Heather Eliza Walker on her title piece Brave Oleander

Heather Eliza Walker:

"Oleander is possibly the most toxic garden plant. It is poisonous in every part, and is lethal to mammals such as humans and dogs. It is said for this reason that its name comes from the Greek ‘Ollyo’ which means ‘I kill’, and the Greek noun for man, ‘aner’ or ‘andros’. It was used in primitive cultures to poison arrows (echoed in the ‘aerial map’ depicted in the drawing, which the insects navigate).

Oleander flowers are very beautiful, and were the first to bloom on the toxic radioactive wastes of Hiroshima after the 1945 nuclear bombing, when it was thought that the soil would be unable to support growth for at least 75 years (hence the title Brave Oleander). The plant blooms in the summertime, especially around the time of the anniversary of the atomic bombing, when the flowers reach full bloom. I drew an analogy between oleander and red poppies from European culture, which were the first to bloom on the bomb sites of the Second World War in France and the UK, and used both in the drawing.

Despite oleander’s toxicity, oleander seeds and leaves are used to make medicine (just as the poppy itself is a two-edged medical sword). It acts like digitalis, and is used in the treatment of mild heart conditions (as well as a wide range of other complaints and diseases). The drawing begins at the top left with a recipe which has been used for the treatment of mild heart failure; a fixed combination of oleander leaf powdered extract, pheasant's eye fluid extract, lily-of-the-valley fluid extract, and squill powdered extract.

The drawing is flooded with stains suggestive of poisoned air, which I made using coffee; caffeine is intoxicating to insects and spiders. The work is studded with black droplets also suggestive of poison (to my mind the shapes resemble the old apothecary flask signboards which used to hang outside every chemist’s shop). Other themes of poison appear with the presence of fly agaric, which mimics the shape of the deathly mushroom cloud of a nuclear explosion. The insects which occupy the centre of the drawing are rising up, borne by balloons of their own ingenious making. Insects, apparently, are quite capable of surviving radiation due to their minute scale and slow cell division; in this drawing, oblivious of surrounding toxicity, they pursue a creative and positive path following their own curiosity through which they express themes of hope, just as scientists pursued their own research to exploit poisons to make medicine. 

As in Falling From Trees, it is the story told by insects who populate the drawings which winds in texts throughout the work."

The exhibition Brave Oleander is on view until 21 April 2018. 

View the exhibition online here


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Brave Oleander

Heather Eliza Walker, Brave Oleander