Sibonelo Chiliza: Beyond Botanical Art
Drawing plant specimens takes on an additional level of historical and political abstraction when it comes to the botanical art of Sibonelo Chiliza — a little-known, but exceptionally talented illustrator from Port Elizabeth, whose work subtly considers the complex realities of representing the natural environment in South Africa.
Chiliza, speaking from his new base in Randfontein, Johannesburg, explains that while botanical illustrations serve a specific purpose, namely to accurately depict the specimen being articulated, it is about the relationship between the illustrator's own past, and their relationship to the landscape, which always lingers beyond the drawing itself. 'South Africans, particularly black South Africans in my opinion, have lost part of our connection to nature,' he says. 'I think that the way many black people were brought up to think that whenever there is a tree outside our house, it must be cut down to be used for firewood, has taken a lot from the culture, not knowing that it can give much more to us if we protect it. So there is a lot that we can still do. 'These plants give us life, but in a different way, and we need to treat them with respect.'
The Artists' Press, who recently did a major set of lithographs with Chiliza, explains that in 2004 the artist did a three-month internship at the botanical garden in Durban, which led to his meeting the well-known botanical artist Gillian Condy. He later did a six-month internship at the National Herbarium under Condy, that was converted into a one-year contract with the African Plants Initiative, where he managed the scanning and databasing of the SANBI Pretoria art collection. The painstaking process of making a single drawing has seen Chiliza described as 'having the focus of a Buddhist monk'. 'The technique I use is very slow, and so I spend a lot of time with the plants. A detailed piece can take a whole month to finish, but in that time, it’s crazy how one connects with nature. While I was living in KwaZulu-Natal, I spent years with the strelitzias specifically, because they grow everywhere there, and I developed these feelings of attachment. They feel alive, even if they are dead, but even then they bring me life,' he says.
When House and Leisure asked what kind of garden he would grow this Garden Month, if he had the chance, Siliza imagines an indigenous garden. 'I would just grow indigenous plants, trees, and shrubs, because I was taught that tropical, or plants from abroad, use too much water and have a negative effect on our soil. The indigenous plants give back to the soil, and help us to rebuild the landscape.' There are no big exhibitions in the works for Chiliza, but he is in the midst of exploring dried seed endemic to the Gauteng region, which are prolific in the windswept former mining area in which he currently lives.
For more about Sibonelo Chiliza's work, and to stay up to date with him, check out The Artists' Press.