Artistic Research Project at Middelheim Museum / Discussion between Wendy Morris and curator Pieter Boons

In residence at Middelheim Museum, Wendy Morris is exploring how knowledge of plant-based contraception has been passed down clandestinely for centuries. Curator Pieter Boons spoke with the artist about the many themes in her work: about our lost relationship with plants, about contraception, loss of language and personal connections to histories of enslavement.

P: But you don’t work alone. You are working in or as a Company. Who is the Company?

First of all the name of the ‘Company’ refers to the Dutch East India Company, the VOC, it is an underside of that 17th century Company. It exists in its shadow, as you can’t unwrite history nor the dominant place the VOC has taken in violently shaping parts of the world.

The word ‘company’ also relates to ‘accompany’. This means to ‘share bread together’ (com pane). So this Company is intended as an inclusive entity, one that folds in and is together-with, and those that are folded in are organs (the wandering womb, the writing hand, the listening ear), elements (wind) spirit-beings (ancestors) and plants.

There came a point about five years ago when I stopped wanting to make drawn films and of putting out work made by Wendy Morris. I wanted to explore different kinds of practice, working anonymously for instance, rejecting ideas of fixed authorship.  The first idea to come out of this was of ‘Muriel’ as a contingent identity. I imagined that under the name Muriel I could share an audio or written work and invite another artist to absorb it into their own work. I wanted to send an idea out into the world and not control what it became.  Muriel emerged out of three Muriel’s in family history – one of whom left a suitcase of a thousand letters under her bed, an archive which is now in my studio.

Then when the ‘Nothing of Importance occurred’ project was evolving I realized that I wanted to make this story through multiple perspectives and the idea of working as a collective started to grow.  This has become the Company. Muriel is ‘Emissary to the Past’, writing from, and altering, the archives.  The figure of the Wandering Womb emerged as I dug back into histories of old herbals and writings on gynecology going back to Dioscorides and the ancient Greeks. Descriptions of the female body as ‘faulty’ were ubiquitous. The womb was likened to a demon within the body, one that could not be driven out but only ordered to return to its rightful place. It was described as an organ that would go in search of moisture if it was not frequently impregnanted. And I thought, well if the womb wants to travel, let her travel. I invented the Travelogue of the Wandering Womb. Her Fantastic Encounters and Curious Utterings.  

Orlando Preternaturalist emerged just prior to the lockdown of 2020. I had a studio in the ‘t Gasthuys in Aalst and was working towards an Aalst herbarium for the museum’s medicinal garden. The studio turned out to link the staff offices with the museum and there was constant traffic passing through. Given the political climate in Aalst at the time, I was not wanting to make it publicly known that this herbarium consisted exclusively of plants with histories as abortifacients. I realised that it might be wise to work on two levels, the one openly – medicinal plants – and the other covertly – abortifacients.  Orlando became the covert herbalist. Wendy was the overt herbalist. Orlando is an amalgam of a number of figures, literary and historical, who had been pressing into the studio imagination. There is Virginia Woolf’s gender-changing, time-traveling character Orlando based on her lover Vita Sackville-West. There is Jeanne Baret, (for whom we are making a banner in the Procession) the herb-women and botanist who had to present herself as a man to work as botanical assistant aboard the ship l’Etoile. There is a great-uncle Orlando Giddy about whose book of English Landscapes I once made a film. There is Maria Sibylla Merien, the first woman to travel in her own name for her science.

I, the EAR was the last entity to emerge. EAR listens for the unsaid and the unheard and is attuned to radio waves and voices of the wind.

The creation of the Company has been an act of dissolving of a central ego, the artist.  It allows different kinds of imaginative work. It allows fictionalising. It makes possible the imagining of  a midwife ancestor as a spirit-being and the possibility of journeying with her  from Cape Town to Luanda.  

P: Can you elaborate a bit more on your interest to the VOC?

That ancestor midwife previously mentioned was Maaij Claasje, and Angolan enslaved by the VOC in the 17th century. She was one of five hundred captives aboard a  Portuguese slaving ship sailing from Luanda to Bahia, Brazil. The captain of a Dutch East India Company (VOC), also in search of slave labour, hijacked the vessel and transferred 250 of the captives aboard its own ship and continued onto the Cape of Good Hope. The Heeren XVII insisted the strongest of the captives be sent onwards to their Batavia, now Jakarta. Of those who were left at the Cape, most were children.  Claesje was 12 years old. She lived into her 80s, spending almost all of her life in the slave lodge, Cape Town.  

P: How were you able to trace back this ancestor?

