Marlise Keith (b. 1972) is known for her mixed media collages; large-scale drawings in pencil, ink and acrylics; and most recently, for her small sculptures of fabric, embroidery and found objects. Her subject matter is vast, drawing inspiration from a mental medley of horrific news headlines, colonial history, friends’ pets, psychopathology, girlhood memories, dreams, her persistent migraines, and roadside memorials. Subjects too daunting, too confused, or too subliminal to articulate in neat words and sentences, are processed through mark-making; offering an alternative “understanding” of a world that often does not make sense in traditional, logical language. This violence emerges in plentiful paint; sometimes it is suggested by the very act of mark-making itself – paper is gouged, scratched, sanded, torn, folded, and nailed. The question of value is often explored through Keith’s other choices of media. In her assemblages she juxtaposes found objects and media of varying value: Well-worn but beloved t-shirts, expensive gesso, broken curios, highly specialised micro-mosaic, R5 Store purchases and luxurious fabrics are combined and further worked with embroidery, intricate line, fur, paint, and sequins. The creatures seem to emerge directly from Keith’s self-labelled mental “soup”, equal parts cute and hideous, dark, and witty. The result is a richly layered body of work both violent and uncanny, made more surreal with a playful use of colour and humour. The latter draws in the viewer to a closer scrutiny of the darker complexities lurking beneath, which offer endless possibilities of meaning.
I grew up on a nature reserve, being far away from art teachers, I turned to copying the botanical illustrations in my dad’s botany books. We also walked hours looking for very specific plants, such as plants that were particularly good for survival, edible, medicinal and poisonous plants. These plants were introduced to my dad by the indigenous peoples living in those specific areas. As my dad could speak Zulu and Sotho, he was privy to a lot of interesting information and spend many hours digging up and documenting these plants and their stories. I particularly liked the medicinal and poisonous plants. Some of these plants could be both, depending on preparation, time of year, quantity, time of harvest for example. The science of these plants, how much knowledge is needed and how lives depend on it made me think of our race for the coronavirus vaccine. It is at the best of times, something that should not be rushed. I wonder about my blasé attitude about taking natural remedies because they are off the shelf, natural and therefor safe. I think it is a sign of the ‘pandemic-fallout', this disquiet and loss of trust in things that we used to take for granted. I have asked my dad for a list of these hero and, or villain plants. He recently published his memoirs where some of these plants are discussed in detail. A lot of the information shared with my dad is oral, passed down from one generation to the next and would be labelled anecdotal. I thought that would be OK, seeing that we live in a post truth era. My drawings’ relationship to botanical art is tenuous at best. I have taken tremendous artistic liberties. The scale of the flowers, tubers, colours, and compositions are all ‘wrong’ in the tradition of botanical art. But I wanted to draw the magic and the drama of the plant, their value, the respect my dad and his fellow botanists have for them, and my awe of them all. I have included some works I have done prior and during the pandemic. In the works prior the pandemic, I could indulge my existential angst. It had the ‘safety’ of remaining ‘theoretical’. During the pandemic I made “The crone mutters”, and I found that my younger feminist fervour was replaced by a crone gone quiet in the face of an overwhelming tiny foe. The pandemic has permeated my entire being and has left me most uncomfortable. I have only one way of dealing with my disquiet. I draw.
Bowiea volubilis Derwent Inktense pencils, Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils, oil pastel on Fabriano 300gsm, 70.5 x 100cm, 2021
Common names: climbing onion (English); knolklimop (Afrikaans); ugibisisila; iguleni (Zulu); umgaqana (Xhosa); gibizisila (Swazi) This is a highly toxic plant believed to cure everything from headaches, nervous disorders to strokes. It is a favourite with ‘hit men’ as the climbing potato is one of those plants that effects the cardiac rhythm. As told to my dad, if you were to mix Bowiea volubilis and Hypoxis hemerocallidea (African potato), the mixture will prevent you from being bewitched – most commonly to be hit by lightning. There are said to be two mixtures: the diluted mixture which is used to thoroughly wash the whole body and a paste used to cover all openings into the body, including any open wounds or scratches. (Anywhere the spell may enter the body.) This is such a widespread belief that the plants are endangered in some areas. In my dad’s experience, when a new mine was opened in an area where these plants occur, Indigenous workers would harvest them extensively. The B. volubilis is one of the few plants where most of the plant is used.
