On Ameena Rojee

Words by Madeleine Bazil

Welcome to Confluences, a column on art, kinship and life.

“My practice is always engaged in some form of story or an investigation of a negotiation of our space,” photographer Jermaine Francis tells me in Issue #14’s interview, A Storied Ground. I’m reminded of these words through the work of our very own Wednesday newsletter editor, Ameena Rojee, whose photographic series, Rural Croydon, is in exhibition at London’s Thornton Heath Library until the end of July. Commissioned by This Is Croydon and London Borough of Culture 2023 in partnership with the National Gallery as part of Constable Visits - the project seeks to reimagine perceptions of the area: documenting its surprisingly rural, wild and beautiful corners. As the exhibition text notes: “Roaming cattle, charming meadows, an abundance of rare wildflowers… poetic scenes like this aren’t usually what comes to mind when ‘Croydon’ is mentioned. And yet, these are all part of Croydon’s truth.”

In considering our current theme, connection, I’m interested in instances like this where it bears looking below surface level to understand the inextricable links between and amongst the natural world and built environment. As Rojee explains, it was the pandemic and lockdown that drove her to draw connections between her own life and the environments around her. “Even just photographing in my garden, this space that I thought was so familiar and known to me, helped me learn and see so many new things, and change my perspective - including on old photographs that I'd taken of Croydon and my home over the years,” she tells me, “It's like connecting the missing dots.”

To bring these methodologies back becomes an act of connection to pre-industrial old ways of engaging with nature, as well as to the deep cycles of symbiosis it’s possible to achieve with the natural world.

Croydon has a forgotten natural history, I learn, which Rojee’s work particularly draws on. “Remains of the Great North Wood that used to cover most of south London can still be seen in places in Croydon, but there's also a hint of our natural heritage in many place names,” Rojee says. And much of Croydon is comprised of chalk grassland: a species-rich land home to many of the UK’s rarest habitats (eight species of orchids grow in Croydon alone) and which has been disappearing rapidly, with nearly 80% of such grasslands lost in the past 80 years. But several organisations and charities in recent years have been working toward restoring the area’s rich biodiversity - largely doing so through conservation grazing, a centuries-old technique in which livestock (primarily sheep, plus cattle and goats) graze the land to preserve the ecosystem and manage it for wildlife. The project’s website points out that “some of Croydon’s chalk grasslands would have been grazed from the mediaeval times until conservation grazing was abandoned, in some places as long as a century ago.” To bring these methodologies back becomes an act of connection to pre-industrial old ways of engaging with nature, as well as to the deep cycles of symbiosis it’s possible to achieve with the natural world. As Rojee states: “There's also so much knowledge I gained through this project, about the land, its management and the animals that are used to do so. A piece of information which really blew my mind and way of thinking was this: that though these lands where conservation grazing are in a way, ‘man-made’, these habitats have some of the best biodiversity in Europe."

The pastoral, idyllic photographs of Rural Croydon show this act of connection and rejuvenation in action: a rosy sunset over rolling fields; a group of sheep serenely waiting to be sheared; a close-up shot of blooming wildflowers; portraits of the people involved in the conservation efforts surrounded by the environment in which they work. Rojee recalls the most striking moment that occurred during the process of making the body of work: encountering cattle for one of the first times, an unfamiliar sight in a familiar place. “It was an incredibly foggy day, very atmospheric, and in the distance, I realised there were some big, bulky dark shapes. They were bulls! Their gorgeous red-brown fur popped in the muted winter landscape, and I stayed with them for a long time, taking photographs and just watching, wondering what in the Narnia was going on that there were bulls in this park where I used to play football as a child.” What a cycle of connection, indeed.

Ameena Rojee’s photobook, ‘Crocus Valley’, published by RRB Photobooks, shows another side of Croydon; something softer that coexists with the hard realities, and a story which champions Croydon’s rich natural heritage. It will launch as part of the London Borough of Culture programme in August – pre-order the book here.

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Words by

Madeleine Bazil

Madeleine Bazil is a multidisciplinary artist and writer interested in memory, intimacy, and the ways we navigate worlds - real and imagined. She c… Learn more

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