 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s-QEmeNRS6I. Accessed 10 Feb. 2022.
- Mark, and Tamar. “Sibonelo Chiliza.” The Artists’ Press, https://www.artprintsa.com/sibonelo-chiliza.html.
- McClure, Matthew. “Firm Challenge to Botanical Art under Way at Grootbos Florilegium.” Wanted Online, Wanted, 14 Sept. 2021, https://www.wantedonline.co.za/art-design/2021-09-14-firm-challenge-to-botanical-art-under-way-at-grootbos-florilegium/.
- Rashad Bell, and Nuala Caomhánach, Inside Black Botany: A Conversation with the Curators, New York Botanical Garden, 26 Feb. 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cCdefpMRe4s. Accessed 15 Feb. 2022.
- Stanos, Valerie G. “The Floral Still Lifes of Horace Pippin.” Jonathan Boos, 8 June 2020, https://jonathanboos.com/flowers-four-doilies-horace-pippin/.
- Taggart, Emma. “What Is Botanical Illustration? Learn About the History of This Scientific Art Form.” My Modern Met, 25 July 2021, https://mymodernmet.com/history-of-botanical-illustration/.
- Tyrrell, Katherine. “What Is Botanical Art?” Botanical Art & Artists, 2015, https://www.botanicalartandartists.com/what-is-botanical-art.html.