Some years back I set out a project outline called Points of Departure. I wanted to understand why my forebears left Europe to migrate to South Africa. ? Were they forced out? Did they choose to leave?  What were the pushes and pulls? I wasn’t interested in them individually but rather in the demographics of that time. Why did these people migrate away from Europe? The first work I made in that project was ‘Heir to the Evangelical Revival’ in which I explored English protestant missionaries and religious settlers who migrated to the Cape 1820s. Then I followed Huguenots forebears who were persecuted for their Calvinist beliefs and fled France in the 17th century.  They took up the VOC offer of passage to the Cape and grants of land to farm. This work became Off by Heart and Out of Breath.  

On a family tree that traced my father’s grandmother’s family back to the the 17th century there was only one ‘unknown’ female ancestor. Why did this woman have no name? I knew her daughter was called ‘Sara van Gijselen’ and I looked her up in online genealogy websites. She also appears as Sara van de Kaap – the ‘de Kaap’ referring to a person born in the slave lodge. Her mother’s name appeared as Maaij Claesje van Angola.

I quite quickly found three documents relating to her. The first was the report of how she was brought to the Cape. The second was notice of her death in 1731 that was in the day journal of a VOC official at the Cape. He wrote about the day: ‘Nothing of importance occurred. An old slave woman, Maaij Claesje, died in the slave lodge’. That ‘nothing of importance occurred’ became the title of the project and I resolved to show the contrary. The third document was the most important for it revealed Maaij Claesje to have been midwife in the slave lodge, to have agreed to travel to Jakarta to assist a Dutch woman with the birth of her child, and to demand and get her emancipation for providing that service. It allowed a glimpse of agency on the part of Maaij Claesje.

P: There is a banner you made for Maaij Claasje in the procession. How important is it to have this banner in the procession?

The story of Maaij Claesje is the heart of the whole project. This procession of contraceptive plants is an iteration of the project in Europe, in Belgium, in Middelheim. But the investigation into histories of contraceptive and abortive plants starts with trying to imagine what Maaij Claesje, an enslaved midwife in the 17th century, knew.  Because there are no narratives by enslaved individuals in South Africa – even through the country was built on slavery –  we have to adopt a speculative lens and investigate through unconventional ‘archives’. What agency did she have? What could a midwife have known? What could an enslaved midwife be called upon to know?  Enslaved women were coerced into sexual encounters not of their choosing, that is clear.  What agency could they have had to prevent bringing a child into the world, a child that would likewise be enslaved? This is the central question in the project.

It has taken four years to make a work showing her name. It is not her kin name. She would have been given that name, Claesje, when she arrived at the Cape, enslaved to the Dutch VOC. The ‘maaij’ would have been added later when she was an older woman.  The appendage, ‘van Angola’, was given to all the captives brought with her. The context of this procession seems the right one in which to visualise her through this banner. Perhaps afterwards the banner could be used to open up conversations around some of the issues in the project..

P: We’ve talked about ancestors and a quote of you is: ‘I’m interested in ancestors, not in who they are but in ancestral power and how we can use this today.’ What does this mean? Why is Maaij Claasje is so crucial?

Since I started engaging with histories of family I have come to sense that those forebears are not confined to a time past. Rather than a linear understanding of time I have a sense of times entangled. My home studio is filled with the presence of forebears in the form of letters and documents and photographs. The entities of the Company are amalgams of figures from different eras.  I grew up as a white South-African and we did not attend to our ancestors. So somehow dissolving into the Company gives me an allowance to imagine a relationship to this ancestor. And the idea that Maaij Claasje, as an ancestor, is not at rest, and that as unfinished story this presses into my present.

P: The title of your research project in Middelheim ‘A Middelheim herbal for a midwife’. We’ve talked about the midwife and about Middelheim but not so much on the herbal.  What is a herbal?  A herbal is an encyclopedia of plant knowledge that I found on Wikipedia.  Why do you want to activate ‘plant knowledge’?

Because I think we have plant-blindness, we have such a weird relationship to plants. If you look at plants in our gardens, people just put in whatever is available in the nurseries. There is actually no logic in how people treat plants, they’re decoration. People just create fantasies in what they think a garden should look. There’s no real engagement with plants and no memory of how plants were everything to us: we used them to build our houses, they were our medicine and food, we made ropes out of them. We must have had such a close relationship to plants. We’ve delegated this now to industry and lost this personal relationship. It’s very hard to rebuild this, but this is part of the aim of the project in Middelheim: to reactivate an interest: Plants are companions. We share very long histories together. I’m growing quite a few plants for this project, specific plants that have specific histories. The specificity of plants is something that I want to reintroduce.

