In my current residency at The Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, I have been working alongside botanists and a wider research team in the UK and Brazil, to examine the collections of botanist and explorer Richard Spruce, who spent 14 years in the Amazon in the mid-19th Century. Plantae Amazonicae (taken from the name Spruce gave to his botanical notebooks from his years in the Amazon) is an exhibition that represents my first encounters with Spruce’s ethnobotanical artefacts, herbarium specimens and notebooks, working with significant materials and processes found in the collection

The work has been made in collaboration with Cultural Historian Luciana Martins (Birkbeck, University of London), Ethnobotanist William Milliken (Kew) and Museum Curator Mark Nesbitt (Kew), with photography by Elena Heatherwick. Supported by Arts Council England

Unfired clay vessel (jaguar). Clay dug from riverbeds, with charcoal from Equisetum
arvense mixed with jenipapo fruit (Genipa americana)

Unfired clay vessel (monkey)

Untitled (shelf). Unfired clay from riverbeds with plant fibres, Bixa orellana pigment, Fridericia chica dye on silk

Spruce describes how clay was collected from the river and mixed with the bark of the caraipé tree (Licania octandra), to make pottery; “The Indians test Caraipé by burning it; and if, when burnt, it cannot be broken by the fingers, but requires the use of a mortar, it is considered good.” The clay artefacts that Spruce collected could have been made by anyone and be from any place. The fingerprints, marks and sharp points that have been dug into their surfaces transcend time.

In his notes he described a visit to a pottery in August 1849 and afterwards finding the caraipé tree in the forest. He said it was a straight and slender tree reaching perhaps 100 feet with branches only near the summit. A young man climbed the trees for him, and brought down a branch, which unfortunately possessed no flowers or fruits, only leaves. Defective as these were, they were sent back, and are the same leaves seen here in Elena’s photograph. The clays I have used here have been dug from the ground over the past year. The process of collecting, drying, rolling and carving is fundamental and guided by material. All of it remains unfired. It is not about survival or legacy, but rather about the brevity of time, and transformation of material.

Licania octandra specimen in the Herbarium at Kew. Photograph by Elena Heatherwick

Ingredients for an open oven: Clay dug from riverbeds, Equisetum arvense (a silica-rich plant to stand in for the caraipé tree), and copal resin. Photograph by Elena Heatherwick

Tucuma palm weaving

There is a large jar of grey salt, that I first saw sitting heavily in a low drawer in the Economic Botany Collection. I went to the Herbarium to find the corresponding specimens that Spruce collected, and found many more than I imagined there; some sheets containing only the tiniest specimens perhaps 2cm tall, and some indented heavily by the weight of the thick leaves. There were many small drawings and annotations on them too: A note in Spruce’s elegant handwriting on the label of one reads, “I was nearly too late for this fine thing”. Reading that, it’s as he is saying “I am here”. And I was suddenly there too, hands reaching into the water, trying to keep a grip on the wet rocks.

Weddellina squamulosa

Mourera alcicornis

Rhyncholacis crassipes

In the Amazon, many of these artefacts would not have survived, either through organic deterioration over the passing of time, or the loss of the cultural knowledge associated with them. Spruce’s writing reveals a larger world in the Amazon that could not be collected, contained and represented by a physical object – the ephemeral moments and sounds that accompany daily life, such as the fire – the centre of every home. The smoke is used in healing rituals, for drying plants, as an antiseptic for dried fish and to preserve wild rubber.

Leopoldinia piassaba and smoke surface. Brushed sandalwood soot and 12 carat gold on chromatography glass plates.

Astrocaryum vulgare, Firefan. Firefan made from ‘Tucuma’ Palm, Astrocaryum vulgare.

It is a challenge to view these artefacts today when they don’t belong to us culturally and their materials are not familiar in our landscape. The first categories I made after I began to work with the collection quickly unravelled as I realised the classification I imposed was tied to my own experiences, and revealed little about the complex roles the artefacts played within their indigenous source communities. My neat lists titled ‘musical instruments’, ‘ceremonial objects’, and ‘body adornment’ became as arbitrary as calling them ‘red things’ and ‘hollow things’ when I learned, for instance, how the maraca or the tobacco pipe was not simply for music or recreation but was a shaman’s tool, and how time itself could be connected to significant objects, as in the quartz brought from the Andes to be worn as a necklace – its hole drilled with sand and water over the course of months or probably years. I knew the weight and feeling of quartz from walking in the hills myself, and finding pieces shining in the river that could be picked up and held until warm and dry before being put in a pocket to travel forward on unlikely journeys. And for the seeds of Bixa orellana, the Lipstick Tree, which were new to me, I cracked open the spiky seedpods to find the tiny sticky red teeth lined up on a spine inside. Picking them out, I rubbed them between my fingers so the red paint slipped off. They fit under my nail and could be run over skin or another surface until their thin shell of paint had run out. This paint is not lightfast, and there is a satisfaction to these impermanent marks, that seemed a way to learn instinctively through touch, and be an initial manner to engage with these objects and understand their stories.

Bixa orellana. Paint extracted from seeds on Japanese conservation paper


Bixa orellana tree in the Palm House at Kew. Photograph by Elena Heatherwick

Funerary shirts. Watercolour on herbarium paper

“Amongst Cubeo Indians, when a person dies the funeral is conducted in much the same way as the Taninas, but when the flesh of the corpse is supposed to be decayed… it is disinterred, the bones carefully cleaned and burnt to ashes; in which state they are mingled with alcoholic beverage and drink at a high festival, where figure all the parents and friends of the deceased. It is on these occasions that the shirts of the Turura are worn. Two men wear shirts blackened all over and their proceedings are limited to walking about and making long speeches to each other. Two others wear shirts of common red Turura – their function seems to keep guard on the outskirts of the place the festival is held.”