Raphionacme monteiroae Derwent Inktense pencils, Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils, oil pastel on Fabriano 300gsm, 70.5 x 100cm, 2021
Common name: Fika (Venda) My dad was told this story by Frans, an electric fence repair man who maintained the border fence between South Africa and Zimbabwe: “When Frans was a child there was an awfully bad drought (this was roughly in the early 1930s). His mother and aunt were traditional healers in a village in what was then Southern Rhodesia. As food got increasingly scarce people denuded the veld around the village of any edible plants. Frans’s mother took them to an area some distance from the village where there was a large colony of fika plants that they had found while gathering herbs. There was a dry sand river where they dug for drinking water. The first thing they did was to build a thorn bush enclosure around their little camp as their main problem were hyena and lion. Their camp was further away from the village and out of range of other plant gatherers. At first, they varied their fika diet with other edible plants and carrion. But as the drought wore on and other edible plants dried up, the fika became their main food supply. Eventually lorries; brought mielie meal to the village (possibly as part of a government drought relief program). Frans was in his 60s when he told me the story and he could not remember how long they lived on fika, but he said they were very thin when they returned to the village and many of the babies, young children and older people had died during the drought. Fika plant saved him, his mother and aunt, and three other youngsters in their family” (Keith, 2020: 148-9). There is nothing false about the refuge this plant gave these people.
Ipomea albevinia Derwent Inktense pencils, Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils, oil pastel on Fabriano 300gsm, 70.5 x 100cm, 2021
Common name: wild potato, wild sweet potato (English), ubutata wentoba (Zulu), magwiri (Venda) Willias and my dad found magwiri near the homestead. At the time, my dad was explaining to Willias how the San around Shakawe in Botswana always took the last tuber on the root so as not to break the root which produced tubers. In this way, the plant would survive to continue producing tubers. Carefully they uncovered the tubers, documented it, ate a small piece, and covered it again. The next day they passed the dig site and found the whole plant had been dug up, ripped out and all the tubers eaten. After inspecting the tracks Willias screamed: “Ndlovu” (Elephant)! If they dug up a plant in the vicinity of the homestead, the heard would later investigate and feast. Willias believed they were tracking them and punishing him for electrifying the garden fence. The magwiri is an important food and water source as tubers grow either in very shallow soil or in some cases on the surface of the soil. This is one of the few plants that is used as baby food. “[T]he Vamari of Zimbabwe … sliced the large root and cooked [from] cold water. The resulting liquid - called DOMBA - is fed to the infant from the second day of birth” (Fox & Norwood Young, 1982: p 159). The tubers are used regardless of the soil the plant is growing in. Unlike other baby food plants, magwiri is unaffected by the soil type and safe to use (Keith, 2020: p 126, 148). The magwiri root in modern times still plays a big part in Ingenious culture. When a magwiri fed baby returns from the mines he has, as an adult, to first pay respects and carry out a ceremony to a magwiri plant before meeting the rest of his relatives. My dad knows that the returnee must wear some form of headgear, a hat or cap and this must be removed in front of the plant and then address the plant as BÔ MÊ. It means “my mother and her associates” in Tswana. “I don’t know much more of the ceremony. But it is carried out to this day.”
Euphorbia trichadeni Derwent Inktense pencils, Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils, oil pastel on Fabriano 300gsm, 70.5 x 100cm, 2021
Common names: Stima molilo (Silozi), Melkbol (Afrikaans) My dad relates the tale from Southern Zimbabwe circa 1960: “…a toddler accidently pulled a pot of boiling water onto herself. The father and mother took the child to a nearby hospital, where the child was treated for third-degree burns. Being a rural hospital short of funds, parents who stayed with the child were asked to supply food for the child, so the father returned to the village to collect cooking utensils and food. On his return to the hospital, he stumbled on a group of bandits preparing to attack the hospital. He managed to sneak in and get his wife and toddler out before the attack. The baby was taken with dressings intact, but it screamed as soon as it was picked up and did not stop screaming the entire trek back to the village. On arrival, the mother went directly to the village traditional healer, who in turn asked the chief to send as many people as possible to collect Stima molilo tubers. The test to see if they dug up the correct tuber was to scratch it and if it bled ‘blood,’ a red sap, it was kept. The traditional healer pounded the tubers to a pulp, then removed the dressing of the still screaming child. The paste or pulp was packed thickly onto the burns of the toddler and it immediately stopped crying. The father thought it had died. But the traditional healer assured him, the child was sleeping. The toddler recovered from its burns without returning to hospital and without any secondary infections. It was badly scarred, and it survived its burns, including any risks of secondary infection” (Keith, 2020: p 150-51).
