The political product of playfully painting public spaces
with Kylie Wentzel
Seasoned with a lingering nostalgia seen in scenes depicting outdoor weddings, chaotic school outings, garden-themed birthday parties and impromptu romantic picnics, The Botanic Garden by Kylie Wentzel acknowledges nature’s capacity to both hold and take up space, demanding as much care as it offers. This week’s Re:View examines the impact her graphic and intuitive approach to mark-making has on the artist’s messaging.
While curating for the Durban Botanic Gardens in 2016, Martin Clement once referred to his horticultural practice as contributing towards legacy building. “A well-established public garden such as the Durban Botanic Gardens is blessed with rich legacies that continue to inspire… However, legacy is not only visible through people who are no longer with us, it is being continually created, often in a quiet and humble manner.” Enter Kylie Wentzel.
Graphic and intuitive Wentzel’s approach to mark-making is intentionally loose and waggish. A nod to elementary investigations of pigment of surfaces (whether they are paper, canvas or walls) her practice embraces a childlike sincerity to tackle a world where cookie-cut social performances have become a prerequisite.
Raised in a middle-class suburb on a street that didn’t embrace aesthetic conventions, Wentzel unknowingly internalised the things she encountered in her everyday. While making her way home from school or hanging in the neighbourhood seeing an almost life-size policeman shaped postbox and a “multiple Mercedes owning gangster of sorts” were normal. “I think those are all things I’d be inclined to paint in some form or the other so I’m certain the environment had a hand in shaping my practice,” she says.
Unleashed in the Durban Botanic Gardens, Wentzel’s practice prioritises neglected perceptions of the space.
Balloons in a Screw Pine Tree. A quiet place to argue. A Savoury Platter and the Smell of Goose Poo. Perceived together, one after the other, titles from Wentzel’s show read like a nursery rhyme based on a game of I spy with my little eye.
A thread running through her practice, The Botanic Garden also references Wentzel’s navigation of public spaces from when she first encountered them in her childhood to her current negotiations with them. “I’ll often just pick out a specific location that interests me and observe what stands out within and then that inspires the work.” In 2019, her exhibition SWEAT was based on Durban’s central business district. In 2021, shortly thereafter, SALT referenced Durban’s beachfront. Then in 2022, FLEAMARKET presented a study on Durbans’ market place. “These are all public spaces within my hometown. But I think beyond that, they also highlight the elements of these places that gently elbow you to take another look.”
Based on a place she visited a fair amount during her childhood, The Botanic Gardens went from being where she indulged in “giant scones with cream and jam” to an oasis located at the centre of a very busy and developed area. “I love to see the ways in which people and animals show up together or in solitude in what is considered Durban’s oldest public institution.”
Sitting on 15 hectares, in the heart of Berea on the east coast of KwaZulu-Natal, the Durban Botanic Gardens is a 174 year-old public institution. The oldest of its kind on the continent, its existence speaks to humanity’s ability to support, protect and preserve in spite of the more mainstream destructive nature we have become known for.