On Uriel Orlow's
'Mafavuke's Trial and Other Plant Stories'
The Showroom Gallery, 2016

 

Whilst watching Uriel Orlow’s video The Crown Against Mafavuke, that features in his exhibition Mafavuke’s Trial and Other Plant Stories (currently on show at The Showroom Gallery, London until the 19th November), I was reminded of a comment of Derrida’s regarding the testimonial act, which is, he says “poetic or it is not” . “It must invent its language [and] form itself in an incommensurable performative”. Contrary to it being some sort of organic bubbling over of interiority, testimony is cultivated within the sphere of language and so has literary and/or poetic value. Fair enough. But ‘Poetic’ is in addition, and perhaps more crudely, part of a strategy that Derrida employs to sew an idea antithetical to testimonial truth - i.e. poetry; that old chestnut that Plato claimed should be expelled from the city for being for untruthful - at the base of serious evidence giving. It’s a tactic similar to the inadmissible evidence brought in by a cunning lawyer in an attempt to sway the jury’s verdict. Orlow has rounded up a number of works that in addition to the The Crown Against Mafavuke approach the testimonial act as an unequivocally poetic one. The video is a subtly camp re-enactment (‘camp’ within a deconstructive vein - with costume changes taking place on screen rather than off) of a real trial that took place in 1940 in South Africa between the herbal medicine practitioner Mafavuke Ngcobo and the local white medical establishment. Ngcobo attracted legal scrutiny when his mail order herbal remedy business started to attract high numbers of white customers, but also because he had begun to refer to himself as Dr Ngcobo. The “untraditional behavior” charge he faced at the time (the subject of Orlow’s video) refers to a legal dispute with the local establishment owing to the ‘Dr’ status he bestowed on himself whilst continuing to practice as a herbalist. Today of course the ‘non traditional’ face of herbal medicine has big commercial clout as faith in western medicine begins to dwindle and the novelty appeal of new markets continue to grip the popular imagination. This growing commercial interest in ‘alternative’ medicines form the back story for much of what Urlow presents here – this growing popularity being in essence a symptom of capitals recolonizing - its ‘biopiracy’ - of traditional medicine through patenting loopholes that permit the privatization of traditional knowledge and, as some gloomily anticipate, of life itself. These self-appointed authority figures of the growing herbal remedy businesses in the west (‘authorities’ by virtue the ownership rights they possess) are ironically guilty of the same charges brought against Mr Ngcobo seventy years ago when he took the title Dr for himself.

Orlow’s The Crown Against Mafavuke is a split screen affair; one screen shows the re-enactment of Mafavuke’s trial, the other a documentary about the herbal remedy industry in South Africa. It forms half of the exhibition with the other half devoted to a presentation curated by the artist that includes his own work amongst work by other artists. The legal context established by The Crown Against Mafavuke hints at a way to read the remaining work in the show - if this is a courtroom drama then what roles might we attribute to, say, a cake sitting under a bell jar made of powdered Moringa tree (Never Die, 2016 by Cooking Sections), a bouquet of flowers (Flower for Africa: Mozambique, 2014 by Kapwani Kiwanga), a series of photographic prints, made by Orlow as well as the art collective Subtle Agency and the photographer David Goldblatt. The press release describes the various elements in the show as being “witnesses and actors …dynamic agents”. The Moringa tree, which Cooking Sections make reference to in their cake in addition to the title of the work ‘Never Die’ (the resilient tree’s nickname), had been utilized as part of an initiative called the Panafrican Agency of the Great Green Wall (PAGGW) which sought to curb further desertification of the Sahara by planting a 10 mile deep Moringa tree forest so that the area would be preserved for agricultural purposes. The cake smuggles the tree into the show through its use of Moringa leaf powder as an ingredient (the smuggling of seeds into prison by fellow inmates of Nelson Mandela is mentioned in another work by Orlow ‘Grey, Green, Gold’ 2015-16). The Moringa cake is also a kind of proxy witness for the tree – a delegate that speaks, as Derrida did, to a refusal of the philosophical privileging of first-person spoken testimony. A bouquet of flowers that appeared on the table during Mozambique’s negotiation for independence from Portugal on 7th September 1974, remade by the artist Kapwani Kiwanga (Flowers for Africa: Mozambique, 2014), echoes the tracing of history that The Crown Against Mafavuke performs – both faithful re-enactments of history they are also delegates acting on behalf of the original event. A series of photographs by Orlow depicting trees and hedges for their various roles in the colonial past of South Africa, among which a Poplar tree that was a landmark for fugitives during the apartheid and an ancient Milkwood tree that had been the site of a Khoikoi battle against Portuguese colonisers in addition to, later on, a site for the public hanging of slaves (and then even later on was christened ‘The Treaty Tree’ to mark the second British occupation of the Cape.)

These various plants have complex ties to history, but in claiming them as bystanders or as agents of historical change, as the press release does, there is the danger that they will be swept away by a lofty human history. The Moringa ‘Never Die’ cake makes reference to a plant who’s ‘agency’ within hostile weather conditions has been instrumentalised by a collection of nation states for social and economic ends, but speaking of this as a form of colonialism against this plant species perhaps blunts the language we have at our disposal for dealing with social issues. Samantha Frost has recently demonstrated that even the most elemental units of ‘inert matter’ cling to their self-definition, as say a carbon or an oxygen molecule in a Moringa leaf, through carefully tuned vibrations of energy shuttling between an inside and an outside. In other words matter is never inert but charged, agential and in a continual exchange with an environment. The Moringa tree following this definition might then be conceived as an activist, which is a heady idea that dislodges human claims on activism, though it also a questionable one that is perhaps just too ‘poetic’ to be applied effectively within a forum for social justice. Orlow leaves these knotty questions open for the viewer to chew on through their presentation. The unit Orlow has built for these elements hints at museological display, though the legal theme encourages a reading of them more as evidence than artifact. What is striking about this aspect - the presentation or collection of evidence as a kind of formal motif - is the effect that this seems to have on these objects themselves. Since they are not used rhetorically - have not been made to speak, or ordered to testify - they have a quiet dignity that grants them a sense of autonomy, or (and for want of a better expression) an uncanny sense of being alive. As such, Orlow’s unit seems to anticipate, albeit in a slightly rarefied fashion, that a way of understanding these plants beyond some rhetorical/medicinal purpose lies not in their immediate apprehension in the present, but rather in a future tense to which the work of gathering evidence today will play a role in unveiling.

 


Kazimierz Jankowski, 2016