P207 – The Politics and Aesthetics of African Urban Naturecultures
8 July, 17:30 – 19:00

Boehi Melanie / University of Basel
Rassool Ciraj / University of the Western Cape


Green urban spaces are characterised by multiple uses, meanings and challenges. They range from gardens and public parks to urban farms, nature reserves and national parks. Each of these spaces creates infrastructures, “governmentalites” and public spaces, building relationships among plants, animals and people. The “naturecultures” of these spaces reflect present and past concerns of the actors living in these cities. The lives of urban people affect local biodiversity through their use of land and other resources. Imaginations and spiritualities also have an impact on landscapes and the distribution of marginal urban species. Arguments about conservation are often confronted by land claims and struggles for housing. Some attachments to nature are produced through urban gentrification and public instruction. Others are claimed in struggles against development. The biodiversity and nature aesthetics of African cities reflect histories of migration, power distributions and everyday life practices, including strategies of resistance. Urban nature spaces can thus be approached as alternative historical archives of the maps of meaning and claims to space in African cities. While animals have received some attention in recent scholarship, plants have been widely neglected in the African humanities. Yet plants are embedded in many aspects of urban life. So this panel is focusing on the politics and aesthetics of African urban naturecultures, while providing a particular interest on plant and flower cultures.

Les politiques et les esthétiques des « naturecultures » urbains d’Afrique
Les espaces naturels urbains sont caractérisés par des usages multiples, des significations et des contestations diverses. Ces espaces englobent les jardins, les parcs publics, les fermes urbaines, les réserves naturelles et aussi les parcs nationaux. Chacun de ces espaces produit des infrastructures, des « gouvernementalités » et des publics, induisant des relations entre les plantes, les animaux et les hommes. Les “naturecultures” de ces espaces reflètent les préoccupations actuelles et passées des acteurs qui animent les villes. Les conditions de vie des populations urbaines, l’utilisation des terres et d’autres ressources naturelles affectent la biodiversité locale. L’imagination et la spiritualité ont également un impact sur ​​les paysages et la répartition des espèces urbaines marginales. Les discussions sur la conservation souvent se heurtent aux revendications territoriales ainsi qu’aux luttes pour l’accès au logement. Les liens à la nature sont aussi produits par la gentrification urbaine et l’éducation publique; d’autres sont revendiqués dans les luttes contre la gentrification. La biodiversité et l’esthétique naturelle des villes africaines reflètent des histoires de migration, de pouvoir, et des pratiques de la vie quotidienne qui intègrent également des stratégies de résistance. Les espaces naturels urbains peuvent ainsi être considérés comme des archives historiques, des cartes géographiques, des significations et des réclamations dans l’espace des villes africaines. Alors que les animaux ont reçu une certaine attention dans le cadre d’études récentes, les plantes ont quant à elles été largement négligées dans les sciences humaines en Afrique. Pourtant, les plantes sont intégrées dans des nombreux aspects de la vie urbaine. Ce panel va problématiser les politiques et l’esthétique des “naturecultures” urbains africains en général et s’intéresser plus spécifiquement aux cultures des plantes et des fleurs.


Paper 1

Rassool Ciraj / University of the Western Cape

Parks and Publics in Cape Town

This paper is about the connection between public parks and heritage in Cape Town, about the history and heritage of urban public parks, and about how they have operated as spaces of heritage production, As part of understanding Cape Town’s contested landscapes of history, I am interested in different kinds of urban green site (park, natural area, site of conservation and recreation), their connections with the state and persons, as they are managed and regulated, and made the subject of urban planning, and as they are contested over their meanings and significance, and around issues of access, use and participation. Urban parks are powerful theatres of memory, where the politics of nature, culture, environment and development come into sharp focus over historical meanings of land.
These contests have also been about different understandings of citizenship and the constitution of the public. Some conceptions of citizenship, such as Green Point Urban Park have created a restricted, disciplined, ‘instructed’, ‘convened’ public, framed through governmentality and regulation. At other sites of urban green in Cape Town, such as Princess Vlei, an approach was fashioned – as part of a struggle against commercial development – of a critical citizenship, with people laying making claims on unfettered rights of social access to the site, independent interpretation, and the power to narrate its history.

