Sonya Schönberger - Goethe@LUX Residency 2019
“Why do we need roses?”
Sonya Schönberger is the current Goethe@Lux artist in residence at the Goethe-Institut London. The key subject of this residency is ecology and the increasingly strained relationship between nature and human civilisation. In this interview she talks about the background of cheap flowers in supermarkets, the much-hyped succulent plants and (post-) colonialism of the plant world. Read about her thoughts on why we should rethink our relationship with flowers and start swapping plants.
Sonya, in one of your projects you deal with the rose industry in Kenya. How did that come about?
Over a year ago I read an article about the activist Joan Root, who grew up in Kenya and was murdered in 2006. She was supporting conservation projects around Lake Naivasha where roses for the European market are cultivated. The cut flower industry has had a vast impact on the complex ecosystem and social structure there – a high price for supplying roses for our excessive flower markets. When I came to London as a part of my Goethe@LUX Residency, I noticed the amount of cut flowers in the supermarkets and remembered that story. Shortly afterwards, I started a series of photographs and developed a lecture which I will deliver at LUX and the Goethe-Institut London in mid-July.
The immense consumption of flowers has a huge impact on nature and also the people who have to plant and harvest the roses.
I am concerned with our responsibility in Europe. The immense consumption of flowers has a huge impact on nature and also the people who have to plant and harvest the roses. Since the 1980s our demand for cheap fresh flowers has risen sharply. Since then more and more people have migrated from East Africa to Lake Naivasha to work in the industry. Enormous slums have grown up, not everyone can find a job (especially men), and living conditions are quite difficult. Crime and exploitation are the results. There is still an imbalance between white and black people – a remnant of British colonialism. You can see this on the plantations: most owners are white or come from a different class to the black plantation workers. Also, speaking from an ecological point of view, the entire cut flower industry is a disaster for nature. After being harvested, roses from Nairobi are flown to Europe. That is absolutely crazy when you think about it. But this is only one aspect which I will also talk about in my lecture.
Roses are the ‘go-to’ gift on Valentine's Day or Mother's Day. If you give away roses, you demonstrate your love. They have an unambiguous symbolism. How can we change this notion?
The idea of giving presents on Valentine's Day or at Christmas is quite difficult for me to understand. I love getting presents, but they should be personalised. Unexpected gifts are much better than those given on fixed occasions. The question is: why do we need roses? Why do we feel good when we buy fresh flowers every day? Why don’t we feel the same about a potted plant? Although there is also an overproduction of potted plants which is perpetuated by the hype about evergreen plants like succulents.
Is this hype not a form of escape? More and more people are moving into dense cities where they feel trapped, long for a green environment and end up buying flowers.
Yes. At the same time this hype caters to the idea that you can afford plants and flowers – along with many other things. Over a century ago only rich and privileged people were able to afford flowers for their homes. This has changed completely. Back home in Berlin I have many plants but I rarely buy them. I cultivate plants buy using cuttings given to me by friends. I find this much nicer and it establishes a connection. Sometimes I bring back plants from the streets which no one cares for any longer. But I never buy cut flowers.
Think about getting native plants instead of the much-hyped ones.
It might be a good thing to invite greenery into our homes and take responsibility for plants by watering them and taking care of them. This can help us to better understand nature. On the other hand, we rarely know where our potted plants come from and what they need in order to survive. Most succulents are not from Europe, but were "put into slavery” in far off countries. Think about getting native plants instead of the much-hyped ones. Native plants have their own charm, even though pansies are perhaps not so attractive!
Please tell us a bit more about your second project.
For this I am in the midst of making an experimental movie, where I examine the European view of botanical illustrations. Who has sovereignty over plants? Who is allowed to classify them? Who is allowed to draw and name them? I am very interested in the Buchanan Hamilton collection from the botanist and explorer of the same name. In this collection I discovered drawings from an Indian illustrator whose name is unknown. His pictures are beautiful and look much like European illustrations.
Is this the (post-) colonialism of the plant world? The subject seems to connect both of your projects.
In a way it is. The western world thinks it has a right to own exotic plants without questioning that notion. You can link that attitude to colonialism – one part of the world thinks it is worth more than the other one. Wealthier countries’ needs are catered to, while others are exploited. That’s how both my projects are connected. But we are now at a point where we can't continue like this. We can change the way we think; we can act differently. But we have to be aware of this issue. I hope that my projects and engagement with these topics draw attention to these issues.
The residency takes place from 01 May – 23 July 2019
Future events with Sonya Schönberger:
21 July 2019, Green Thoughts in a Green Shade
25 July 2019, An Evening on Roses
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