A new series, ‘A True Date with a Palm Tree’ (2019) looks at the historical migration of the Date Palm tree and its colonial and anthropological significance in botanical, and archival photographs, while interrogating its place in landscapes of political uncertainty- in particular in the wake of increasingly closed migration policies. The project combines a series of photo etchings with photographic C-type prints, and photographic transfers layered on coloured wood open frames. In addition, an edition of 50 visual essays in newspaper form have been printed. Extracts of that visual essay can be read below.
‘Alien and invasive species‘ (2019) Photo etching on wooden hand coloured support, C-type print on90 gsm paper, and tracing paper print on wooden hand coloured support
‘Palm Reading’ (2019) Composite photo etching, C-type print on 90 gsm paper, and tracing paper print on wooden hand coloured support
Fronds (2019) C-type photograph, two photo etchings, each on hand coloured, wooden, open frames, layered.
To-ing and Fro-ing (2019) Salt print and photo etching on open coloured wood frame
A TRUE DATE WITH A PALM TREE
50 Newspapers, Visual Essay (2019) A True Date with a Palm Tree, Victoria Ahrens (2000 words)
In a hidden corner of Burgess park, South East London, dates grow from orange fronds under a fanning palm tree in the middle of a tiled water feature in Chumleigh Gardens. No one very much goes there. It is empty, and on a hot Summer’s day, I come across this peaceful place. Built in response to a site where alms houses used to reside before the Second World War, in 1995 a multicultural garden “was designed “to reflect the area’s diversity” (Bridgetonowhere.org.uk, 2019). This Palm Tree sits at its centre, presiding over the African, Oriental, Mediterranean, Islamic and English Garden. With their dates and coconuts, wax and oils, palm trees have come to colonize the four corners of the world. Native to the Middle East; spread by the Romans as far as the Mediterranean; taken and transplanted by early Spanish colonialists from the Canary Islands to the Americas and distributed by European botanists to and from colonies in Asia, Africa and the Antipodes, and back to Europe, palms have become the symbol of successful uprooted-ness: synonymous with tropical views, pre-lapsarian lands, and exotic holidays.
My grandfather was particularly fond of them. It is next to a Palm tree that he stands in this silver print from his archive of Buenos Aires at the turn of the century. A self-portrait, his Leica camera positioned, arms crossed, hat titled to the right. It is not, however, his shadow that looms, but the fronds of another palm- a triffid head making its presence known, foreshadowing the photograph, in place of the photographer. My grandfather was tall, dapper, dressed up to the nines and keen on gardening, on looking after plants and trees that reminded him of nostalgic memories of his native lands, of Europe. Curious then that he chose the palm tree to frame this image. Centred behind him, the shadows of the palm leaves cascade all around, becoming a shadowy garland, a victory wreath, tentacles of a living species embracing the soil.
H.R Ahrens- A date palm at Palermo, (a self portrait) Buenos Aires, Argenting (c. 1930)
Note the palm trees on the left, he wrote on the back of this photograph. Why was he pointing them out all the time? What did they mean to him? I will never know. Yet there he is again, in a garden in Palermo, in Argentina- el ingles, the Englishman, with his accent, taller than most others at that time at two metres, like a palm tree himself (not these small bush-like ones) but long limbed, with large hands, and a coconut head. He stood out; so do the palm trees, in this landscaped garden, with its manicured pines and geometric features. By 1910 the Phoenix Canariensis was “listed in the catalogue of plants at the botanical garden of Buenos Aires”
H.R. Ahrens, ‘Note the Palm Trees on the Left’ (a self portrait) c. 1930, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Palm trees, of course, are not trees at all. They can be dated back to fossils that are 80 million years old, from the late Cretaceous period. They are dinosaurs of the plant world and have a multitude of variations. They are considered to be the most important plant species in economic and historic terms. Palm oil, for instance, can be found in all of our basic household products, from medicines, to face creams, to cooking oils. Palms permeate our world, invisibly present.
I have some indoor palms that inhabit my sitting room. Two areca palms. Colonial reminders of other landscapes, fronds that span out, increasingly, to find the sun that dapples the wooden floors through the open windows. They are small versions of Dominican palms, bearing tropical seeds. I speak Spanish to them, to remind me of other places, to create a dialogue through space and time with their variegated, feathered leaves- a kind of palm reading. They curve upwards, butterfly palms in multiple stems, that open out into fans, open handed. Dypsis Lutescens, evergreen in the grey sunless Winter, these and other species settling in for the duration. I care for them and tend them lovingly. These palms remind me of my childhood in Buenos Aires, of my grandfather, of afternoons sitting under them in a park in the city to get out of the scorching sun. I long for them in the cold of Winter. Some say they are ‘going native’ here in the UK. Climate change is ensuring they proliferate. Fashions and indoor gardens dictate their popularity. I think of the artists who depicted them, and how relevant they have become: Ed Ruscha’s Palm Series; John Baldessari’s Overlaps; Sigme Polke’s Palmatum (1968)- American visions of palm lined, sun soaked boulevards in California. No longer alien and invasive, but actively cultivated now in the UK, they have found their place inside the house, as ‘plant-pets’ to look after, to talk to. They provide company, oxygen, the semblance of an outdoor experience amongst the urban brick environment.
In the end, though, my grandfather, uprooted, sent half way round the world to fulfill models of colonial economic expansion, understood his status, and translated this through these and other self-portraits he took in gardens in Argentina: alien, yet settled; foreign yet native. In this photograph (above) the palm tree and the man, over time, are becoming one, the silver print degenerated, blending both into a seemless white imprint- the palm tree perhaps symbolizing a victory of sorts: the alien taking root, going native, the colonizer as criollo, born and bred, beginning to feel at home. These species of migration, next to their native counterparts, are now part of the imagined views of these places, the longed for ‘other’ of tropical beaches, of hot climates, of Robinson Crusoe and Lord of the Flies. Like the only surviving Mauritian Hyophorbe Amaricaulis palm, however, they are also at times endangered and unsustainable in equal measure. Palm hearts, delicacies that ironically rip out the heart of the palm species. Palm oil plantations decimating the soil. In a climate of considerable push back on migration policies, nevertheless, these emigré species, aliens of another time, colonial left overs, ‘breadcrumbs’ of the Columbian exchange, migrants with roots, are, at least for now, here to stay.
 Carlos Thays, El Jardín Botánico de Buenos Aires (Buenos Aires: Jacobo Peuser, 1919) p. 163
 My grandfather worked for the Vesty meat company in the port of Buenos Aires, importing and exporting meat
from Argentina to Europe, in particular corned beef that was given to soldiers in the first and second world wars.
 Norris, A. (2014) Ten Surprising facts about Palm Trees, Earth Matters [online] https://www.mnn.com/earth- matters/wilderness-resources/stories/10-surprising-facts-about-palm-trees (accessed 21/08/19)