Natural mysteries: Silence that Surrounds by Kali van der Merwe. Picture: SUPPLIED
Natural mysteries: Silence that Surrounds by Kali van der Merwe. Picture: SUPPLIED

Science was artist Kali van der Merwe’s first love, but she was put off by the idea of wearing a white lab coat, and this aversion pushed her in the direction of the arts.

Her love of science, however, particularly in relation to the natural world, remains intact and underpins all her artistic output.

There is a popular misconception that science and the art are, at best, uncomfortable bedfellows and, at worst, occupy separate, sealed silos.

However, master painter and polymath Leonardo da Vinci is considered to be the first western scientist.

Mysterium Fascinans by Kali van der Merwe. Picture: SUPPLIED
Mysterium Fascinans by Kali van der Merwe. Picture: SUPPLIED

Without science there would have been no deep perspective or profound understanding of proportion. Another Renaissance man, Albrecht Durer, influenced anatomy and map making with his drawings. He was responsible for the creation of a perspectival map considered to be the very first perspectival interpretation of a "terrestrial hemisphere".

Contemporary artists such as conceptual painter Gerhard Richter show how art can be hugely influenced by science. His series of paintings titled Silicate were influenced by an article he read, illustrated by photographs taken through a microscope that showed silicates in the carapaces of insects, which create an iridescent effect.

Van der Merwe’s exhibition, AfterLife, is housed in the Iziko South African Museum.

The positioning of exhibitions in this space indicates the shifting role of museums, reflecting the trend of interfacing disciplines. She writes that "this exhibition speaks to a reinterpretation of the museum specimen guided by plays of my imagination rather than organised by any systematic reasoning".

To create her composite photographs of creatures, she uses a photographic technique called light painting or drawing. It’s a process executed in the dark and depends on long exposures and a moveable, hand-held light source.

Unlike a specimen seen by the human eye, it provides incredible detail. Every pore, each scale, every hair gives her images a hyper-real or three-dimensional pop-out effect.

AfterLife provides a clue to Van der Merwe’s approach, which also hints at her adopted name. The Hindu mother goddess Kali was empowered with the twin poles of creation and destruction.

Van der Merwe refrains from any form of killing. Instead, she waits for the creatures she uses in her art to come to the end of their natural life span, or she collects road kill. The images in AfterLife "open an aperture on the mysteries of life through the lens of death", she says.

Her intention is "to stimulate wonder, curiosity and deeper connection to the creatures and plants we share our existence with". Van der Merwe’s imagination may be fantastical, but it draws inspiration from the natural world. "I am re-imagining and re-imaging alternate paths that evolution could have taken," she says.

Through her animations and composite photographs, she invests her creatures — including a genet, raptor and bee — with a virtual immortality. "I reanimate road-kill victims into perpetual motion films to honour their lives and mourn their senseless deaths."

As if dipped in a metallic glitter, her supersized fynbos flowers and coiled serpents, gleaned from Baardskeer-dersbos in the Overberg where she lives, have set her home ablaze with a swirling cosmos background of fizzing stars, courtesy of the Hubble telescope. Bell jars precariously perched on tyre towers contain the waxed remains of creatures in strange constellations that can be closely eyeballed with magnifying glasses.

Her drawers are filled with natural wonders that can be handled. Visitors can stroke the soft fur of a stuffed genet or marvel at the cascade of a butterscotch-coloured moulted skin of a six-metre Burmese python. An animation shows a female praying mantis noisily chomping her way through a male from the head down.

The praying mantis spent her eight-month lifespan in Van der Merwe’s company. A ferocious hunter, when presented with Van der Merwe’s finger she would alight and allow herself to be carried to the windows to harvest flies. The artist wept when the mantis died.

Circular stickers on the floor of her home exhibit the extinct plant species that human footprints have erased.

At a time when Earth is in ecological peril, the images in AfterLife give pause for reflection, bringing to attention the natural beauty on the planet, ignored by many because of the frantic pace of urban lives.

The exhibition is a celebration of the magnificence of the natural world and a reminder of humans’ responsibility as stewards of the earth rather than its conquerors.

It underlines the fact that without the natural world, we humans cannot exist.