Plant politics

February 5, 2023

In his works, David Alesworth comments on various ways of domesticating nature; correcting, cultivating and transforming it.

Plant politics

“Everything is biographical and everything is a self-portrait.”

— Lucian Freud


ultiple self-portraits are displayed at the solo exhibition of David Alesworth (Hortus Nocte/ The Dark Garden, January 24 to February 2, Canvas Gallery, Karachi). However, what the viewer finds instead is a collection of prints, a large carpet and an installation – depicting plants, flowers, vegetation, but no human figures, no faces, no features. Yet the works on display are various versions of the artist’s self, personality and identity.

David Alesworth is amongst four artists (along with Durriya Kazi, Iftikhar Dadi and Elizabeth Dadi), who in the early nineties initiated the movement now called the Karachi Pop. It was not the first time that images and objects of popular culture attracted artists from Pakistan. During the seventies, Ijaz-ul Hassan incorporated publicity of film characters, movie sequences and posters of wrestlers in his paintings.

However, it was during the nineties that the popular pictorial practice evolved into a local art movement; still visible in the works of its founders, as well as artists of later generations, such as Huma Mulji, Asma Mundrawala, Adeela Suleman (former students of Alesworth at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture).

One aspect of Karachi Pop was locating indigenous identity through the language of craft and a sensibility of appropriation. In a sense, it was different from the original Pop Art movement (Richard Hamilton, Andy Warhol, Peter Blake, Allen Johns, Tom Wesselmann, James Rosenquist and Claes Oldenburg etc).The latter was a reaction against the expanding consumerism in the newly emerging Western economies after World War II.

Like a recycled entity, David Alesworth’s recent work has two identities echoing its creator who – resembling some of us – has been dealing with two lives. According to the exhibition catalogue: “His own hybrid identity as a Pakistani national of white British ethnicity informs many aspects of his practice.” Alesworth, an Englishman, worked and taught in Lahore and Karachi from 1991 to 2015. Alesworth, a trained sculptor, also designed gardens for posh houses in Lahore and Karachi.

Italo Calvino notes that “all good writers have to be classified not just in a single category but in the intersection of at least two.” For the past few years, one realises, these two strands, the British origin and the Pakistani existence; the profession of an artist and the task of garden work have been converging, eventually to reminds us not of a personal story but a history that is larger than a private life; and has affected millions across continents. The colonial past that transformed – in separate ways – the United Kingdom and the Indian subcontinent. There was a discourse between the rulers and the ruled in the vocabulary of artefacts, customs, foods and vegetation. Major parks in South Asia were founded during the Raj period. Logically, because for an outsider, local flora and fauna were exotic substances and species; a source of knowledge, hence scientific research, documenting, describing and compiling of plants remained a regular preoccupation for officials, travellers, orientalists associated with the British Empire.

By nature, plants are rooted to a piece of land, but not confined to one territory. Trees, shrubs, flowers have travelled long distances; eventually ending up as authentic inhabitants of a region. Tulip is one example. At present identified with the Netherlands, the flower is originally from Kazakhstan. It was cultivated by Ottoman Turks (“The name ‘tulip’ came from the Turkish word for turban”), and in the late 16th Century was introduced to Western Europe.

Alesworth has explored plants that migrated to distant lands, assumed new values and survived in alien surroundings and recorded by foreign connoisseurs. Alesworth has collected samples of prints made after the paintings of PJ Redoute, the Belgian painter and botanist, who rendered local and exotic plants. His pictures were widely reproduced, displayed and collected.

In his works, David Alesworth reduces the esteemed Belgian’s floral imagery to dark (blackened) silhouettes or white (ghost like) shapes.

Both effects are achieved through stitching over stems, leaves and flowers using black or white thread. In these mixed media works, the artist may be commenting on various ways of domesticating nature; correcting, cultivating and transforming it. Inscribing details of familiar and exotic plants, naming, labeling and categorising them, preserving by botanists, horticulturalists or artists is one method of controlling nature. The other is converting a plant into a pattern, in weaving, embroidery, cross-stitch, manuscripts and decorations. Modifying the elements of nature – which were not created for any aesthetic reasons – into segments of beauty.

Often nature, which is admired for its beauty, can be brutal, as Holland Cotter, in a recent article in The New York Times points out: “Gorgeous sunsets can be a product of atmospheric pollution. Blizzard of the kind that recently battered parts of the United States were visual poetry to Monet. And that jewel-like magenta-winged bug I so admired in the garden last fall turns out to be a herbicidal terrorist.”

The third mode of overpowering nature is gardening (Alesworth himself is an accomplished gardener, apart from being one of the leading visual artist of his generation). Dr Adnan Madani, in his essay for the catalogue, states: “Everyone knows that gardeners are terrorists and colonists. The colonisation consists in the enclosure of land, in removing the possibility of use for the common good, and then replacing the very notion of common good with an aesthetic experience.”

Alesworth compares, hence criticises the dichotomy of English romantic poets admiring nature in the heart of Britain, while their compatriot soldiers were conquering and subjugating populations in Asia and Africa. In his 2022 print on paper Ode to a Nightingale, J Keats, 1819, the artist has superimposed a thorny stem of rose bush on the English poet’s manuscript page of the same poem. Other plants are layers on the texts of Romantic bards in prints like Wordsworth, Rosa Canina, 1896.

There have been other mergers. A park in Lahore, say Lawrence Garden, is part of the city. Its attraction is an embodiment of its colonial past (and the past is always present in the present). So the botanical history of South Asia is also a chronicle of cruelty. Of invaders, who massacred human beings, but were warmly attached to plants of an alien soil. In that context, the idea of garden is problematic, if not oppressive. We refer to the Garden of Eden, but apart from that divine setting, gardening has been an effort to proclaim an occupying agenda.

This not only includes the British history, but also the desire of present-day builders constructing rows of boulevards, recreational green areas in their housing societies, which are built on farm lands by disposing of peasants, de-situating villagers and threatening the ecological balance.

The agricultural land sold as residential plots, is disturbing the age-old system of having fields next to hamlets, which provided essential grains. This disruption is not merely social or economic but also ecological and global. It also produces carbon oxides and pollutes the environment. David Alesworth addresses this critical and crucial issue, in his restored Kushan carpet (Hortus Nocte/ The Dark Garden, 2022) by changing leaves, flowers and other vegetation into black. The traditional floral motifs converted into dark patches become an elegy for tradition, reminding the destruction of a social structure, disintegration of an ecological system and disillusionment of a cultural heritage/ past.

Alesworth has added a print in his exhibition (Coal House Fire-II, 2022): the image of a tiny coal house in flames. The artist says that amongst the coal miners of North America, Europe and England, there was a custom of carving things out of coal, sometimes entire villages made of coal. David Alesworth bought some of these pieces and to make the work, burnt the small black house. Alluding to how we are converting ourselves into ashes; ashes that are reminiscent of the colonial past, of environmental crises, of disfiguring and manipulating of the history.

This heart of darkness is what the exhibition, Hortus Nocte, could be about; a darkness not beyond one’s house, that encompasses the entire country, its economic situation and its connection with the planet. The Hortus Nocte/ The Dark Garden, is a metaphor for a territory where the last man out must switch off the lights.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore.

Plant politics