Edinburgh Art Festival: Keg de Souza at Royal Botanic Gardens

One writer reflects on Keg de Souza's exhibition at Edinburgh's Royal Botanic Garden, which examines the legacies of colonialism on the global south's natural ecologies

Article by Shalmali Shetty | 03 Oct 2023
  • Keg de Souza, Blue Haze, 2023, installation view.

The strong, familiar aroma of eucalyptus lingers in the air as I walk into the first gallery of Inverleith House at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh. It was an amalgamation of not only the eucalyptus, but also my memories associated with it – of tropical monsoons, light ailments, gulping down a glass of warm turmeric milk, a gentle rub of the eucalyptus or Nilgiri oil stored in a small glass vial (a common home-remedy). Nilgiri oil is often associated with the Nilgiri Hills, located in a stretch of the Western Ghats in Southern India, a biodiversity hotspot and home to an abundant yet depleting species of flora and fauna. Having grown up in the foothills of the Ghats, I have observed how much has been lost ecologically, and as a result, culturally. The slow erasure and abandonment of local customs, conservation practices and indigenous knowledge systems that otherwise honoured, commemorated and safeguarded nature have led to further degradation of the environment. 

Shipping Roots showcases artist Keg de Souza’s long-term research-based project, conducted during her residency at the RBGE throughout 2022. The immersive installation spreads across six rooms in Inverleith House, complete with overhanging dried leafy eucalyptus branches, breezy batik-dyed silk canopies, carved wooden furniture, scent diffusers, soundworks, technical studies, botanical drawings, illustrations, prints, archival documents, tools and maps. A reading room and a play space create an opportunity for visitors of all backgrounds to engage more deeply with the research, as does the publication that accompanies the exhibition – a particularly thoughtful compilation of essays, stories, conversations and recipes.

The artist offers a wealth of interconnected historical narratives, which create the potential to delve into various lines of inquiry. One such parallel I was particularly drawn to raised concerns around naming and identification, in relation to both plants and people. A series of botanical illustrations are attributed to Govindoo and Rungiah, two artists associated with the Thanjavur School of India—among a plethora of works attributed to Unknown artist or an Anonymous Indian artist—who were employed by the Scottish surgeon Robert Wight (1796 - 1872), during his service with the East India Company. These works shed light on the artistic exchange and influences, hierarchical structures within ateliers, and colonial patronage. 

De Souza is of Australian origin and Goan Indian ancestry. She draws from her own lived experiences of growing up as a settler in unceded Aboriginal territories away from her own colonised homeland. She relates these experiences to the colonial practice of uprooting, displacing and reintroducing plant species (amongst other things) to unfamiliar environments—with their intentions and experiments either succeeding or failing, causing long term environmental impacts on these landscapes. This is reflected in the exploration of plant journeys in accordance with the colonial histories and legacies of long-established global shipping routes connecting the British Empire to their colonies of Australia and India. My recalling of fond memories began to shift, as I gradually comprehended the exhibition’s layered narratives to uncover the underlying horrors of colonial trade associated with using specific plant species to produce cash crops to feed rapidly-growing industries. 

de Souza's research is communicated in a series of untold and lesser-known stories that delineate and lay bare the gravity of the ongoing effects of colonialism on not just cultures and communities, but also indigenous lands, ecologies and biodiversity. This research culminates in three related projects shown as part of this exhibition. The first, Blue Haze is named for the bluish mist that hovers over the Blue Mountain, a literal translation of ‘Nilgiri’. This traced the history of the Eucalyptus plant native to Australia and its introduction to India and other parts of the world for economical benefits. However, this led to ecological damage due to its rapid spread and use of water tables, which outstripped other plant species.

Meanwhile, Green Hell delves into the history of the invasive Prickly Pear cacti of the Opuntia genus that was imported from Mexico to the colony of New South Wales, Australia. This move stemmed from the British Empire’s race against the Spanish to breed cochineal insects, which were essential for producing the carmine dye extracted from them. However, their failed experiments both in Australia and India resulted in long-term repercussions on traditional ecosystems. The third project, Fleece Fugitives, explores the ways in which ‘alien’ seeds and crops would have travelled via indirect and unintended channels—such as through the transportation of sheep fleece from the colonies to feed the growing wool industry in Scotland. The wool waste or 'shoddy' often carried seedlings, which would eventually be responsible for the dispersion of these crops in Scottish landscapes.

Today, the Nilgiri has transformed into a popular tourist destination oblivious to its past. The Western Ghats, meanwhile, continues to serve as a habitat for locally cultivated crops, alongside others such as tobacco, tea and cocoa introduced more recently by the Portuguese and the British. The variety of these foodstuffs is deeply embedded in culinary systems and medicinal traditions; it’s not often that one recognizes the historical origins of certain practices, customs, or even dietary systems that we tend to assume have been native to the region for generations. For instance, while certain items like 'batate' for 'potato' and 'ananas' for 'pineapple' retain their original names (possibly derived from Portuguese), others like 'parangikai' (meaning 'papaya' in a local set of languages) literally translates to ‘fruit of the firangis’ (Arabic for Franks, or foreigners). Despite the reminders of their foreign origins, these items have now become localised and integrated into the food system. Perhaps it is not a complete erasure and abandonment of local customs and traditions then, but a gradual replacement, in response to the prevailing conditions of their respective times.

Shalmali Shetty is a writer, curator and artist based between Glasgow, UK and Mangalore, India. Her research interests include themes of archives, memories and material culture studies. She intends to coalesce her backgrounds in art practice and theory in the production of the curatorial.

Keg de Souza: Shipping Roots, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh; run ended. The themes examined in Shipping Roots can be further explored in Connecting Histories at the RBG’s John Hope Gateway Gallery, until 14 April 2024.