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Contours Visual Arts

“Botany of Death, Botany of Life” by Uriel Orlow at the Musée Théodore Monod d’art Africain [Dakar]

This project emerges from a residency in 2020, at The Théodore Monod Museum of African Art of the Institut Fondamental d’Afrique Noire of the University of Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar, in collaboration with the École des beaux-arts de Nantes Saint-Nazaire (France).
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Uriel Orlow website

Dakar Biennale

19 May - 21 June 2022

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Swiss artist Uriel Orlow was invited to create a new installation for the exhibition Teg Bët Gëstu Gi, curated by Hadji Malick Ndiaye and Emmanuelle Chérel at the Musée Théodore Monod d’art Africain in the context of the Dakar Biennale from 19 May to 21 June 2022.

Teg Bët Gëstu Gi, which means “to see” or “to touch with the eyes” in Wolof, explores objects in the museum’s permanent collection, and forms part of the long-term research project Ateliers de troubles épistémologiques. The project revisits notions of heritage, museographic concepts and theories of knowledge, inviting the creation of works that interact with scientific approaches and traditional knowledge that have been neglected or even discredited (botanical, medical, artisanal, aesthetic, linguistic, spiritual, mathematical), while initiating collaborations with many actors in Senegalese society.

Developed during a research residency earlier this year, Uriel’s new project Botany of Death, Botany of Life (2020-2022) consists of a video and a garden that engages with artefacts from the collection of the Musée Théodore Monod which are intimately connected with plants: woven baskets used to collect plants, mortar and pestle used to process leaves and roots for medicinal use or sachets of plants worn by warriors to bring them luck… Objects that testify to our entanglement with the vegetal world and that evoke the spiritual and medicinal powers of plants.

The project takes its title from the short film Les statues meurent aussi (1953), which begins with the sentence: “When men are dead, they enter history. When statues are dead, they enter art. This botany of death is what we call culture.” The collection of the Musée Théodore Monod in Dakar, like those of other museums that emerged out of the European colonial project, house objects that were once part of living cultures and everyday practices. Eloquent objects that harbour memories of gestures and stories of ‘savoir faire’ are rendered inert and mute. In response to this, Uriel’s project asks: How can we revive these objects? How can we give them back a voice, reconnect them to life, tradition and the present? How can we overcome the symbolic and epistemic violence of their decontexutalisition, their museification? How can we set them free?

The video follows the working practices of the traditional Hopital Keur Massar, outside of Dakar. Founded by Professor Yvette Parès, trained in biology, plant physiology, soil microbiology and medicine, and who became a disciple of the Fula healer Dadi Diallo. Today the Traditional Hospital Keur Massar is a day hospital for traditional medicine, a pharmacy, a laboratory, a botanical garden, a school and a training centre. The plants cultivated, collected, processed and used embody gestures of collaborations between humans and plants, and a dialogue between tradition and the present.

Outside the museum walls, Botany of Care (2020-2022) is a medicinal garden conceived and developed jointly by Uriel and Ariane Leblanc. Initiated in 2020 and carried out in collaboration with the Hôpital Traditionel de Keur Massar and pupils from local schools, various medicinal plants were planted in the midst of the largely ornamental museum garden, proposing to interrogate scientific classifications and methods of transmission. Allowing for a parallel reading of the garden and disturbing the distinction between the aesthetic and the useful as well as the imposed forms of classification of the natural world, Botany of Care focuses on plants as agents with their own culinary, spiritual and healing powers, inscribed in a cosmological continuity between humans and nature. Through the words of local actors, knowledge of these plants will be spread in the vicinity of the museum. Through workshops and other forms of community engagement with the use of plants, the garden seeks to revive intangible but essential modes of oral transmission that are often overshadowed by scientific discourse and nomenclature.