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  • Writer's pictureLucelle Pillay

Ecospheres at JCAF: Worldmaking

Updated: Jun 17

Figure 1. Lucelle viewing 'Insurgicias Botanicas'. 2017.  Garrido-Lecca at JCAF.

Photo courtesy of Lucelle Bernadette Pillay.

I had the immense pleasure of attending the latest exhibition at the Johannesburg Contemporary Art Foundation. Fast becoming my favourite 'visual art - research' destination, JCAF has once again provided local audiences with a slice of the 'global cultural imagination'. What a treat and totally immersive experience it was! Browse their site at or download the Web Reader at Tackling the pertinent issues of ecology, climate change, environment and the natural world, artists visually articulate their 'making' and 'living' processes through artistic practice. 'Focusing on three atmospheres of water, air and earth, artists conceptualise works which incorporate aspects of narrative , migration and indigenous knowledge. Ecospheres is an intricate tapestry of hydroponics, oceanic-inspired textiles, botanic photography, sound and meditative paintings of migratory birds' (

Figure 2. The Other Side of Dreaming. 2024. Rebecca Potterton. Mural at exhibit entrance.

Photo courtesy of Lucelle Bernadette Pillay

Upon entry is the mural entitled, 'The Other Side of Dreaming', it reflects a fantastical portrayal of various terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. It reminded me of a sticker book I had when I was a child, called 'Naturama', which encouraged learning about all things flora & fauna. Even though some stickers were missing I often flipped through the album to look at the beautifully illustrated images of plants and animals. It is with this almost nieve style of painting that the illustrator, Potterton, draws the viewer into a world from which we (humans), have extracted our presence. The mural emphasises the delicate balance of life and sustainability amongst all earthly organisms. Their existence linked by the invisible threads of 'cause and effect', amplified in contemporary theory of the 'Anthropocene'. "The Anthropocene requires drastic shifts in the way that human activity is measured in relation to planetary systems. Heralded as the current geological epoch, the Anthropocene now pervades public debate, governance, and scholarly discourses" (Barry & Keane:2019). Discourse related to the era of the Anthropocene directly attests all climate change and the breakdown of naturally established ecosystems to the activity of man.

Figure 3. Visitors experiencing 'Um dia todos fomos peixes (One day we were all fish)'. 2017.

Ernesto Neto.

Image courtesy of Lucelle Bernadette Pillay

'One day we were all fish' is an immersive installation, consisting of intricately woven net, infused with spices. Visitors explore the inner sanctum of the sculpture, whilst the play of light forms lacy cobwebs on the floor and faces. The sensory power of the piece lies in the heady scent of exotic spices that hangs in the air and seemed to permeate the entire exhibition space. Ropes weighted with semi-precious gems extend from ceiling to floor, they appear like the skeletal system of an aquatic organism. It is with childlike awe that I navigated through the artwork, like a secret environment created by the artist.

Figure 4. (Left to right) Ankober.2007 (Photograph); Afar II. 2020 (Photograph). Michael Tsegaye. Time Flies. 2004-2021 (Acrylic & pencil on paper). Sutupa Biswas; Thunderstorm Typology. 2021 (Ink on Canvas); Cloud Tower. 2023

(Ink on paper, acid-free board, dowel sticks, wood, copper wire, plywood, rock). Jonah Sack.

Image courtesy of Lucelle Bernadette Pillay

Ankober and Afar II are from a series of photographs of Addis Ababa, an environment plaqued by recurring droughts. A misty haze veils the depth of field and becomes a subject in itself. Anonymous beings hover like ghosts or wandering spirits moving silently between worlds. The atmospheric desolateness created by the artist is palpable.

Time Flies is a beautiful collection of paintings and drawings of migratory birds. Upon first glance it appears like an avian visual catalogue, however the personalised portrayals of each specie, seem to hearken to something more intimate. The birds, each housed within its own frame, some real and some imagined, speak to a metaphor of diasporic movement. They mimic the style of Indian miniatures and European paintings done during the time of the British Raj. In contrast to their cheerful colours the bird studies imbue the memory and generational loss experienced by forced migration.

Thunderstorm Typology and Cloud Tower presents like a human data visualisation based on observing weather patterns and clouds. A playful and personal visual language in the form of symbols. The artist seeks patterns within the complex theatre of nature, then depicts a translated, minimalistic order of coded shapes.

