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Stories of California native flowers

Barnali Ghosh is synonymous with Berkeley, her hometown, where nearly everyone knows her name. A designer, climate justice advocate, and co-founder of the award-winning Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking Tour, she can be spotted around town proudly sporting her sari, a big bindi, and boots.

Much of her work explores the connections between home and homeland. It uses storytelling and theater to share narratives of local South Asian American resistance movements, from immigrant freedom fighters in the 1910s to queer and feminist organizing a century later.

So, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and all of her work came to a screeching halt. Like with most of us, Ghosh started a new pandemic project: taking photographs of herself dressed as California native flowers, centering on her brown body, and using South Asian saris and Odissi dance forms (she is a classically trained dancer).

“Some folks made sourdough. I took to taking photos of myself dressed like the flowers in my neighborhood. In these pandemic times of grief and isolation, the Unfaithful Recreation series has allowed me to feel joy, delight, and connection,” explains Ghosh.

The picture shows  female dancer posing like the Californian poppy next to her
California Poppy (image courtesy: Barnali Ghosh)

Floral recreations

Her recreations of the gorgeous flowers she found at the Regional Parks Botanical Garden in Tilden Park took the native plant world by storm. One of her earliest re-creations was a celebratory one when the COVID-19 vaccines had just become widely available. She celebrated getting her first dose with an ode to the California poppy.

India Currents spoke to Ghosh about her inspiration, where she gets her creative ideas from, and her deep connection to nature.

The significance of floral recreations

IC: How did you think of doing these recreations? Do they hold a deeper significance for you?

Ghosh: At the beginning of quarantine the Getty Museum put out an online challenge asking folks to recreate paintings with things they had at home. I saw a couple of friends do it and it looked like fun so I thought I would do one. But then I couldn’t stop. I have done over 50 recreations that focus on Asian and women artists, and art that is often not seen in museums.

I recreated paintings by Jamini Roy, Tagore, and Amrita Shergil. I did matchbox covers, Satyajit Ray movie posters, and a calendar page from South India. I found that doing these unfaithful re-creations became for me a pandemic diary. Each image would be a commentary on events that were happening during the pandemic. Whether it was the isolation and loneliness, or the wearing of masks and the constant sanitizing, I tried to find humor and poignancy in those moments through creating art re-creations.

The image shows a female dancer posing like the flower next to her
Globe Lily (image courtesy: Barnali Ghosh)

Sourcing outfits to mimic flowers

IC: Why the flower mimicry? How do you source all those exact outfits?

Ghosh: In the process of doing the art re-creations I found that my brain was continuously attuned to matching colors and shapes. So, when Berkeley was having an exceptional bloom of wisteria, I came home and dressed up in those colors. In April 2021, on the day I got my vaccine, I wanted to celebrate being in a state where we had access to this amazing vaccine. So I came home and re-created the California Poppy—our stunning state flower. I posted that image to the California Native Plant Society Facebook group and it got a huge response. People really loved it.

It was California Native Plant Week. So in honor of that, I did one a day and it really took off from there. I use saris and Odissi dance to capture the colors and forms of California Native flowers. The outfits are all draped for the photograph and are saris I already have. Many of them have sat in suitcases for a decade. I’m really excited for them to be seen in this new way.

The images are self-portraits that I take with a tripod and a timer. I practiced as a landscape architect for a decade. But always had trouble remembering the names of flowers and plants in my adopted homeland compared to the flowers of Bangalore where I grew up. Through this project I’m building my own relationship with flowers that have been here prior to European contact and many of them are only found in California.

I find that when I go out for a walk or a hike and I see a flower I re-created, and I know its name and all the details of its form and color, it feels like running into an old friend, and allows me to feel a deep sense of belonging to this land.

This project has become a way for me to bridge home and homeland, and draw connections between the ways historical colonialism has impacted handloom weaving and Odissi dance in India, and how settler colonialism has impacted native flowers and landscapes.

The picture shows a woman posing to reflect the shape of the trillium plant next to her
Trillium (image courtesy: Barnali Ghosh)

Flora & Fauna

IC: I notice that you love taking pictures of flora and fauna on your walks, most of which are at night. Did you always have an affinity for that?

Ghosh: For a decade now, I’ve taken photos of plants and flowers while walking on the streets of Berkeley. When my father passed away a few years ago I was staying with my mom in Bangalore. I would go for night walks in our apartment building. It was a devastating time in my life. The only way I found myself able to appreciate beauty in nature was to take photos of plants at night. Since then I have continued to have an affinity for nature at night. Of course, this became even more important during the early days of the pandemic when taking walks at night was the safest way to be outside.

Ghosh continues the project post-pandemic, putting on gallery shows and live presentations. She has also assembled a calendar after her social media followers requested one. 

Stories in Bloom

Her next talk is Stories in Bloom at Filoli Gardens on May 21st, 2-3 p.m. Ghosh will share the backstory of these viral images and how the project helped her find belonging in the native plant community and beyond. Free with Filoli admission; reservation required due to limited space. Book your admission tickets along with your Stories in Bloom reservation here.

“My creative work is rooted in the process of turning personal and systemic trauma into moments of joy,” adds Ghosh, “whether it’s in the form of street theater celebrating South Asian American resistance movements, or taking photos of plants at night after the loss of a parent.”

You can check out more of her work on Instagram @berkeleywali.

Mona Shah is a multi-platform storyteller with expertise in digital communications, social media strategy, and content curation for Twitter and LinkedIn for C-suite executives. A journalist and editor,...