P: How does it work to be an artist-researcher? You are setting out a field of research but how or when do you engage/decide with a endresult/form. At what moment of your process did it became clear that you wanted to make a procession and how does that influence the process / way of working? If you compare it to film, you already know on the forehand that the final product will be a film.   (49,12 min)

The connection between research and making works is always very close. When I was still making drawn films a realisation would emerge that a work could be made around a certain idea. Once I had the idea that this could be a film, even though I wasn’t sure exactly what this film was going to be, I would start drawing. So the two always went hand in hand. The drawing would come out of the research but would also push me back into it, and so on. Researching and making a work are in constant overlap. And in the films what I thought I started out making was eventually not what the work turned out to be. It is important that the process of research and making is slow, because it allows ideas to become more nuanced and then I realise, no, it’s not that, it has to be this. Slowly the focus emerges. Working on the procession follows a similar trajectory. There is ongoing research around plants that grow at Middelheim and have medicinal and abortive or contraceptive properties and there is ongoing planning and conception of the elements that could become a procession. Even as I am making banners I am continuing the research.

P: One of the main ideas to produce a procession was to bring the work Radio Hush Hush out and to create a momentum around it. So let’s focus a while on this work. It’s an existing work, what is in a nutshell the history  of the work? This version is also an iteration of the work, can you elaborate on this? (51.60)

The work was made during the lockdown for an exhibition at Netwerk Aalst. Radio Hush Hush was one of the works that I made. It is a clandestine radio work set in six finch cages with female voices whispering fragments of recipés and remedies that will control fertility. The knowledge being transmitted in the work – about plant cause abortion – is intentionally fragmentary. The information that has come out of the research often misses crucial elements – specific doses, the part of the plant to be used, the method of extraction, the time of harvesting, narratives by those who had needed the remedies…knowledge that would have been held by those cultivating, collecting, prescribing or using the plants. I wanted to bring this knowledge back into circulation but it needed to be clandestine as there are still  situations or contexts in which abortion cannot be openly discussed. The shape of Radio Hush Hush mimics existing clandestine radio broadcasts in which information is encoded in a particular form that includes buzzes and beeps, a folktune, and sequences of numbers read out. In Radio Hush Hush the folktune is a South African ghoemalied, ‘Suikerbos ek wil jou hê, a song that is claimed as an Afrikaans folk tune but has its origins in Indonesia and was brought to the Cape by enslaved Asians in the 17th century. The audio work is installed in six finch cages used in ‘vinkenzetting’ in Belgium. I have long wanted to make a work that engages with this practice in which chaffinches are held captive to take part in singing contests. The birds cannot see out of the cages – were once even blinded – and are competed for the frequency of their calls. Birds have regional accents and chaffinches that do not grow up in Flanders have a different slotzang or end-flourish to local birds. Only birds with the slotzang ‘suskewiet’ can compete. Foreign birds need to be taught to end their call with ‘suskewiet’. In this I saw a similarity with discussions in Belgium on migration and notions of enforced assimilation. More than that, I was thinking about enslavement in the 17th century, transportation to a foreign environment and subsequent loss of language. In the Cape enslaved individuals trafficked from Asia and other parts of Africa were labelled with their place of origin and then deliberately separated from others from that region so that they could not conspire together.  Out of those many ‘lost’ languages brought to the Cape Afrikaans eventually emerged as a common language containing elements of many tongues.. The finch cages started to emerge as metaphors for entrapment and lost languages.

P: If you jump from Radio Hush Hush to the procession, which elements can we recognize visually or conceptually in these 2 works?

Well, the first idea was to bring the work Radio Hush Hush outdoors in summer to Het Huis pavilion and bring it back inside in winter. This movement could be ritualized in a procession. But I realize that the work is rather cryptic, and I think that in a place like the Middelheim Museum where you have a range of audiences, that it would be interesting to unpack elements of the work and play them out in form of a procession. People who would see the procession and later listen to Radio Hush Hush would slowly start to understand: Oh, it’s about plants, about contraceptive knowledge, about loss of language, enslavement. When they encounter Radio Hush Hush after the procession, they would be a little better prepared to listen and engage with it. One series of banners, the Virtues, and all the living plants in the procession, are plants that are mentioned in Radio Hush Hush.

P: It took you quite some time to call the procession ‘a procession’. Is it a parallel strategy to unravel all the existing strategies and to find out how you can reclaim them?

Everyone has an idea of what a procession might be. Most people have an experience of a procession and in Belgium that is likely to have been a religious procession. My chosen point of reference was Suffragette processions from the beginning of the 2Oth century. Then Veerle Meul suggested that Catholic processionary materials, long out of use and moulding in church towers, might be available to rework into this procession. When the first materials arrived my chief interest was in working out how they were put together, literally how a banner would fit on the poles. The next concern was how to recuperate them but to create an aesthetic that was not determined by their provenance. 

P: How does it make you feel when you take this sacred garments apart?

