In her new book ‘Did You Know We Taught Them How to Dance?‘, artist Zina Saro-Wiwa narrates an interaction between herself and Africa, laying¬†claim to her Niger Delta homeland. She writes, “I make food to tell stories. I make food so that people receive whatever alchemy or magic happens when eating another culture‚Äôs food. To tell them something. Or perhaps it is just my way of telling myself that the land belongs to me too. That it is not worthless. That the labour of so many women is not for nothing.”
Released this month, ‘Did You Know We Taught Them How to Dance?’ is part catalogue of her¬†first solo museum presentation of the same name, part recipe book, and part personal history of the artist who grew up in the UK.¬†The fact that it need not be one thing is fitting for the complexity of the region it brings stories from.
Ogoniland in the Niger Delta has suffered decades of crude oil extraction resulting in extreme environmental and social damage.¬†Zina is the daughter of Ken Saro-Wiwa,¬†who was executed by the Nigerian military government for¬†his human rights and environmental activism.¬†This legacy of oil politics, violence and environmental degradation has firmly entrenched itself in both news and narrative about the region.
In her work Saro-Wiwa has found herself using the recipes and¬†raw produce of the area to share the richness of her culture; not to retell these stories but to add to them. In Port Harcourt, she has set up a contemporary art gallery called Boys‚Äô Quarters Project Space¬†in her father’s old offices to promote creative talent and culture in the city.
“Food is using me to tell stories.”
How important is food as part of your practice?
As a video artist I have focused on the idea of emotional landscapes and exploring the territory where the personal and political meet. But food has been dancing around my practice. Recently it dived right into the middle of it and took it over, somewhat. My video installation series Table Manners is an example of this and also the feasts and banquets that I put on are another example. And then this summer I am doing a Boys‚Äô Quarters exhibition centred around a single fruit. But food has always been there. Even before I was an artist. As a child I always imagined having a cooking show. When I was working as a TV presenter in the UK in my twenties, an agent was concocting a TV series for me based on African food. In my 2009 documentary This Is My Africa I had a food section where my interviewees talked about their favourite African food. But then food started to move for me. I feel like I‚Äôve been watching it. Watching how it‚Äôs become so important when trying to bring life to a depressed area. I‚Äôve watched how it has become so important to millennials. I observe so-called hipsters and their way with food, the way they use it as a tool, a weapon, a form of identity. I have always been a foodie but now food is using me to tell stories. It has invaded my practice and it is telling me to stop waiting by the sidelines, which I feel like I have been for two decades. It is asking to be placed more centrally within my practise. I am hoping it might bring about the transformations I am looking for both in the world around me and in my life personally.
Who taught you to cook?
My lessons have come from multiple places. I remember watching my mother cooking. She cooked a lot more when we were younger and liked to try new things. We were also taught to cook in our ‚ÄúHome Economics‚Äù classes at school. But I also remember watching and absorbing a lot of TV chefs from a very young age. To this day I continue to learn to cook from watching cookery shows, reading recipes online and through books. In Nigeria I also learn how to make traditional dishes from watching our house assistant or going into the village and learning that way. But mostly after watching and absorbing I shut the book or computer and start improvising. I find my mistakes are my greatest teachers.
TABLE MANNERS: #2: Barisuka Eats Roasted Ice Fish and Mu
What was behind your decision to return to the Niger Delta after 13 years? What was it like at first to be back, how have these feelings changed during your time there since?
I went back to Port Harcourt in 2013 in order to do a self-imposed residency and produce a body of work that enabled me to enter into life in the Niger Delta and tell stories from the region through contemporary art. The 20th anniversary of my father‚Äôs death was coming up and I wanted to be able to tell a different kind of story and reflect in a more generative and productive way on his legacy. Being there, at first, was very hard. I went around feeling a little lost and unhappy. Port Harcourt is not an easy place to love. It‚Äôs not beautiful, not particularly cultured and it hides its jewels. But they are there. And each trip has got easier. Now I am in a pretty exciting creative groove. My (super minimal) staff around me are trained a bit and know what needs to be done both in the gallery and when we are on a shoot, my house assistant who I cook with understands my culinary quirks and is ready for experimentation. We are becoming an increasingly efficient little art-making machine.