Hocus Pocus, Acrylic and Aero colour ink, Gesso, embroidery thread, cotton, found objects, felt, fabric, collage, polychromos pencils, Pigma Graphic and micron pens on Belgian linen, 38 x 36,5cm, 2020, Framed
Decorsea schlechteri Derwent Inktense pencils, Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils, oil pastel on Fabriano 300gsm, 70.5 x 100cm, 2021
Common name: stima môtôrô (put the fire out), Tsinja (Shangaan), tennis ball tuber (English). My Dad collected D. schlecteri with Willias, a plant fundi in the Orpen area of the Kruger National park. Willias had an ongoing feud with the elephants roaming the farm and surrounding area. The farmer installed electric fences around the complex in which Willias lived and grew his paw paws. A delicacy which was now off limits to the elephants. D. schlecteri is a very good food and water source, but there is a poisonous variety that is virtually indistinguishable from the edible one. “Willias explained that great care had to be taken when testing a D. schlecteri tuber. The only way to tell the difference was to taste the tuber by placing the tip of your tongue against the sliced tuber. If it is the poisonous variety, the tongue will immediately register a severe burning sensation ‘like battery acid’ said Willias.” He told my dad that one of his friends had to go to hospital because he chewed into a tuber without testing it first and after it started burning, in desperation rinsed his mouth with his own urine. This according to Willias, is what hospital staff said saved his friend from serious after-affects.” Willias and my dad went to much trouble to find a mark or difference in the ‘eat’ and ‘don’t eat’ plants. They were careful to not disturb the plant too much as they had not found many plants in the area. The next morning, Willias and my dad returned to the previous day’s site to find that the whole plant had been ripped out of the ground. The leaves and tendrils had been thrown to one side and all the tubers were eaten. Willias bellowed in Zulu: “Ndlovu! (Elephant).” Willias found tracks and explained that he knew an elephant cow that could dig very well with a single tusk. Willias continued: “You fat lazy useless … unprintable … still unprintable… First you eat Willias’s paw paw! Now you follow us and dig up Tsinja. Have you no shame!” (Keith, 2020: p 124-5; 153).
Colophospermum mopane Derwent Inktense pencils, Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils, oil pastel on Fabriano 300gsm, 70.5 x 100cm, 2021
Mopane is a common name for a tree (sometimes scrub) that occurs in hot, low-lying areas north of the Tropic Capricorn in South Africa and into tropical Africa. This tree is my dad’s favourite tree which has always been a tree of peace and tranquillity to him. My dad’s rather notorious friend (who to this day remains unnamed) was 17 years old at the time and travelling with Somali runners during the early 1950s. Here is the story as my dad tells it: “[The] Somali runners … were running ivory for Indian and Caucasian traders… In many cases, their load was more than just ivory and included other valuable but illegal items, as well as their own food and weapons. Normal transportation of such illegal goods was out of the question. They travelled on foot through the bushveld, tracked by Portuguese and Northern Rhodesian police. To lose the police, the head of the Somali runners and my friend separated from the rest of the group (with the illegal merchandise) and created tracks leading the police away from them. They tried to create as much spoor, which would be tracked by the police, and lead the police towards a dense stand of tall mopane trees. When the runners got to the trees they climbed up and hid in the big mopane trees. The trees do not have thorns and larger ones can be relatively easy to climb. Sitting high up in the mopane tree, the leaves effectively hiding my friend while the police held a pow-wow under his tree. The police suspected they were hiding in the trees and even though they looked up into the tree, they did not see him. He told me the runners had a saying: “In times of danger, the mopane will cover you like closed hands” They would gesture this, cupping their hands together to create a space between them. Indeed, their name for mopane meant the same thing as “cupping” both hands when receiving a gift” (Keith, 2020: p 155-57). There are many uses for the Mopane, such as a concoction for diarrhoea, leaf infusions for constipation, chewed leaves can stop bleeding wounds, Mopane worms for food, firewood, roof, and bridge supports. There is also Mopane honey made by small stingless bees that have their hives in the tree - a delicacy in mopane woodland. It is also a fodder tree, is wood borer resistant, and beautiful wood for carving sculptures.
