I first became fascinated with the use of flowers through rituals and ceremonies, especially at the many funerals that I attended of young black youth. At these funerals, I looked at the bright, colourful flowers as they danced in life with their frilly skirts as though in celebration of the gift of creation. If they are here again, but were once seed, once earth, then there is a rhythm, a cycle that is greater than me and what I know. Despite the oppression I was experiencing – manifested in racism, sexism, class discrimination and exclusion due to having a learning difference – I knew there is light, mystery and wisdom in life and for me these were accessed through flowers. Thinking Flowers? is a process that is both a circle and cyclical in nature.
When I set up Thinking Flowers? in 2003, having studied marketing, advertising, enterprise and management for the creative arts, I wanted to find ways to engage people with alternative ways of viewing and doing business that are more in harmony with the natural resources used to produce the products and services I was delivering. I enjoyed the challenge and process of creating a disruptive brand. The use of the question mark was disruptive. It interrupted conventional thinking about how things are or should be, especially thoughts on why and how to change the floral industry’s harmful practices with a more holistic approach.
At that time, there were no fair trade flowers and no artists who worked with flowers and called their work ‘floral installation’ – there were floral decorators, designers or florists or artists making installations with flowers. Despite my research, travelling and campaigning I knew of no floral donation schemes, no florist recycling schemes, no creative organisation that focused on the ethical use of flowers in design and definitely not one making the connection between underprivileged communities and the activities of global corporations and the highly bred plants and flowers they used. Thinking Flowers? was the start of this, designing the demand for these products and services and providing an exit strategy for our dependency on exploitation.
The term ‘floral installation’ allowed for growth and for possibility, imagination, expansion, sensation, intensity – most easily described as affect. Floral installation as an art form allowed for the ethical design principles ‘modern, minimal and meaningful (3M)’ to be displayed, considered and created and for an opportunity for an appreciation of beauty. The notion of using few resources to have a high-impact aesthetic was essential to the work, inspired by Ikebana and a deep sense of a relationship to the Earth’s resources. There was also the symbolism and the signs that could be communicated visually, using certain shapes and colours, not to mention space, including negative space.
I have also always needed to make sure flowers are re-used and so developed a floral donation scheme, with the first three donations to the funerals of young black boys, killed as a result of violent street crime and whose families could not afford flowers. After designing for corporate banks and accountants, large social enterprises and charities, we would deliver the arrangements to the Karibu Centre, a long-standing community centre in Brixton. This re-purposing gave the work a deeper meaning, one that brought me back to why I had started working with flowers as a young adult.
I believe that all things are connected and my lens for showing this has been flowers. I believe we should all have access to a place to grow them, and if they are to be sold we should all be able to afford to participate in rites of passage that honour the lives of our dead, the plants themselves and the people involved throughout the supply chain. This also applies to the flowers and so the composting of the flowers used in my work has to return to the earth. This has been the process at my allotment. Flowers give us the hope to continue living a life in the presence of beauty; the strength to become part of life again.
I feel as though my artistic practice has outgrown the floral installation form now, but it will always be an integral part of the Thinking Flowers? process. Recently, it has allowed for others to develop businesses focused on single parts of the whole process, such as floral installation and floral donation or re-purposing. These developments make all the hard work worthwhile. It has been lonely being the first. I had to live with feelings of insecurity, as you have to be strong to either reshape or to carve out new markets. But Thinking Flowers? set out to become obsolete as the industry incorporated the holistic approach. I think these parts are at least the start of a wider shift.
These same notions and philosophies are part of my artistic practice today and charge the social practice elements, public performance and participation, needed to deliver my work to national galleries and museums. My work has grown to include a focus on our health alongside that of the planet’s and a place to celebrate nature’s sacred beauty.
In all cycles there comes a time to cleanse, recuperate and start again, with a little more experience. This transition is by far the most challenging and yet the most exciting, as I am opened to new discoveries.
read more in the Feminist Review Issue 108 – http://www.palgrave-journals.com/fr/journal/v108/n1/index.html