Apnavi Makanji’s body of work, spread across the mediums of drawings, installations and videos, is an investigation of the ideas on memory, botany, and ecology. The Geneva-based artist examines environmental justice through the lens of botany, elaborating on how colonial practices have aggravated environmental destruction for centuries. The results are beautiful pieces articulating the idea that environmental justice and social justice are inextricably linked and we cannot consider one without the other. The Cultivist spoke with them to learn about their connection to botany and gain more knowledge on the inspiration behind their practice.
The Cultivist: Your practice is heavily inspired by memory, botany, and ecology. What initially drew you to focus on these subjects?
Apnavi Makanji: I'm interested in the ideas that lie at the intersection of botany, memory and ecology. All three subjects are at the core of my practice and through these, I attempt to portray the devastating impact of human intervention from the point of view of other species such as plants.
I want to explore botany outside of institutional didactics by seeing plants as non-human witnesses to an anthropocentric and post-anthropocentric world.
The Cultivist: How does memory play a key role in your work?
Apnavi Makanji: Memory comes into play by way of the collective memory, which narrates histories of colonization that legitimized the exploitation of indigenous people and land for the sake of profit. The narrative of colonialism has changed in the last couple of decades - while previously Nation States were exploiting the global south, today we see large corporations inflicting violence on indigenous people and extracting resources from the land on a massive scale.
The Cultivist: Can you tell us about your series at the Geneva botanical garden and what inspired you to expand it over the years?
Apnavi Makanji: I have been documenting plants at the Conservatoire et Jardin Botaniques de Genève since 2018. My sole intention while photographing the plants, was to deliberately not make a distinction between the plants that hold an illustrious place in the collection and the weeds that grow despite the effort to keep the garden as pristine as possible. The idea was to juxtapose the photographs I took of the weeds and the collected plants by way of collages, in order to visually erase the man-made distinctions around the species. What began as an experimental exercise, grew to become a series on these extraordinary plants and the artifice of their environment, which protects them from an otherwise hostile and alien climate. I like the idea of regularly documenting the evolution of these plants over the years.
The Cultivist: How do you want the viewer to feel when experiencing your work?
Apnavi Makanji: I realize that my work may come across as aesthetically pleasing, having said that, there's a clear indication of death - a subject that also feeds my practice. One needs to get past the aesthetic aspect, I think, to access that depth and then it glares you in the face. It's undeniable. I don't have any particular expectations but I try to provide a layered experience for the viewer.
The Cultivist: What is the most fascinating thing you have learned about plants through your extensive research?
Apnavi Makanji: Truly everything about plants is fascinating. For instance, the Japanese knotweed (Reynoutria Japonica) - a plant native to Japan - was introduced to Europe as an ornamental plant in the 1800s. From a single cutting initially brought to Europe then, it is now one of the most invasive species in Europe and the UK. I'm fascinated by the resilience and adaptability of plants to different environments.
Last year, during my residency at the Geneva botanical garden, I discovered that the library owned the original 12 volumes of the Hortus Indicus Malabaricus; a mammoth treatise (published in Amsterdam in 1678) on the medicinal properties of plants indigenous to the Malabar coast of India. Each volume contains approximately 500 pages with 794 copper plate engravings spread through the 12 volumes. This incredible documentation was conceived by an officer of the Dutch East India Company - Hendrik Van Rheede and co-authored by Itty Achutan Vaidyan (b. circa 1640, Kerala), an Ayurvedic physician and local authority on plants used for medicinal and culinary purposes. The labor-intensive treatise took over 30 years to complete. It stands at number one on my list of extraordinary books.
The Cultivist: Have you learned anything about yourself through your practice?
Apnavi Makanji: I've developed a keen sense of observation through my practice. The contemplation of plants and trees brings with it a certain humility in the face of species that have existed way before our own and will most likely continue to exist after we cease to exist.
-- Words by Emma Casey
A limited issue of Apnavi Makanji's artwork will be included in welcome packages for Cultivist-level members as part of our ongoing Artist Edition Series.