Exact Imagination: 300 Years of Botanically Inspired Art in South Africa

Originating out of a desire to showcase the extraordinary national treasure of botanical illustrations in the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) collection and extended by curator Cyril Coetzee, Exact Imagination: 300 Years of Botanically Inspired Art in South Africa brought together three intersecting themes: botanical illustrations from SANBI and other collections; contemporary botanically inspired fine art; and southern African objects of material culture made from a variety of grasses, reeds and creepers.

This exhibition was the third in a series of four Standard Bank Gallery exhibitions focusing on the elements: water, fire, earth and air. It highlighted broad concerns about biodiversity and sustainability, and explored ways in which these are interrogated and communicated through a wide range of techniques, stylistic modalities and artistic conventions.

Among the works on view were 18th-century hand-coloured etchings by Francis Bauer and delicate watercolours by Georg Dionysius Ehret, plus a selection of antique books, containing works by Francis Masson, Jan Commelijn, Pierre-Joseph Redouté, Henry Andrews and others. 20th-century botanical illustrations include grasses by Gertrude Laurence and J.P.H. Acocks, and wild flowers from in and around South Africa painted and drawn by such well-known artists as Cythna Letty, Ellaphie Ward-Hilhorst and Auriol Batten were also on show. Exuberant, richly coloured
and textured works by contemporary artists, including William Kentridge, Helmut Starcke and Walter Oltmann, demonstrated a fascination with the structure of plants, but were less constrained by the need for scientific exactitude. Sobering works by Karel Nel's in which plant material is combined with pigment and charcoal, sat alongside a collection of woven baskets and mats, offering fascinating insights into the range and diversity of South Africa's contemporary cultural production.

The exhibition was complemented by a catalogue which offers further insight into the exhibition's key themes. It is a publication that those with a keen interest in botanical illustration and contemporary art will covet!

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