Civilising Grass: The Art of the Lawn on the South African Highveld

Published by Wits University Press, Civilising Grass offers an extended treatment of new materialisms, ‘anti-social’ queer theory, whiteness though the art historical medium of the landscape. By examining the aesthetic representation of lawns, the book argues for a consideration of landscape as a subjectifying process in which human and nonhuman emerge together.
The project was funded through the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s Architecture, Urbanism and the Humanities Initiative at the Wits City Institute, University of the Witwatersrand.

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 South Africa. 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.

An audacious account of the ‘banal brutality’ of colonial and apartheid lawn subjects and subjectivities in South Africa. Writing against the lawn’s archival grain of heteropatriarchy, the author reveals multiple visual and textual landscapes of power, labour, and longings for green.
Pamila Gupta, author of Portuguese Decolonization in the Indian Ocean World, is based at Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WiSER), University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg

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

Media and reviews

The Roots of Grass Business Day
The Lawn is Singing Mail & Guardian
A brief history of Joubert Park The Johannesburg Review of Books
Interview Sunday Times
Interview House & Leisure
Interview SABC BooksOnPoint
PhD thesis Civilising Grass