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Picturing the Tropics Within: Nature and the Alibi of Art

In Simryn Gill: Here, Art Grows on Trees, Catherine de Zegher, ed. (Ghent: MER. Paper Kunsthalle, 2013), 136-55.

...Here is another picture: A woman (age undecipherable) wearing a Punjabi garment is seated on a rattan chair in her garden. On her head is an exotic headgear made up of what looks like fruit. The headgear hides her face. The lawn has just been mown. Behind her, in a brick flowerbed, are magenta bougainvilleas, and an oversized bird's nest fern. Beyond the garden is a chain link fence. And behind that fence is an enormous building with huge chimneys boldly painted in red and white stripes. They make the woman look very small.


The first picture shows Marianne North, a Victorian amateur artist and explorer, at work in the 'field'. North started travelling to all corners of the tropical world when she was forty years old, and in the course of thirteen years, completed some 848 paintings of tropical flora and fauna found in the locations she toured including Jamaica, Brazil, Tenerife, Singapore, Sarawak, India, Australia, South Africa, the Seychelles and Chile.


The second picture, taken in 2000 by the artist Simryn Gill, is also set  in the tropics.  We are in a garden where tropical nature has been domesticated. Gill took this image at her family home, in Port Dickson on the west coast of Peninsula Malaysia, which stands adjacent to a defunct power station whose huge chimneys overshadow the 'fruit headed woman'. The complex caricature makes us uncomfortable, as though we tend to see people as crude extensions of where they come from.


I will examine Gill's artistic output in relation to the tropics and tropical nature, a physical and mental geography connected to the places where she grew up, about which she remains curious, and to which she still returns each year. The tropics as a field of knowledge came to the fore only in the nineteenth-century. The word 'tropical' 'signified a place of radical otherness to the temperate world, with which it contrasted and which it helped constitute'. 1 It is an enduring, if also problematic, historical construction. In fact, the tropics' narrow and biased conception still applies, particularly after recent outbreaks of infectious epidemics like avian flu and SARS were linked to several countries in the tropical belt.


The work of North-a Victorian woman, amateur artist and self-styled naturalist with an interest in the artistic representation of the tropical world-is an important foil to understanding how the historical narrative of the tropics was played out in art. If there are resonances between North's and Gill's activities, these will be found in how the two women frame what they do: theirs are neither scientific nor strictly artistic practices. For both, the fascination, with nature, in particular tropical nature, furnishes a site of practice which remains critically indeterminate, that is, an alternative 'other' landscape, which offers an alibi for self expression and personal experience, but at the same time reveals something about societal biases and sentiments. North's tropical flower paintings straddle between botanical art and drawing-room hobby art. Gill's photographs and collected objects from tropical locations veer between anthropological documentation and artistic intervention. In each instance, what pulls the viewer into the works of both women is the investment of the self as an essential part of this strange and unknown terrain. We are drawn into such conversations, which defy boundaries, completely entwined, as it were, with the minutiae of art, science, myth, history, life and decay.




1 Nancy Leys Stepan, Picturing Tropical Nature, Reaktion Book s, London, 2001, p. 11


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