I fell in love with plants thanks to Tumblr. Living rooms with curtains of trailing runner plants hovering round ceiling high windows and all-white bedrooms coloured with rattan-potted Monsteras presented themselves to me as beauty. As soon as I moved into the first room of my own, I started collecting plants and flowers on trips to the Sunday flower market on Columbia Road in London. Even though my thumb is far from being green, I did my best to baby them and in return, they mothered me with their company, beauty and oxygen.
During a very difficult period last year, I encountered Jenny Odell’s book ‘How to Do Nothing‘ in which she made the case for paying attention to our surrounding natural world to as a way of tending to our senses of nuance, context and belonging in the world. By then I had developed a hobby in flowers, already exploring their scents (intense lilies!) and photographing flowers on the streets; her mandate only made me more committed.
Not long after that encounter with Odell I moved back home to Enugu, Nigeria, where I tried to continue my hobby; however, the landscape was different. Yes, it is a very vegetative city, but flowers are harder to come by. Part of the cultural difference is that flowers aren’t a thing here. Most weddings use fake flowers, most people refer to landscaping shrubs as “flowers” and very rarely can you find live plants indoors.
One day, my cousin shared a bouquet of fresh flowers online to promote her friend’s business. Three chains of connection later and I was given Aunty Uche’s phone number and a date to visit what I thought was a small garden of flowers.
It has been fifteen years since Aunty Uche and her family moved to this compound that came with a vast expanse of land for cultivation, where she now grows both flowers and crops. The land has a fence separating the compound from a stream. Every week, for months now, I go there to learn more about plants, indulge in their beauty and let their grace wash over me. On the first day, my wandering destructive fingers crushed a bud and soon I learnt that the cost of such carelessness could be an entire paw-paw tree.
From Aunty Uche I have learnt that you can tell the species of mango tree by tasting their leaves, and how lessons from the Parable of the Barren Fig Tree from the Bible (Luke 13:9) helped her save one of her paw-paw trees.
For this project, I sat down with my dear Aunty Uche to talk about the home she has made out of the land.
Aunty Uche & Immaculata
Was it a deliberate choice to move to a home with a farm or was this a surprise?
It was not deliberate; we were simply looking for a quiet, bigger place compared to the flat where the children grew up. It had the size and the serenity, and the added joy of being able to plant flowers in real soil and not just in pots. My husband and I enjoy flowers even though I do the nurturing. In previous places we lived, people used to say jokingly that you’ll know which was our flat by the flowers on the balcony. Good thing the children were already grown and most had moved out for school. But they took to it, nonetheless; they accepted it and liked it for the spaciousness that afforded them privacy, and the adventure!
How did you go about tilling this from the bush it was fifteen years ago? What has that journey been like?
We have done it with assistance, both paid and unpaid. Then, we had domestic help and the children. Rachel has been working with us for over ten years. The children found it exciting to nurture the immediate environment around the house, to plant things and watch them grow, but the larger expanse of bush in the compound required clearing for which we continue to have paid help. Sometimes we get people that come to help us cultivate cassava and so we’re sure we’ll have hands to help with weeding from time to time.
Have you had any major challenges living on such a large expanse of land, some of it uncultivated?
Crawling rodents and reptiles. Twice we’ve had the same seven-foot snake come through the soak-away and up the guest room toilet – but no casualties so far!
Do you or your children have any favourite memories from the land?
For me, it’s the fact that this was bare land when we moved in. Anyone coming here now would think these plants have been like this since, but we put in everything – even the climbing Monstera on the wall and the Ixora hedge on the roundabout with the oak tree. I remember when I was planting the Ixoras and one of my husband’s friends came visiting. I recall him telling me that the beauty will show really nicely in a year’s time. Seeing what we have put into the years of nurturing come out so well is a lovely continuing memory.
Does the farm have any mystery for you that fifteen years on you’re still trying to decode?
Not one thing that I know of. It is a private property that is not owned by us, so ultimately, it’s a place to live in for the moment and when the time comes, we let it go and move on. My life principle is that if you’re a faithful steward with what belongs to another, yours will come to you.
Immaculata & Black River
I am from Enugu, Nigeria, and currently live between here and Oxford, UK where I am completing a Master’s degree in global and imperial history. Since 2017 I have been working as a photographer covering a range of genres from fashion to events. I’ve not always had photography as my primary work due to financial difficulties or my studies, but I am now working to establish myself as a career photographer specialising in documentary, editorial and portrait photography.
What’s your story?
I was drawn to the medium from childhood when my siblings and I used to make home music videos with my mother’s camcorder. The first gift I asked for, at six years old, was a Kodak which I was never even allowed to use. I wish it made me a better photographer, that I have been obsessed with the medium forever, but I think that it just means I have a fundamental commitment to appreciating what photography can do, a commitment I will always be able to draw upon to see me through challenges of the trade.
As a teenager without a photo-making tool at hand, I studied as much as I could with limited resources and access. For example, I remember studying the ‘Canon Rebel T3i For Dummies’ book for half a year before my parents got me a the camera, my first camera. I also consumed a lot of imagery when I signed up to Tumblr in the early 2010s. When I looked at images by Andre D. Wagner, Street Etiquette and others, that feeling I got in my heart let me know that I was cuffed.
2017 marked the last significant shift in my journey, because that year I got a friend to make a logo for me and I started telling people I could offer my services for a fee. Later in 2018-2019, I got my first in-house job as a photographer at my university’s student union. I’ve been working on long-term project since then and taking on freelance work.
Tell us about a piece of art that has influenced you.
One of my first-year undergrad modules was an Introduction to Cultural Theory class in which we read Raymond Williams’s essay ‘Culture is Ordinary’. In it he writes:
“Culture is ordinary: that is the first fact. Every human society has its own shape, its own purposes, its own meanings. Every human society expresses these in institutions and in arts and learning.”
Let me tell you – that essay gave bones to the blob of feelings I had about the world, about human life and how I wanted to engage with it. One great thing it did for me was affirm the idea that everyone and everything and every society had something to teach us about every other person, every other thing and society. This charged me with the confidence to explore any thing/topic/occurrence anywhere, believing in the generative capacity of all things.