Vangueria infausta Derwent Inktense pencils, Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils, oil pastel on Fabriano 300gsm, 70.5 x 100cm, 2021
Common name: Wild Medler (English), Mispel (Afrikaans), mmilo (Pedi). According to Wikipedia, the scientific name of the mispel, infausta, alludes to the misfortune believed to result from its use as firewood. This is supported by Palgrave's (1977: p 873) who states that it is believed “… that [the tree] possesses evil powers and that the botanical name means ‘unlucky’”. My Dad observed that even though it is an extremely valuable food plant, Mispel fruit have a pleasant apple like flavour and can be kept for extended periods and the roots used as a medicine for Malaria and pneumonia, it was approached with extreme caution or not at all. This superstition becomes apparent when children assist in the gathering of firewood collecting kindling. They must take their bundle to the old woman of the group for inspection - all the mispel wood or twigs are removed and the child lectured on how to distinguish the different woods. Mispel wood is never but never used as firewood, in fact, the wood is never used at all! My father planted a Mispel on his friend’s farm at Bandelierskop, the employees were all afraid of the Mispel - known as mmilo which means ‘fire.’ Usually, when my dad was working with the plants, he was aided without reserve. However: “The chap that helped me told me his new-born baby had been ‘inoculated’ with mmilo muti but did not explain further. Normally, he would have helped to carry and plant other plants- he was a very helpful person - and would be chatting all the time, but not with the mmilo. Other than digging the hole, he kept his distance, only when I asked him to bring more soil, did he do so - keeping the shovel of soil between him and plant. I packed the soil around the plant and watered it - all the while he stood 3 to 4 paces away watching. The whole planting process was done in complete silence.” I researched apotropaic marks but could not find an African apotropaic mark. European anti- witchcraft (apotropaic) symbols or patterns are scratched into the surface of buildings, tables, and doorframes for example. It was believed that these symbols would aid in protection against witchcraft. I scratched these symbols into the paper and drew Vangueria infausta over the marks.
Oculist rift, Acrylic and Areo Colour Ink, Gesso, fabric, collage, pens on Belgian linen, 30 x 30cm, 2020
Cluster Fuck II, Acrylic and Aero colour Ink, Gesso, embroidery thread, cotton, found objects, felt, fabric, collage, polychromos pencils, Pigma Graphic and Micro Pens on Belgian linen, 31 x 18cm, 2018, Framed
Boophone disticha Derwent Inktense pencils, Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils, oil pastel on Fabriano 300gsm, 70.5 x 100cm, 2021
Common names: sore eye flower, century plant, poison bulb (English), gifbol, seeroogblom, kopseerblom, boesmangif, perdespook (Afrikaans); kxutsana-yanaha, motlatsisa (Southern Sotho); incumbe, siphahluka (Swazi); incotho, incwaadi (Xhosa, Zulu); Ibhade (Zulu). This plant could possibly save your life but can kill you if not used properly. According to Van Wyk & Gerecke’s (2000: p 156), this plant has eleven alkaloids that have been isolated and is extremely toxic. These alkaloids can be exceptionally good pain killers and have other medical properties. However, accidental deaths can easily occur. According to several healers the biggest risk is when the ‘wet’ or green onion-like sheaths are used. Typically, it is only the dry bulbs that are used. “Many deaths have been documented from the use of B. disticha in South Africa and Zimbabwe. In spite of the real dangers of fatal poisoning, this species is still freely available on the urban muthi markets in major centres. Some diviners administer the bulb scales orally as a decoction or as an enema to patients to induce visual hallucinations that are interpreted. The phenomenon is sometimes called “the bioscope” or “the mirror” when the client is seated in front of a white cloth or a mirror to await the onset of visions. These visions are interpreted as being actual past and future events, and in the realm of ancestral spirits. Since a small overdose can be fatal, meticulousness has to be taken when preparing the remedy” (van Wyk & Gerecke, 2000: p156). My dad tells the story of Ms Audrey Renew who did botanical illustrations of the Boophane. While painting a gifbol in flower in a well-ventilated room, she felt drowsy and gradually realised she had blurred vision. She went outside where, with the fresh air, her head cleared after a while. When she returned to the room, she noticed pollen under the flower on the table and guessed that the pollen was affecting her. She continued the painting outside and some distance from the plant and was no longer affected (Keith, 2020: p 153).
