Food as memory and life by Dee Marco

The Food Politics and Cultures Festival ran from 10 – 13 November 2017. The festival sought to engage with food in a holistic manner, highlighting inter-disciplinary and inter-sectoral perspectives. It brought together visual artists, creative writers, performance artists as well as academic and activist thought in creating a forum for innovative and engaging discussions, debates, conversations and potential networking. We are happy to share with you over the next few months, the contents of The Daily Gêba, a once-off paper curated by Dee Marco for the festival. Enjoy!

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Food as memory and life

As I started writing this piece, I could not escape the opening scene of Insecure. Issa Rae’s Insecure has literally changed perceptions around Black women’s roles and representations on television. We follow Issa’s ‘woke’ life, from her day job interactions with her do-gooder white colleagues, to her dissatisfying relationship, to the inner city black and Hispanic kids in the ‘We Got Y’all’ programmes. Insecure starts with the two best friends in a cozy Ethiopian restaurant for Issa’s 29th birthday. We are made aware of the popular diaspora cuisine in the scene, none of which include us actually seeing Issa or Molly eating but some of the references are the sign flashing, another patron being served the meal of decorated injira. I felt that this opening alluded to some of the ways in which food, eating, hunger, desire, politics and culture(s), are all lapsed into a single introductory moment… one which we do not latch onto as crucial to the plot of the show, but one which grounds the characters and their Black North American context into a universal ‘hip’ aesthetic, palate and temperament that speaks almost specifically to young people who can access to this version of ‘universality’. In essence, we are primed to believe that Issa and Molly are progressive, aware and cultured in their diverse tastes – that they have choice and agency, that they choose what they will eat and how.

There is another reason I couldn’t get the show off my mind –Issa’s first episode rap, ‘Broken pussy’ about young women’s desires and yearnings. Yearning, on its own, is not associated with food. Yearning in this context points to a slipperiness – an ever present awareness in relation to food and eating as acts themselves, needs which can be satiated. But yearning is also metaphorical – Issa raps about the insatiable – the tired (read Black) women who has had enough, who yearns for something more than the dissatisfied humdrum of the everyday. In the context of this show, yearning is also a metaphor for other versions of wants that are related to consumption, desire; tastes are thus also acts and positions. I see an inextricable link between ‘broken pussy’ and the sisterly camaraderie over Ethiopian food in Insecure, and, for example, Lady Skollie’s cover image for The Daily Gêba, titled ‘Kind of, sort of UNITED we stand: The Ups and Downs of competitive sisterhood’.

It is with this multifaceted tone of food and taste related to yearning, as currency(ies), that I wish to introduce and welcome you to the exhibition ‘Yearning for Taste’ and this accompanying edition of The Daily Gêba. This publication, which accompanies but is not limited to viewing the exhibition, ‘Yearning for Taste’, is one which incorporates texts from a range of positions and places. While the overarching theme for the show and festival is food and related concerns, the exhibition and this publication offer spaces which I hope resonate both as polemic and critical, as well as enjoyable and fruitful, in imagination and breadth. Here I mean that specific attention has been paid to really opening up the space for unearthing and simmering, which I hope can be conveyed through the various textures on show both in these pages and in the exhibition space.

The Food Cultures and Politics Festival (10 – 12 November 2017) more broadly, is also an engaging and explorative research and creative platform and this publication is one part of the significant contribution of the larger path breaking work(s). The exhibition and publication also lean in to various narratives of food cultures that are explored in the festival. One of them, the theme of memory, is very beautifully woven through by various texts and artworks, and is most fittingly emphasised in Sharlene Khan’s ode to her own mother in her work drawing on Trinh T. Minha’s work with the same title, When the Moon Waxes Red. Khan’s video and stills are part of a compassionate and beautiful series of which, in its very fabric and conception, weaves together constellations of food and culture. Her use of leaves, fruit and presence, create a magnetic and powerful image that stays secure in ones mind.

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My grandma Sally died and I wasn’t even there. She died to the sound of cauliflower bredie in the kitchen and the koleweintjies in the oven and Christmas pork made just so.

Ma Sally drank tea as an act of quiet deliberation – saucer, tea in saucer, blow blow…. Ilze Wolff’s letter to me reminded me of this generational narrative of tea – it too speaks of tea, the comforting and familiar role it played growing up and the ways in which tea (and the accompanying five minute break) came to mean so many things at the Rex Trueform factory.

My granny Stephie died and I wasn’t even there. My own mother has surpassed her age at death and I wonder if this plagues my own mother. I imagine it does but I don’t ask… instead, I remember two things – Grandma Stephie gave my sister and I sweets, and she cooked even though she couldn’t see. When I think of my grannies I think of them in relation to the smells in their kitchens as spaces of expression but also as spaces of duty. Even though she couldn’t see, Grandma Stephie knew how to traverse the kitchen as a space of blind action. When I think of my grannies I also think of family meals, Christmas meats, pickled fish, ‘Happy birthday to you-s!’. At the same time, thinking about these two women, and their culinary sets, unravels a history of finding my own feminist killjoy voice, both in opposition to normative scripts as well as within what might often be dismissed as banal or oppressed – spaces like kitchens, women like my grannies.  I am reminded of Sara Ahmed’s ‘Feminist Killjoys and Other Willful Subjects’ (2010). As Ahmed points out in this excerpt, her own killjoy ways can be traced back to a family table – Although I think these iterations of finding voice occur differently, my feeling is that many can relate to the sentiment.

