Talking about country: people and plants
a celebration of migration and local knowledge
The paintings on show here are made with watercolour paint made in Australia, brushes made in China and paper made in France. They are painted by a person who was born in Melbourne, then grew up in North America and Europe and Australia.
There are 256 paintings of which 85 are on show. Altogether there is a painting for every country in the world.
The plants in the paintings are not the botanic or floral emblems of the countries.
Rather each painting contains an image of a plant or a part of a plant that is found in South Australia.
The point of this contrariness at this moment in Australian history, a time of intense reflection and discussion about migration, is to make several points:
1. all countries have native plants that are loved by their people.
2. often these plants migrate in one way or another and are found in other countries than their place of origin.
3. the movement of plants around the world has some similarities with the movement of people around the world.
4. plants preceded all peoples on the earth and all names for them, and all classifications and taxonomies. In the beginning was the world, not the word. Can we imagine a time when plants and countries had no names?
5. a plant and a person from almost every country in the world can now be found in South Australia, and not only in the Botanic Gardens.
6. a lot of the plants we love are native to Australia, a lot are plants that have migrated and thrived here.
7. the indigenous plants and those who have come in successive waves of migration form the country we live in and make it the place it is now.
8. it is a place that is now aware and appreciative of the Aboriginal people and their cultures but also positive about cultures brought here over the last two hundred years. And the new ones being formed every day.
A recent book about landscape and language in Australia says that:
�Country� is a key word of Aboriginal English. It is now used all over Aboriginal Australia to name the place where a person belongs. Country may be either mother or grandfather, which grows them up and is grown up by them. These kinship terms impose mutual responsibility of caring and keeping upon people and land.
�Country� is also a key word of Australian English, though it may not mean precisely the same thing that it does in Aboriginal English, it is nevertheless a vital part of people�s understandings of identity and belonging. Also with increasing familiarity some of the meanings of it in Aboriginal English are moving into Australian English.
�What country do you come from?�
�What country did your parents come from?�
These questions are commonly asked in Australia and people are proud of and interested in the complexity of their cultural backgrounds. These marvelous mixtures and fertile hybrids come together to make Australia a complex place where thought and creativity are enlivened by recent immigrants as much as by less recent immigrants.
The current discussions and events surrounding migration to Australia have many troubling aspects but the mixture and layering of people in Australia is so far advanced that it cannot be legislated against or bullied out of happening. However unpleasant some aspects of the journey, culture and country mixing in Australia is irreversible, it is here to stay.
The paintings in talking about country put together the names of countries with images of plants to assert a kind of equivalence among plants, peoples, cultures and countries.
There are many languages to talk about countries, those of politics, trade, science, religion, history. This artwork seeks to introduce or remind us of another language to talk about country, a language of celebration and affection, a language of joy.
Botany, the study of plants, gives names to plants and organizes them into families and species. As the collection on show in the Museum of Economic Botany demonstrates, the economic uses of plants have been a major driving force in the study of them.
The scientific approach to the world is to tabulate and categorize it.
It begins with the idea of naming and �discovering � the whole world (which was never lost) in order to get a sense of control over the world as well as being able to talk about it.
And yet botanical description of plants do not encompass all the meanings of plants.
What escapes is a sense of the aliveness, what Dylan Thomas called the green fuse, the life force, the energy that flows through the plant and gives grace and vitality to its forms. It is this variety and richness as seen in plants that these paintings celebrate by making the plants comparable to people and human cultures.
South Australia is both a unique place and a place in which parts of the rest of the world may be found.
Thinking globally and acting locally, we get a perception of ourselves as citizens of the world as well as treasuring our local knowledge.
The works celebrate the journeying of plants and peoples, migrations and local knowledges traveling around the globe and coming to rest, in South Australia.
Stephanie Radok, March 2002
An exhibition of works on paper at the Museum of Economic Botany, Adelaide Botanic Gardens, March-October 2002
Words for Country, language and landscape and language in Australia
edited by Tim Bonyhady and Tom Griffiths
University of New South Wales Press, Sydney, 2002