These materials don’t have a ritual value for me as I don’t connect to the religious aspect. Even in my childhood I was already an atheist and I have a deep antipathy towards organized religion and the Catholic church. I am quite enjoying taking these religious objects apart and working them into banners that carry  very different messages. There is a kind of pleasure in doing that. Initially I wanted to work only with upcycled elements like second hand fabrics from Kringloopwinkels but the church materials have an aesthetic quality that is very ‘lush’ and super nice to work with as raw material. I’m using them only in small quantities and mixing them with the upcycled fabrics.

P: What do you hope the procession will do with the audience?

This is something that we are still thinking through. There are banners that refer to plant knowledge and banners that refer to individuals, there are living plants and there are companies of journeywomen, scolds and midwives. The cumulated effect should be a collaging of stories and histories that merge with the park itself. I want it to surprise and excite. I want it to draw attention to the park in unexpected ways. I want the participants in the procession to feel connected to the park, the plants and the histories.

P: So that’s why you end up in the format of a procession as it has a common thing that binds the group of participants.


P: You’ve also invited a dramaturg: Tunde Adefioye. Why did you invite him, is he part of the company? What are you hoping to realise with him?

I wanted to work with Tunde for a some time. He is interested in spoken word performance and spoken word as a form of transmission of plant knowledge is integral to the project. I also wanted to work with a dramaturg who has a global understanding of the histories involved.  To return to the person of Maaij Claesje, it is important to me that the dramaturg is invested in bringing such marginalised histories into the light. That is as important as understanding how plant knowledge that benefitted women has been sidelined through the centuries. Maaij Claesje is at the heart of the project, the plant project grew out of a desire to repair the lack of narrative around her.

P: It makes me think to what you said earlier that there is a whole history of enslaved people who have no traces, no archive, no representation and therefore the speculative aspect comes in because we have to think about what can we tell, do and see about these stories.

Yes, and I also think of the fact that South-Africa is built on slave labour and was a slavocracy. This is very seldom spoken about. People talk about apartheid but don’t look further back to the start of white settler colonialism there. This is something I want to keep in the conversation. The wealth of Europe is based on slavocracies established elsewhere, this is a violent underside that is not often spoken about. In all my work, I try to keep this in view.

P: Talking about the 12 main banners in the procession: they are conceived as containers with seeds, which remind me of ethnographical objects like the Nkisi Nkondi, sculptures that contain a magical substance (often specific herbs) hidden behind a mirror. Often these objects are used in Non-Western societies by a traditional healer. Talking about ancestors you’ve mentioned a nurse, a midwife so caring and healing looks like an undercurrent in some of your works.  Is the procession also related to forms of healing?

I think including the banner for Maaij Claasje, which is the biggest banner in the procession, is about repair or reparation. Healing isn’t a word I would choose to use. Reparation is a more interesting term.

P: To end I wonder looking further then the procession, if we would find a folder in 75 years with your name on, what would be in it? What is left in the archives of the museum?

I am so not worried about posterity, about things lasting. I think we need to act in this thick present we talked about. When I walk around the park I see many works that seem so permanent in form, material or idea. They’re intended to remain.  I’m much more interested to make works that are transient.

P: But how does that match your habit of daily diarying then? For whom are you writing it all down?   

I think I should bury those one day as well, I do not want to leave those to anyone, that’s such a burden for someone. There’s a saying: when you’re writing in your diary, you’re writing to your future self but actually my diaries are a way of processing thoughts and ideas. They’re not really personal my diaries and I’m always aware that someone else might read them, so I write in a way that is not harmful to anybody or to myself hopefully. I think you can’t pretend you’re not aware of a reader when you write a diary.


PHOTOGRAPHS: Featured image: Charlotte Schramme and Dilek Santy in the Procession June 2023 / photo by Tim Theo Deceuninck; Braem pavilion studio March 2023 / photo by Tom Cornille; Muriel, Emissary to the Past / photo Morris; Botanical Bodies Gathering with Mariske Broeckmeyer and Hendrike Scharmann / Travelogue of the Wandering Womb / Alias exhibition Netwerk Aalst 2019 / photo Morris; Banner in the Braem pavilion June 2023 / photo Morris; Procession June 24 2023 / phot Time Theo Deceuninck; Mugwort and Absinthe plants and banners in the Virtues series / photos by Deceuninck and Morris; Mariske Broeckmeyer and the Journeywomen in the Procession / photo’s Deceuninck and Aldo Smith; Radio Hush Hush installation Middelheim Museum / photo’s Morris; banners in the pavilion / photo Morris; Braem pavilion as studio / photo’s Tom Cornille; Procession various; Virtues and pockets being assembled / photo Morris

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Wendy Morris (1960) is a South African artist and researcher living in Belgium. Morris is professor in contemporary arts at the University of Leuven and LUCA School of Arts, Brussels, and senior researcher with the deep histories fragile memories research group.