“What is my story? Like you, I have many. One way of telling my feminist story would be to begin with a table. Around the table, a family gathers. Always we are seated in the same place: my father one end, myself the other, my two sisters to one side, my mother to the other. Always we are seated this way, as if we are trying to secure more than our place. A childhood memory, yes. But it is also memory of an everyday experience in that quite literal sense of an experience that happened every day. An intense everyday: my father asking questions, my sisters and me answering them, my mother mostly silent. When does intensity become tension?” (Ahmed, 2010: 1)

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The smell of the Gatsby hits me in a spectacular fashion – it is distinct in that oily vinegar way. In particular, the smell conjures up my teenage years when, after school, groups of students would make their way to the local TJ’s chips and gatsby spot. From what I remember, the gatsbys were great but that’s not really why everyone went – hoards of blue shirt and dress clad youths would  use this place to eat and to hang out away from the omniscient gaze of authority. For fifteen to eighteen year olds, this meant that the smell of cigarettes was as pervasive as the smell of slap chips. The promise of the after school Gatsby was really the promise of a small foray into an autonomous life outside of school teachers and parents… and even just inhaling the second hand smoke was a wildly dissident and adventurous act.

This is my personal memory of the Gatsby but thinking about this act and this time, also brings to mind Parusha Naidoo’s work on the show about eating hands and using our hands as utensils. In claiming our hands as meaningful objects in this way, Naidoo invites us to embrace the enjoyment of eating this way. Also relevant to note is Shirmeez Samai’s problematisation of healthy bodies and what really constitutes a healthy body.

The piece by Angelo Fick also anchors some of the many concerns of this show and the larger festival. Fick’s article steers us to think about food in various ways – politically, as metaphor, as ordering, as dissonant, as nationalist, among others. These concerns are to be taken seriously also when thinking about the title of this publication. Tazneem Wentzel’s double page spread in the form of a food map of Athlone, is an exciting venture into exploring food as intrinsically linked with culture and history. In the context of Athlone, Wentzel offers explorative ways of remembering how apartheid’s forced removals impacted on food cultures in Cape Town.

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‘Yearning for Taste’ is an exhibition about food and the cultural and political intersections that food, or the lack thereof, makes possible. It is an exhibition which thinks about food both as sustenance, political act and aesthetic object and taste. The intention was to bring together a range of works that incorporate an element, any, sometimes invisible, of food, and or any related matter. Having such a broad scope, related to the larger Food and culture project, has meant that the show incorporates a great variety of works, thinking of food as an intimacy, memory, a history, and intricately part of lives and people, both in their present(s) and their pasts. In this show, the notion of yearning takes on various tones and sensibilities.

Lady Skollie’s image invites us, for example, to think literally about the fruits as objects of consumption. At the same time, those fruits also pose as metaphors of desire and take on lives and positions of their own. Pointing to unapologetic intimacies, Kind of, sort of UNITED we stand: The Ups and Downs of competitive sisterhood, is also a satirical take on sisterhood. This reminds me of Issa and Molly, and the various women’s voices echoed throughout the works on this show and in the words in this newspaper. The notion of food-acts as intimate, or the kitchen as intimate space, is not new. Gabeba Baderoon has theorised about the deeply deliberate ways in which food and the kitchen have come to really illuminate problematic intimacies in slave narratives and histories, for example, and an excerpt from one of her Baderoon’s articles also appears in this publication. The relation between memory and food or food narratives is also explored in other works in this publication by Lauren Paremoer whose ‘Mens moet altyd dit in die huis hê’ conjures up many naughty and playful moments of experiencing food as a child… As does Suzall Timm and Donna Andrews’ dialogue with pickled fish.

Also relevant to this discussion is Berni Searle’s gripping images of large cooking pots. These reference cultural practices around community cooking for Eid, and again invites us to, like Wentzel’s food map of Athlone, remember and think about community and food as the basis for feasting, festivity and sharing. Searle’s pots also feel as though they are in dialogue with Khwezi Gule’s four course meal, another article in this publication in which Gule unravels meaning in the homelessness found in food through the way he relegates his own childhood stories of boarding school, childhood identity and the relationship between the body and food.

Works on the show by Churchill Madikida and Lawrence Lemaoana, both reference masculinities and problematic tendencies of assuming certain social hypermasculine roles and positions. Lemaoana’s lack of food at a table which is so reminiscent of the biblical ‘Last Supper’, leaves us feeling the lack. This is a feeling that stands in complete opposition to the excessive sentiment conveyed in the close up image of Madikida in Struggles of the Heart. Gwen Meyer’s series of works about the complexities of food ecosystems in Ethiopia, underlined by the fact that the country was not colonized, invites a gentle and explorative approach to thinking about sustainable food production and livelihoods. Leila and Zayaan Khan engage activist approaches to sustainable production and farming. Also on this show are works by artists from Ashton and Suurbrak, Donovan Julius and Sherriff Ramoabi. Students from UWC are also on this show and have either contributed to this publication or are in the exhibition itself. In particular, third year students from the Women’s and Gender Studies department were tasked with making creative works and many did an exceptional job.

By no means exhaustive, this introduction sets the tone for both exhibition and publication –a collaborative project of expression, memory and taste(s). Enjoy your slice of the gêba as well as the various works on show!

 

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