Three years after closing its doors during the COVID-19 pandemic, Western’s greenhouses and botanical gardens have reopened, providing the ‘perfect’ gallery for an art history student exhibit.
The installation, on display in the Tropical House – the largest glasshouse in the greenhouse complex – stems from a budding collaboration between the departments of visual arts and biology.
When Ira Kazi, a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, reached out to Carrie Hamilton, Biology facilities manager, to organize a tour for Kazi’s Nature in Early Modern Art course, Hamilton saw an opportunity to collaborate even further.
“Art and biology can be somewhat synonymous,” Hamilton said. “The campus greenhouses are still a bit unknown and often overlooked, so I thought this would be a really good union to elevate and bring more visibility to work in both our areas.”
Kazi, who also hoped to see the relationship between the two departments grow to include collaborative ventures, jumped at the chance.
“The concept of the botanical garden was invented in the Italian Renaissance,” Kazi said. “As a Renaissance invention with interest in green spaces, plant cultivation and collection during that time and onwards, it seemed like the perfect project to create an art history exhibition inside the idyllic but overlooked botanical gardens on campus.”
The result is Locus Amoenus: The Garden of Verdant Delights.
The show presents the garden as locus amoneus (Latin for ‘pleasant place’) with Kazi’s third-year art history students reframing and reimagining early modern green spaces and how they connect to present-day issues, places and art practices.
Pedagogy and pleasure
“The students were inspired by Western’s botanical gardens as both a site of pedagogy and pleasure,” Kazi said, noting these ideals were central to the botanical gardens originating in 16th century Pisa, Padua and Florence.
As well as offering sites for contentment and contemplation, Renaissance gardens were associated with universities, where students could learn about botany and plant life.
“As botanical gardens grew, the general public focused on the ‘pleasure’ aspect,’” Kazi said, “But they are still very much a site of research.”
Research is one of three areas driving Western’s greenhouses’ mandate, along with teaching and outreach.
“We provide materials for the biology courses, but we offer our resources to the campus at large, not just to people studying biology,” Hamilton said. “Both Julia Nowak, (greenhouse horticultural technician) and (horticulture specialist) Aixia Wang, are very knowledgeable and can help anyone with questions about growing and caring for plants.”
Supporting sustainable practices
The exhibit, running until April 26, contains seven works exploring issues such as plant migration, sustainability, ecofeminism and the legacy of plant specimen illustrations.
Arthur Mustard Thompson, a history student who received special permission to take Kazi’s course, said his work focuses on the “development of the English garden during the Early Modern Period and its uses for medicinal healing and food production, and, of course, beauty.”
“I really wanted to highlight the practical uses of these gardens. During this period, aesthetic concerns were often an afterthought, which is so contrary to contemporary perspectives. Plants and beauty are inextricably linked and, for millennia, humans have been fascinated with trying to depict plants in art. We’re now moving more into the idea of plants as living art,” he said.
He’s also enjoyed being part of a show that’s helping bring people back to the greenhouse.
“For three years, they’ve been unable to have any guests. We see this exhibit as announcing their re-entry back into the public sphere.”
Kazi and her students curated the exhibit with sustainable practices in mind, eliminating the use of vinyl, plastic and large posters.
“We care about the impact our footprint has on the planet and want the experience of visiting the greenhouse to be uninterrupted by us, as the artists and curator,” Kazi said.
“We want visitors to experience the art, but more importantly, we want them to experience the botanical garden that most people don’t know exists on campus.” – Ira Kazi, PhD candidate and instructor, Nature in Early Modern Art
Kazi already imagines the possibilities of future collaborations with the Hamilton and her team.
“This has been an amazing experience for me and the students. I’m really grateful we got to work with the people here directly and had them share their knowledge with us. People may not at first think that biology and art history are connected, but we really are, from plant specimen drawings to various forms of contemporary art,” she said.
Hamilton is happy to welcome students looking for a respite from studying, and the community at large back to a place that “re-centres us and provides a nice little break from it all.”
“I hope this exhibit reminds people we’re here and open for all to enjoy,” she said. “We look forward to working with other faculties to broaden our output in the Western community and beyond.”
The exhibition runs until April 26, 2023. Entrance to the Tropical House is via the biological and geological sciences building, loading dock #7. Operating hours: Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.
A complementary exhibit, Into the Garden: Jamelie Hassan and Ron Benner in Oaxaca, Mexico, also curated by Kazi, along with her supervisor Cody Barteet, is currently on view on the main floor of D.B. Weldon Library.