Last weekend I went to an artist talk by Charlotte Haywood to accompany her exhibition ‘Green Asylum’ at the Australian Design Centre. Charlotte is a tapestry weaver and for this exhibition she has made an enormous structural piece that remixes architectural forms into a playful refuge, as well as 12 wall pieces and a video work. Charlotte skillfully combines all kinds of materials (repurposed hospital blankets, tarps, uniforms, high vis safety gear, life jackets, dressing gowns, sheets, mourning attire, towels, active wear, camo, shade cloth and baby blankets) into a coherent and striking statement.

There are two quite distinct themes in this show. One is about how language and gesture function to share knowledge between humans. This is explored in a beautiful series of sculptures of pairs of hands made of mirror finish stainless steel and naturally dyed pandanas. The other theme is about the relationship of humans to plants, through which Charlotte navigates carefully to speak about colonialism and ecological damage and to find (from her own self awareness) connections between Indigenous and non-Indigenous histories in Australia.

This theme is where Charlotte’s commitment to practice research is most evident. She has investigated the histories of plants, but she has also learnt about them as she represents their form, as she weaves their shapes and colours into the tapestries from large drawings that sit behind her loom. In her piece ‘I See Red’ she presents the colonial history of the prickly pear, a species that was imported into Australia in the 19th century for two military purposes: use as an agricultural fence; and to establish the cochineal dye industry, necessary for the ‘red coats’ of the British military. The bright red dye is made from the cochineal insect, which is removed from the thick spiky prickly pear pads and crushed.

This work is part of an emergent artistic practice that leverages botanical knowledge to make political statements. Take for example the work by London-based Cooking Sections ‘The Next “Invasive” Is “Native”’ (2016) which looks closely at the language of main stream media to describe four weeds (Japanese Knotweed, Ground Elder, Nettles, Himalayan Balsam) by using the ‘invasive’ species to flavour ice-cream. As the audience of the artwork consumes the ice cream, they are implicated in the creation of different possible relationships to these plants.

Daniel Boyd’s recent (sold out) exhibition at Roslyn Oxley ‘Floating Forest’ takes as its title the description of Captain Bligh’s ship ‘Providence’, commissioned by English botanist Sir Joseph Banks, upon its arrival at Port Royal in Jamaica (1973). The ship was carrying, among other tired plants, Breadfruit. As Djon Mundine (2017) explains in his essay for the show ‘The plan was to transfer Breadfruit from the Pacific, as a cheap and fast growing food, for the thousands of slave workers on the sugar plantations in the Caribbean British colonies. At that time plants (cash crops) were more important than human lives, it would appear.’

Plants travel in many directions and in many ways, some more violent than others. These artists are reinterpreting plant histories and cultures and helping us think about a human-centred past and the possibility of more resilient and generous futures.

Mapping Edges were thrilled to be included in Charlotte’s acknowledgements along with Bruce Pascoe, Diego Bonetto and an impressive list of other local plant enthusiasts.

Green Asylum is on at the Australian Design Centre, until 27th September

Charlotte Haywood Charlotte Haywood