'Civilising Grass' is the first sustained investigation of the African lawn

This compelling and eclectic critique offers a detailed reading of artistic, literary and architectural lawns between 1886 and 2017

09 July 2019 - 14:46
This lively, witty text revitalises our view of lawns, gardens and landscapes.
This lively, witty text revitalises our view of lawns, gardens and landscapes.
Image: Wits Press

What does the lawn want? To be watered, fertilised, mowed, admired, fretted over, ignored?

This unusual question serves as a starting point for Civilising Grass: The Art of the Lawn on the South African Highveld, an unexpected and often disconcerting critique of one of the most common and familiar landscapes in SA.

The lawn, Jonathan Cane argues, is not quite as innocent as we might think. Besides the fact that lawns suck up scarce water, consume chemicals, displace indigenous plants and reduce biodiversity, they are also part of a colonial lineage of dispossession and violence.

They reduce the political problem of land to the aesthetic question of landscape, thereby obscuring issues of ownership, redress, belonging and labour. The question then becomes: Who takes care of whose lawn, in what clothes, under what conditions and for what reward?

Civilising Grass offers a detailed reading of artistic, literary and architectural lawns between 1886 and 2017. The eclectic archive includes plans, poems, maps, gardening blogs, adverts, ethnographies and ephemera, as well as literature by Koos Prinsloo, Marlene van Niekerk and Ivan Vladislavić.

In addition, the book includes colour reproductions of lawn artworks by David Goldblatt, Lungiswa Gqunta, Pieter Hugo, Anton Kannemeyer, Sabelo Mlangeni, Moses Tladi and Kemang Wa Lehulere.

This book shows that even if the enchantment of a green, flat and soft lawn is almost universal, there are also unexpected moments when alternatives present themselves, occasions when people reject the politeness of the lawn, and situations in which we might glimpse a possible time after the lawn.

Drawing on theory and conceptual tools from interdisciplinary fields such as ecocriticism, queer theory, art history and postcolonial studies, Civilising Grass offers the first sustained investigation of the lawn in Africa and contributes to the growing conversation about the complex relationships between humans and non-humans on the continent.

Civilising Grass is compelling in its interdisciplinary and scholarly breadth, its sophisticated use of critical theory, and its persuasive analysis of cultural objects. This book makes a significant contribution to the study of the political relevance of landscapes and their representations, as well as to the study of South African society and culture.
Byron Caminero-Santangelo, Professor of English and Environmental Studies, University of Kansas, and author of Different Shades of Green: African Literature, Environmental Justice and Political Ecology

This lively, witty text revitalises our view of lawns, gardens and landscapes, challenging a whole range of conventional views of society and nature. Through a close examination of literary texts and visual images, Cane explores the history and meaning of the lawn, social and cultural expressions of land ownership, and such value-laden notions as race and respectability.
Ivan Vladislavić, Distinguished Professor, School of Literature, Language and Media, University of the Witwatersrand, and author of Portrait with Keys and The Exploded View

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