Collection: Ukiyo – Isibaya

Japanese Woodblock landscape art, famously known as "ukiyo-e," has a storied history that vividly portrays the inseparable connection between nature and people. Flourishing during Japan's Edo period (17th to 19th centuries), this art form not only celebrated the nation's natural beauty but also embodied a unique philosophy regarding the interplay between humanity and the environment. My exploration of this traditional art form and its philosophy has served as a practice-based framework through which to understand the intricate web of human-nature relationships in the South African context, where the scars of colonialism have etched deep dualisms between the two.

The fundamental philosophy of Japanese Woodblock landscape art revolves around a profound reverence for nature and the transitory nature of existence. These iconic prints often depicted Japan's serene landscapes, from delicate cherry blossoms to tranquil rural scenery. Notably, the inclusion of human figures within these landscapes was deliberate, portraying them as small, humble, and often on the periphery. This artistic choice underscored a profound reverence for the natural world, where humans were perceived as embedded within the larger wisdom of ecosystems.

The Japanese term "ukiyo" beautifully encapsulates the transient, ever-changing essence of human life. Ukiyo-e artists masterfully conveyed the impermanence of existence through symbolism like falling leaves and shifting seasons. This philosophy, deeply rooted in Buddhist thought, encouraged individuals to embrace the present moment and accept life's impermanence. The prints served as poignant reminders that life, akin to fleeting cherry blossoms, is inherently beautiful yet ephemeral.

In the South African context, I have harnessed the essence of ukiyo-e to reflect upon the human-nature dualism scars etched by the enduring impact of colonialism on the continent's ecosystems and indigenous communities. My adaptation of ukiyo-e philosophy takes inspiration from the "isibaya" or "fish-kraals" practices of northern KwaZulu-Natal (KZN). These practices are deeply rooted in the rich tradition of making fish traps, each with its own cosmological significance. Isibaya are intertwined with songs, stories, and rituals that guide the community's customary practices, nurturing a deeply relational and reciprocal relationship between families and the more-than-human world of the ocean and lagoon.

My exploration into the world of Isibaya has been greatly enriched by the remarkable research of marine sociologist Dr. Philile Mbata, who has shed light on the contrasting concepts of "conservation" in the Western world and in the South African context. In IsiZulu, there is no historical equivalent to the Western notion of conservation. Unlike the Western world's conception of conservation that emerged during the industrial era, emphasizing untouched nature as an escape, many cultures in the global South have never seen a division between humans and nature. Instead, they have celebrated the inherent interconnectedness of humanity and the environment.

In South Africa, however, the term "conservation" has been often manipulated to justify the displacement, control, and militarized policing of Black and Brown South Africans, placing them at elevated levels of risk. Customary forms of governance, laws, and cultures that nurtured both human and more-than-human flourishing for centuries before colonialism are frequently side lined in contemporary efforts to protect our oceans. A glaring injustice is the exclusion of local communities from co-managing any of the 42 Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in South Africa, constituting a human rights violation. Looking back at the historical and ongoing influence of apartheid and the Group Areas Act of 1950 on South Africa, access to the ocean remains marked by exclusion for Black and Brown people.

Apartheid forcibly removed and relocated communities from the coast inland, preventing them from practicing rituals, ceremonies, and spiritual connections tied deeply to the ocean and rivers. This painful history continues to cast a haunting shadow over our swimming places, be they bodies of water or our watery bodies themselves.

"Ukiyo – Isibaya" is an ongoing practice-based research creation project, seeking to develop an understanding of the ways in which our relationships with each other and the natural world can be nurtured and restored. It occupies the tension between the reverence and sacredness of our extended ecological bodies, while also acknowledging how ecosystems have been weaponized by colonial projects.  This hybrid philosophy of ukiyo-isibaya is employed to address the complex web of human-nature relationships in the African context while acknowledging the enduring legacy of colonialism.