press release

PAV Parco Arte Vivente presents What Plants Were Called Before They Had A Name, a one-person exhibition by Uriel Orlow, opening on Saturday, November 4 to coincide with Artissima 2017. Curated by Marco Scotini, the exhibition brings the artist back to Italy after his solo show Made / Unmade, held at the Castello di Rivoli in 2015.

Uriel Orlow's exhibition sits within a frame of research that PAV has been dedicated to explore within the (post-) colonial context, focusing on mechanisms of Western oppression and indigenous resistance strategies as well as the series of effects they produce under the domain of today’s corporate capitalism. This focus is exemplified by the exhibitions Vegetation As a Political Agent (2014) and La Macchina Estrattiva (2017) now followed by Uriel Orlow’s body of work emerging of his long-term investigation into the South African context.

Foucault states that “the theory of natural history cannot be disassociated from that of language." Knowledge of beings cannot be separated from the possibility of representing them in a system of names. If the attribution of a name, which is never a neutral gesture, conceals endemically coercive aspects, these become much more evident in those cases where the object of the denomination already possesses a name. The original name thus becomes a battlefield, an area of conflict between the culture that generated it and the agents wanting to remove it from history.

European colonialism was both preceded and accompanied by important botanical expeditions. The intent was to explore and classify the new lands and their natural resources, thereby paving the way for occupation and exploitation. The title of the exhibition, What Plants Were Called Before They Had A Name, refers to Orlow's eponymous sound installation, an oral glossary of autochthonous vegetation that lists their indigenous names in a dozen South African languages. The work evokes the mechanisms of subordination that led colonialists to rename the local flora, assimilating it into Linnaeus’s classification system.

As a whole, the corpus of the exhibited works stems from research carried out by Uriel Orlow in Europe and South Africa: through films, photographs, installations and sound, the artist proposes the idea of the botanical world as a stage for complex and articulated political dynamics.

In The Crown Against Mafavuke, Orlow leads us inside the courtrooms of the Palace of Justice in Pretoria where we witness a restaging of a trial from 1940 which saw Mafavuke Ngcobo, a traditional healer (inyanga) accused by the white establishment of “nontraditional behavior”: Mafavuke’s muthi remedies contained local herbs, some Indian remedies plus—and here lies the controversial element—western ingredients and patented medicines. The film explores the ideological and commercial confrontation between two different yet interconnected medical traditions, and their use of plants, with slippages across gender and race further questioning notions of purity and origination.

In the complex mosaic proposed by Orlow the narration of the past finds its counterpart in the post-colonial present. In a sequel, entitled Imbizo ka Mafavuke, light is thrown onto the expropriation strategies typical of multinational corporations, revealing the continuing exploitation of natural resources and indigenous knowledge in contemporary global economies.

Uriel Orlow lives and works between London and Lisbon. Orlow’s practice is research-based, process-oriented and multi-disciplinary including film, photography, drawing and sound. He is known for single screen film works, lecture performances and modular, multi-media installations that focus on specific locations and micro-histories and bring different image-regimes and narrative modes into correspondence.

The exhibition has been realized under the patronage of the City of Turin, with the support of Compagnia di San Paolo, Fondazione CRT and Regione Piemonte.