Hammer Head, Acrylic and Areo colour ink, Gesso, fabric, collage, pens on Belgian linen, 30 x 30cm, 2020
Debris of my narrative, Collage, fabric, found objects, embroidery thread, Belgian linen, Acrylic and Areo colour ink, gold leaf, felt, paper, pins, ph neutral wood glue, gesso, 42 pages, 2019
Balconies for the Forlorn, Acrylic and Aero colour Ink, Gesso, embroidery thread, cotton, pins, found objects, felt, collage, polychromos pencils, Pigma Graphic and Micron pens on Belgian Linen, 80 x 30cm, 2020, Framed
Hypoxis hemerocallidea Derwent Inktense pencils, Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils, oil pastel on Fabriano 300gsm, 70.5 x 100cm, 2021
Common names: African potato, star flower, yellow star (English); sterblom, geelsterretjie, gifbol (Afrrikaans); moli kharatsa, lotsane (Southern Sotho); inkomfe, inkomfe enkulu (Zulu), inongwe, ilabatheka, ixhalanxa, ikhubalo lezithunzela (Xhosa), tshuka (Tswana). Inkomfe is established as a ‘wonder plant,’ a cure all. From a strengthening tonic for convalescents to children with ‘wasting disease’ such as tuberculosis or cancer. H. hemerocallidea has been used traditionally for: urinary tract infections, testicular tumours, as a laxative, an antiparasitic and dewormer. It is also used to treat anxiety, palpitations and depression, and is helpful in rheumatoid arthritis…” Mixed with Bowiea volubilis it is a powerful anti-witchcraft remedy. Inkomfe was famously professed to cure AIDS. Inkomfe was the first South African medicinal plant that was subjected to full-scale clinical trials that were conducted at Tygerberg Hospital in the Western Cape. The hype started in the 1980s when it was hailed as a potential cure for cancer. The ‘miracle plant’ was later registered in Germany and marketed as a treatment for benign prostate hypertrophy. Soon after, it became a well-known tonic on the international market and was advertised as an immune-system booster. Dugmore & van Wyk states that “Inkomfe certainly has its benefits as a general wellness tonic and has for centuries been used in traditional medicine, but there is absolutely no published information to prove that it is a cure for life-threatening diseases” (Dugmore & van Wyk, 2008: p 84, 146).
A meagre life, Acrylic and Areo colour ink, Gesso, embroidery thread, cotton, found objects, felt, fabric, collage, polychromos pencils, Pigma Graphic and Micron pens on Linen, 37cm diameter, 2020, Framed
Ensnared-the world is tired, Acrylic, Sennelier and Areo colour ink, Gesso, embroidery thread, cotton, found objects, felt, fabric, collage, polychormos pencils, Pigma Graphic and Micron pens on MDF, 40 x 30cm, 2018. Framed
The Crone Mutters, Collage, Schmincke Areo colour ink, FW acrylic ink, Faber-Castell polychromos pencils, found objects, embroidery thread, fabric canvas, Fabriano 300 gsm, Artist book, 30 x 30cm, 2020
Bibliography: Dugmore, Heather, Ben-Erik van Wyk. 2008. Muthi and Myths from the African Bush. Marula Books, pages 128. Fox, Francis William, and Marion Emma Norwood Young. 1982. Foods from the veld: Edible Wild Plants of Southern Africa Botanically Identified and Described. Delta Books, 421 pages.
Keith, Max. 2020. Looking Back. Self-published. Palgrave, Keith Coates, R. B. Drummond, Eugene John Moll, and Meg Coates Palgrave. 1977. Trees of Southern Africa. Struik Publishers, 1212 pages. Van Wyk, Ben-Erik and Nigel Gericke. 2000. People’s Plants: A Guide to Useful Plants of Southern Africa. Briza Publications, 351 pages. http://pza.sanbi.org Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vangueria_infausta) https://www.vincentreed.com/witch-craft-marks
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