Paper 2

Gentric Katja / Université de Bourgogne

Nyaba Léon Ouedraogo, Santu Mofokeng, Willem Boshoff: a lottery of politics, memory and fiction

Nyaba Ouedraogo knows where to find surreal images of people living by recycling toxic waste and copper or breaking stones. He dedicates his series on the river Congo to the phantoms of the river; these exist in memory. By this gesture he conjures up residues of colonialism, or the backwash of neo-capitalism. Santu Mofokeng, the master of showing everything that is not visible in an image, develops the concept of “blind photography” in the context of his images of ecological pollution. Willem Boshoff, creates “Gardens of Words”. He learns the names of plants off by heart, as though the fact of remembering their names might prevent them from disappearing.
In image or in concept, the three artists have in common the spirituality and the strong element of fiction in their approach to ecopolitics – Their vision of the future is guided by memory. This paper proposes to draw attention to the visionary quality of their ecological engagement at the heart of the most urgent questions of the beginning of the XXIth century.

Paper 3

Christopher Natasha / University of the Witwatersrand

“Folly” – Reflections on a photographic exhibition of urban plant life

Johannesburg, once a savannah grassland biome, now boasts of being the world’s largest manmade/urban forest. The deeper story, however, is far more complex, and the plant life and green infrastructure of the city tell the story of migration, power, capital, labour, and of apartheid’s spatial engineering whose impact remains entrenched today in the geography of the city. In July 2013 I exhibited ‘Folly’ at the Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture (FADA) Gallery, University of Johannesburg. The work was shown again at the Bensusan Museum of Photography, Museum Africa, Johannesburg, in 2014. ‘Folly’ is an exhibition of photographs that evoke the history of the city of Johannesburg through its vegetation. It looks at plants as folly: as a metaphor for the absurd actions, thinking, and excesses that established the inequitable economic and political spaces of this city. ‘Folly’ interrogates how the realm of vegetation became increasingly political, how its senselessness became ordinary, and how the ordinary became absurd. This body of photographs is an exploration of my interest in the human experience of plant life in Johannesburg. The exhibition, which similarly engaged this relationship between human and plant life, considers how both are impacted by their presence in the urban and suburban spaces of Joburg, relating to the social, political and economic structures that make up the biography of the city. My paper will discuss the the ideas and thoughts behind this exhibition.

Paper 4

Godsell Sarah / University of the Witwatersrand

Roses in the Kraal: Contestations over nature-spaces in Temba Native Village

In 1945 the United Party government in South Africa embarked on a national housing scheme for ‘rural industrial villages’. Temba, the first village completed in this scheme, was a project in early 20th century colonial imagination: a social engineering project of how to create ‘villages’ for an industrial workforce inside a romanticised notion of ‘rural Africa’. In the administrative imagination, nature-spaces in Temba would function in specific ways: the village was intended to re-create a ‘kraal’ formation, and each house was allotted a vegetable garden, intended, as part of the infrastructure of the village. The first inhabitants were people who had been forcibly removed from urban areas around Johannesburg and Pretoria. In interview narratives, memories of arriving in that space are associated with ‘wild’: snakes, bush, animals. Over the years, inhabitants tamed the space – a language usually associated with colonial conquest – taking over colonial nature-legacies: palm and frangipangi trees, and changing the vegetable gardens into flower-gardens. The contestations over the ways nature-spaces were controlled in Temba show narratives of resistance, of a willful rooted-ness in the space: This paper explores these processes, examining how nature-spaces were used in and against the ‘tradition’ and ‘progress’ constructs used to justify segregation and white rule.

Paper 5

Boehi Melanie / University of Basel

Natureculture-cityness at the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, Cape Town

Imagined as the nation’s garden, the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden in Cape Town has from its foundation in 1913 functioned as what Foucault in his essay ‘Of Other Spaces’ called a heterotopia. Foucault described gardens as heterotopias “capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible”. Kirstenbosch was through design and horticulture made into a space perceived simultaneously as located in and out of Cape Town, a natural and an artificial space, an urban space and a counter-space to the city, and, more recently, a colonial and a postcolonial space. To this day, the Kirstenbosch has predominantly been framed as belonging to nature. However, Kirstenbosch has evolved as a distinctly urban institution with particular naturecultures. Kirstenbosch was not established on a blank spot but at a site already established as place, space and landscape, shaped by colonialism and slavery. Despite having been imagined as set apart from the city, the botanical garden and the people and plants inhabiting it were part of Cape Town’s urban infrastructure, and used Cape Town as urban infrastructure. I suggest that focusing on Kirstenbosch as a site of natureculture-cityness allows to connect a political history of plants, botanical knowledge and urban life. I further present an example of how floral spaces can be approached as archives.

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