Landmark Exhibition at Kew Gardens Explores the Fragility of the Natural World

  • September 28, 2020 12:18

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Jan Hendrix, The Remains, study for a tapestry, 2019.
Mirror Pavilion III, 2020, by Jan Hendrix. Stainless steel.

Paradise Lost will be the first UK solo exhibition by Dutch-born, Mexico-based visual artist Jan Hendrix. The landmark show at Kew Gardens, featuring new works in a number of mediums, will convey the artist’s response to the transformation of the landscape known as Kamay Botany Bay, in Sydney, Australia. The exhibit is on view, October 3, 2020 to March 14, 2021, at The Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, London. (Explore Kew with virtual tours.)

Kamay Botany Bay was once beautiful and pristine, teeming with endemic flora and fauna. It acquired its English name from the huge number of plants that were recorded and collected there in 1770 by European botanists sailing on the HMS Endeavour voyage to the South Pacific. The botanists, Sir Joseph Banks (Kew Gardens’ first director) and Daniel Solander, collected hundreds of cuttings at the bay and along the Endeavour River in Queensland. They pressed each specimen within the loosely bound uncut pages of a 1719 book, Notes on Paradise Lost, by English writer Joseph Addison.

This voyage set in motion the British colonisation of the Australian continent, removing indigenous populations from their lands and destroying huge swathes of a fragile ecology that had existed for thousands of years.

Today, almost 250 years later, Kamay Botany Bay is virtually unrecognisable. Now, much of that landscape has been replaced by the suburbs of Sydney, an airport, a container port and an oil depot.

Paradise Lost will explore the beauty, fragility, and destruction of the natural world in the wake of colonial industrialisation, contemporary urbanisation and climate change. Historical material collected at the time is the starting point from which Jan Hendrix has created a collection of beautiful and thought-provoking work.

Many European naturalists believed the plants they saw to be ‘new’ to science and did not acknowledge indigenous people’s existing knowledge of flora and fauna. Scientists have long appropriated indigenous knowledge and downplayed its depth and complexity. The first people in Australia who identified and uncovered uses of endemic plants often remain unnamed and unrecognised. Much of Kew’s work in the 19th century focused on the movement of plants around the British Empire with a legacy of colonialism. Today, Kew is reflecting on its past and revisiting its collections from new perspectives.

Portrait of Jan Hendrix.
Mirror Pavilion III, 2020, by Jan Hendrix. Stainless steel.

New works include a vast monochrome tapestry that will evoke the dynamic texture and beauty of an Australian landscape threatened by wildfire, which ravaged the region in 2019. A huge walk-through mirrored pavilion will form the centrepiece of the show, its intricate metallic detail inspired by two plant species that grow in Kamay Botany Bay, Banksia serrata or Wiriyagan (Cadigal) and Banksia solandri. Both plants belong to a genus that was named after Banks by European taxonomists.

The exhibition will also feature a striking series of silkscreen prints on silver leaf, enamel plates and a moving image work created by filmmaker Michael Leggett, in collaboration with Hendrix.

For those not able to visit the exhibition in person, a virtual tour narrated by the artist will be made available online.

Maria Devaney, Galleries and Exhibitions Leader at RBG Kew says, “This incredible exhibition by Jan Hendrix will highlight the devastating impact that we have as human beings on the planet, by using the example of Kamay, Botany Bay and how it was irrevocably changed after 1770.

“Through the prism of contemporary art, the exhibition at Kew will draw attention to the unique and beautiful plant life that still exists in this particular landscape in Australia.

“Hendrix’s long-standing interest in plants and the natural world lays the foundation for what promises to be a ground-breaking exhibition at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art.”

A book to accompany the exhibition has been published by Kew Publishing, with texts by Dawn Ades, Deborah Ely and Michael Leggett.

Alongside the exhibition, a display of exquisite paintings from the Shirley Sherwood Collection will be shown in Gallery 6. ‘Flowers: Delight in the Detail’ will showcase the immense technical skill required to accurately depict the flower, with works from several botanical artists painting native plants from the UK, Brazil, Japan, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Poland and the US.

Jan Hendrix, Sylva III (restored), 2019. Silkscreen on silverleaf.

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