Charm Offensive is an installation Cibic created in collaboration with a group of international scientific botanical illustrators. The project aims to address the colonial violence imposed by national and political powers both on nature and culture. Borrowing the phrase that was first used to describe the political tactics of adversaries in the Cold War, Charm Offensive denotes a calculated campaign that uses propaganda values to gain favour or support.

The project is comprised from a series of illustrations of plants that bear the names of the first European colonisers and botanists that became agents of empire and as such facilitated a global information exchange that often contested territories and their resources.

With plant ‘discovery’ by the European colonisers, and the ‘gifting’ of names that followed the newly invented Linnaean taxonomy, local knowledge would be erased, and local names annulled. As such, botany became complicit with the destruction of worlds taking place within the colonial project. The Linnaean taxonomy system with its binomial nomenclature presents one of the last systems of patriarchal control that has not been problematised and rewritten; namely its rules do not allow for the names of organisms to be changed, even when they bear tribute to politically problematic namesakes – including colonisers and slave owners.

In Charm Offensive, Cibic reverses the historical strategies of European ‘re-discovery’ of species – where their newly gifted Latin name would be the last to arrive in the process of their re-inscription within the European ‘civilised’ world. The artist reached out to botanical illustrators and altered the standard workflow of their practice – giving them only the Latin name of the plant to use as the reference for its proposed appearance. Cibic selected plants whose names honour the historically celebrated plant hunters and colonisers – who in compliance aided the colonial enterprise and became instruments of imperialist expansions. Working with botanical namesakes of Hans Sloane, Joseph Banks, James Cook, Carl Linnaeus and George Hibbert – the proposed illustrations decode the language of the discipline and insert a feminist decolonial potential of rewriting the history of patriarchal domination.

The proposed botanical illustrations are exhibited alongside a series of engravings of iron grate fences and barriers of the first botanical gardens, whose networks served as laboratories for the acclimation and exchange of economically valuable plants. Instead of names of the gardens themselves, the iron bars bear phrases drawn from botany that have been directly borrowed by the political and diplomatic context: rose garden strategies, symbiotic patterns, dormant diversion, scents of persuasion…

The spaces of political and national power continue to thrive on botanical depictions and floral arrangements as ‘unobtrusive’ politically – either as floral attributes to conference rooms or ‘benign’ still lives decorating the spaces of political power. But is should be the darker side of political servitude of plants which these very spaces should be debating, a side which is exponentially relevant for our society today.



Jasmina Cibic: Charm Offensive, Dunedin Public Art Gallery, New Zealand, 22.10.2022 – 12.2.2023

Charm Offensive is the first solo exhibition by London-based artist Jasmina Cibic (b. 1979 Ljubljana, Slovenia) to be held in Aotearoa New Zealand. Working across film, performance and installation, Cibic’s practice explores the relationships between culture and political power within both historical and contemporary frames. Art and architecture become tools to highlight and reconsider notions of soft power, nation building and the deployment of political agendas and ideologies. Bringing Cibic’s major three-channel film The Gift (2021) together with a new site-specific installation, Charm Offensive (2022), this exhibition is shaped around the concept of gifting – raising questions about cultural gifting as a tool for power and political dominance.

The Gift is a dystopian drama and consolidates decades of Cibic’s research into soft power, with all the film’s dialogue drawn directly from archival letters, transcripts and records from key moments of European crises in the 20th century. The work follows an artist, a diplomat and an engineer as they compete to determine a gift, a symbol, that will realign society and heal a fractured nation in a time of crisis. With the expectation that the gift will be ‘politically adequate and aesthetically impressive’, the three men present their ideas to four judges who are based on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s concept of the Four Freedoms: The Freedoms from Fear, from Want, of Speech and Worship. The film’s locations, including the French Communist Headquarters, Paris; the Palace of Nations, Geneva; and the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw, are all political gifts themselves.

Charm Offensive delves into the politics and gifting of names, as an act of colonisation and political coding. Plants play an important role in the forming of a national landscape. Many of the Latin taxonomic names of plant species reflect the botanists and imperial explorers who are credited with their discovery in Western science, such as Hans Sloane, Joseph Banks, James Cook, George Hibbert and Carl Linnaeus. Acting as agents of empire, these namesakes become tools of colonisation and political authority. In Charm Offensive, Cibic has subverted this process, collaborating with a group of international botanical illustrators to create images using only the Latin plant name as the reference point. Alongside these are etchings of fences and barriers that are drawn from architectural plans for botanical gardens – sites that were traditionally created for the collection, research and display of exotic plant species. They also incorporate excerpts from texts that have been extracted from the botanical context and redeployed within political and diplomatic language.