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The making of Siyanda

Siyanda, protector of plants, will reveal plant secrets in the Africa zone of the Temperate House. Artist Naomi Oppenheim is the woman behind the puppet, and tells us how she brought Siyanda to life.
26 September 2018
Blog team: 
Ellen McHale and Naomi Oppenheim

Who is Siyanda?

Siyanda is a plant protector, and she cares for and conserves plants in the Africa zone of the Temperate House

She can speak to the plants and she knows what they need and how to help them. Siyanda will be sharing her knowledge of plants in the Temperate House during October half term.

The birth of Siyanda

Before I created Siyanda, I met lots of Kew scientists who were knowledgeable and enthusiastic about their research. I wanted to make a puppet who had the same passion for plants, and who loved to pass on this knowledge to others.  

A couple of environmentalists also inspired me. In particular, Wangari Maathai, who was the founder of the green belt movement and sought to protect Kenya’s forests and lands from development. 

She was committed to protecting plants, and Siyanda has a similar dedication and devotion to plants and the natural world.  

Siyanda in the Temperate House, credit Jeff Eden

A temporary temperate home

Siyanda belongs in the Temperate House, and her design reflects the surroundings of this incredible glasshouse.  

I brought a couple of different elements of the Temperate House together in the design. The glasshouse is thriving with plant life, so her outfit and accessories needed to look soft and organic. 

I also wanted to reflect the structure of the glasshouse itself. Siyanda’s base is inspired by the spiral staircases, and I used pale wood and white paint to mimic the pale stone floors and window frames.

Building the body

To build her body, I used plywood and foam because she needed to be light enough for the puppeteers to move her around.   

It was important to replicate the same movement that humans have, so her body is made of three sections that I’ve joined together to allow her to bend at the waist and turn.  

She’s got a couple of mechanisms in her neck to allow her to move, including a wooden ball, which means she can swivel her head. Connected to this ball is a rod, which the puppeteers can control during the performance.

Building Siyanda's body in the studio
Building Siyanda's arms and body in the studio
Building Siyanda's body in the studio

It's all in the face

Her face is my favourite feature. Creating the face was when she really came to life.  

I built her features from foam and then covered them with fabric to look like skin.  

I used a jersey material, which isn’t specifically designed for puppet making but has a really soft texture that you can paint onto. Wrinkling the fabric gave her face a weathered, wise look to it, and I used pins to hold the folds in place.

I painted her face with acrylics, to add highlights and shadows on her skin and colour to her lips. I included greens and blues to reflect the plant patterns and bright colours in her costume.

She's got shiny buttons for eyes, which are reflective and make them look bright and life-like. 

Creating Siyanda's face in the studio

Dressing Siyanda

I used a mix of colourful fabrics, which have organic motifs of plants. I wanted her outfit to look riotous and joyful, and to reference her passion for plants.

The crown on her head is made from branches, and I cut slits in her head to attach them.  

Because of the natural materials used in her crown, Siyanda had to spend a week in -40° conditions in quarantine at Kew’s Herbarium. The Temperate House is a protected environment, so we had to make sure that no bugs or insects were hiding in the branches I used.  

Building Siyanda's body in the studio

Siyanda's tools

Siyanda carries lots of tools with her that help her care for the plants in the Africa zone.   

She carries scientific storage bottles that she uses for collecting cuttings of different plants, and a plant press that allows her to preserve them. Plant pressing is a technology that is still used by Kew scientists today.

Secateurs and a trowel help her to take care of the glasshouse and maintain the health of the plants.  

Everywhere she goes, she carries a terrarium. It’s a miniature reflection of the glasshouse and allows her to keep the Temperate House close to her wherever she travels.

I hope when you meet Siyanda, you’ll be as inspired by her love of plants and the environment as I was when creating her