Figure 5. (Left to right). Transtidal. 2022 (Gouache, watercolour and ink on paper). Rithika Merchant; uNa’kaMzingisi (Mzingisi’s Mother). 2024 (Glazed earthenware). Zizipho Poswa; Kai tus tu (Great rain rain). 2023 (Copper wire)

Bronwyn Katz.

Image courtesy of Lucelle Bernadette Pillay

Transtidal explores common narratives that tether human folklore from various regions. The artist's imagery combines symbolic creatures, oceans and rivers, in order to speak to the Bede community. Peoples whose lives and cosmology are intrinsically linked to water and the seasonal flooding that occurs. Due to climate change, these ancient livelihoods have been forever altered.

Mzingisi's Mother is a large-scale ceramic sculpture that holds a warmth and feminine energy. Composed of coiled pots, receptacles of Xhosa tradition, the artwork echoes the sustaining quality of water and the sacred reverence for the mother-figure.

Great Rain Rain is a delicate installation of copper wire strands that mesmerises the viewer with the sparkling play of light. Resembling the ethereal nature of rain on the earth, the artist uses her medium as a 3D drawing that captures light and casts linear shadows. Concepts of memory and trauma are embedded in the whisper of land and the horizon.

Figure 6. (Left to right) Botanical Portraits. Unearthed. 2008-2017 (Archival pigment ink on Hahnemühle fine art bamboo paper). Russell Scott. Karikpo Pipeline. 2015 (5-channel video with sound). Zina Saro-Wiwa. Seeds from the Streets to the Seas. 2019 (Sound). Zayaan Khan & Coila- Leah Enderstein. Ecosistemas Mater (Mater Ecosystem). 2024. (Installation). Mater Iniciativa.

Image Courtesy of Lucelle Bernadette Pillay

Botanical Portraits are part of a series that comprises over 250 studio images of plants indigenous to Southern Africa. The artist has meticulously visually recorded indigenous plants, bulbs and tubers, some that are slowly declining in numbers. Each specimen is staged with a meticulous aesthetic concern for form, colour and detail.

In Karikpo Pipeline, performance is superimposed onto the visible and invisible remnants of oil infrastructure in Ogoniland, Nigeria. The traditional dancers create a tension between the indigenous custodianship and the brutality of urban capitalism.

Seeds from the Streets to the Seas is a collaborative sound installation about land, food and seed. Working across several forms and disciplines the artists explore aspects of listening, power and subjectivity.

Mater Ecosystem consists of various practitioners involved in interdisciplinary research focused on a deeper understanding of ingredients, nature and cultures. They explore the connections between indigenous knowledge and the yields of the earth.

Figure 7. Insurgencias botánicas: Phaseolus lunatus (Botanical insurgencies: Phaseolus lunatus). 2017 (Hydroponic installation of Phaseolus Lunatus; table; grid with harvested Phaseolus Lunatus seeds and engraved fragment of Extirpación de la Idolatría del Pirú by the priest Pablo José Arriaga) (from the chapter “Edicto contra la idolatría”); hand-painted mural with the “translation” of the text.

Ximena Garrido Lecca.

Image courtesy of Lucelle Bernadette Pillay

Botanical insurgencies: Phaseolus lunatus is a hydroponic garden cultivated by the artist. It was my favourite installation, and I would have loved to spend more time looking at the young plants spiral toward the sun. The space was enlivened by life, it felt like a cathedral as your eyes are drawn upward to the altar of light. The artwork is a curation of the preciousness of growth and photosynthesis, the silence allows the viewer a spiritual contemplation of how the earth sustains us. The artist grows a specific bean plant and is of the belief that Peruvian varieties were used in a system of written communication of the Moche culture, a pre-Incan civilization that developed advanced irrigation systems between 100 and 850 CE. A mural indicating the characteristic markings of each harvested bean was reminiscent of an ancient code or alphabet.

Figure 8. The Reading Room. 2024. Wolff Architects

(Commissioned by JCAF within the theme, 'World Making').

Photo courtesy of Lucelle Bernadette Pillay

Wolff architects describe the room as “a table with walls, a library without shelves or a room in a room”. A safe space wrapped in seamless cork cladding with frosted lanterns, it fosters conversations and social engagements. Devoid of sharp edges, The Reading Room promotes reflection and pause.

List of References

JCAF. Ecospheres. 31 May - 7 Dec. ( (Accessed 15/06/2024).

Barry & Keane. 2019. Creative Measures of the Anthropocene: Art, Mobilities and Participatory Geographies. Palgrave. ( Accessed 15/06/2024.

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