Food for Thought from found materials
There is plenty of food for thought in South Africa’s entry into the 2021 Textile Biennial at Museum Rijswijk in the Netherlands.
I am a food person. I like to think that I write about the culinary arts with a modicum of knowledge and skill. I am not nearly so self-assured when it comes to offering opinions on museum or gallery-based Art with a capital A. On the rare occasions that I find myself in such settings I am almost always baffled, exhausted and/or irritated by the commentary in catalogue essays and programme sheets. It is not the art that I find overwhelming but rather other people’s explanations of it.
All of the above is my long winded way of apologising in advance for doing exactly what I hate in others. I was inspired to rush in where I generally fear to tread by South Africa’s entry into the 2021 Textile Biennial at Museum Rijswijk in the Netherlands. Identifying the specifics of exactly what and why I was so intrigued by the piece is where pseuds-corner verbiage might arise but let’s give it a go. Should such stuff creep in, please know that it emanates from the writer (me) rather than the artists exhibiting in Rijswijk.
Museum Rijswijk’s 2021 Textile Biennial runs from 29 August 2021 to 16 January 2022 and displays the work of 20 international artists, using fabrics, fibres and found materials to illustrate the exhibition’s theme of Food for Thought. A Smörgåsbord of textile art works, some serious, others silly, are on offer. Deliciously daft British pop art, crochet queen Kate Jenkins is showing her charmingly lifelike woolen “tins” of overflowing orange yarn spaghetti letters.
Surinamese artist Marcel Pinas literally and figuratively pulls at strings from his Maroon (African enslaved escapee) heritage with a piece featuring hundreds of traditional preserves wrapped in spiritually significant ancestral cloth. South African-born, Netherlands-based designer Hendrik Coetzee’s two-part land and sky collage (made up of deconstructed strips of landscape paintings) offers alarmingly eloquent insight into Dutch consumption patterns, industrial agriculture land use and CO2 emissions.
I found these and many other offerings intriguing but it was the culinary collaboration between Hannerie Visser from Studio H, Cape Town, Weskusmadjie, (a fisherwoman collective from Steenberg’s Cove) and the Keiskamma Trust in Hamburg, Eastern Cape that really floated my boat.
The installation offers an ever changing, hanging reflection on the sustainability of South African seafood and the communities from whence it comes. Heritage recipes have been attached with a selection of spices to the lattice of much-mended Steenberg fishing nets. Beneath recipes for waste not want not classics (such as fisher activist Hilda Adams’s snoekkop soup and Hannerie Visser’s ouma’s viskring) lies lettering embroidered by Keiskamma needlewomen. At the base of the piece sits Visser’s heirloom family cookbook, open to her ouma’s recipe for viskring.
The artist explains that “the observer is invited to remove recipes and as each flavour marker is pulled off, the underlying, initially obscured, embroidery gradually spells out the name of each dish. As the nets move in response to recipe removal, the unmistakable scents of the sea and spices waft out of the installation”.
Visser refuses to constrain the installation with explanations. While my capacity to interpret art has already been shown to be, at best, limited I was profoundly moved by the wave-like comings and goings of visible and invisible as light and shadow formed and reformed on the nets throughout the day. I saw interwoven issues of capture and entanglement, survival and insecurity, fragility, resilience in South Africa’s small-scale fishing communities.
I understood each mend as a manifestation of lives and livelihoods held together through wave after wave of customary fishing rights restricted and removed in political and economic storms past and present. Each recipe detached reminded me of networks pulled apart in communities who have been catching and cooking fish for hundreds of generations – communities with direct ancestral connections to the region’s (and indeed the world’s) first fisher folk.
There is a tendency to undervalue the impact of art but as Weskusmadjie coordinator and fisher activist Hilda Adams observes “there are a lot of misconceptions about who we are and where we have come from. This is an awesome opportunity to make our heritage and our values known. Ours is a culture with a long history of sustainable, healthy eating and resilience in the face of increasing food insecurity”.
“The art project can raise awareness of the crisis in our food system and underline the ways in which women in our communities are central to survival. There is so much strength and determination. Those nets… it is literally the fabric of our society.” DM/TGIFood
When they aren’t involved with art installations, the women of the Weskusmadjie collective make pickled bokkoms and rollmops and other traditional preserves that they sell through online seafood empowerment marketplace Abalobi.
The author supports The Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Children in Manenberg. Their 24-hour crisis response service provides holistic social work support which includes housing and feeding up to 120 survivors of domestic violence daily.