“I hope that I have found an air hole. A place to breathe. Where we can start to rediscover who we are without oil.”
What urged you to create art to express what you want to say? For you, what is the power of art to change or add to a narrative over something like journalism?
I think art simply allowed me to express all the complexities inside me and didn‚Äôt say that I had to leave anything behind because it didn‚Äôt fit a format. With journalism – especially with TV – story and ideas were sacrificed for format. TV always seemed more important than life. Also with journalism I was always being told that I needed to take the audiences knowledge base into account all the time. This sort of contravenes what I am about. For example, rather than introduce people to Nigerian cuisine I prefer to play with it and present my new concoctions. I‚Äôm not worried if you‚Äôve never tried or heard of garri or periwinkle. I just want to play and find new ways into the flavours. So art stops me from feeling guilty about that. But art has simply allowed me more freedom to say what I need to say in the way that it needs to be said. Sometimes words are not what is required. Sometimes it is gesture. Sometimes it is a culinary experience. Sometimes it is an isolated sound presented in a particular way.¬† The contemporary art world gives me the freedom to decide how to tell a story.
If you google ‚ÄúNiger Delta‚Äù the first two headings that come up are ‚ÄòConflict in the Niger Delta‚Äô and ‚ÄòEnvironmental issues in the Niger Delta‚Äô. What alternative narratives do you hope to highlight?
I think the story of petroleum and its extraction has buried the hundreds of other stories there are to tell about the region. Our pre-colonial heritage, our visual culture, our culinary heritage, our cosmologies. I hope that I have found an air hole. A place to breathe. Where we can start to rediscover who we are without oil. I have also been suggesting that we in the Niger Delta have to come up with our own concept of what environmentalism actually is. I have been exploring the relationship between self and environment through my work and through the shows I curate in my gallery in Nigeria. Through this work I have realized that there are many layers of invisible ecosystems that must inform our idea of environment. Spiritual, emotional ecosystems and more‚Ä¶ I also hope that it is through respect for and engagement with land and culture that we can look outside oil as being our only source for economic sustenance. With time I hope to prove the power and importance of cultural sustenance. And more prosaically I hope that when you Google ‚ÄúNiger Delta‚Äù in future, our culture and not just our tragedies manages to find a way onto your search lists.
Would you define your work as protest?
Fairly or unfairly, protest art implies something surface and political to me. All I know is that I am more interested in work that pulls the rug from under everyone‚Äôs feet and opens up realms of understanding. I am interested in challenging the spectrum. Both ends of it. Offering new ways of accessing the story and in fact expanding what ‚Äúthe story‚Äù itself might be. Isn‚Äôt that what art is for?
What is the significance of the specific scenarios and dishes selected for Table Manners?
Table Manners is one of the video installations that I made that form part of my first solo show which is called Did You Know We Taught Them How To Dance?. It depicts individuals in the Niger Delta eating a meal from start to finish. At the end of the work I state where the eating has taken place. So far I have filmed around ten of these films. I have quite a few more to go. Or I may never stop making them. In any case, the food in the first ‚Äúseason‚Äù of this work is food that is local to Ogoniland and Port Harcourt in the Niger Delta. The shoots tend to take place where the person lives or works or in a local buka which is a makeshift roadside restaurant we have in Nigeria. And yet there is an element of construction: the backgrounds, what they are wearing and what they eat off is carefully and painstakingly selected from whatever is available within the vicinity of the filming. But I don‚Äôt bring in props. So we are telling the story of place as well. In terms of the food I think it is just about sharing the names and the look of the food that we put into our bodies in that part of the world. That is certainly part of it. I think our food is still unknown to those who are not from West Africa. Having said that this is not a work that seeks to ‚Äúshowcase‚Äù our cuisine. I think, rather, it ‚Äúshowcases‚Äù the souls of the eater and, inadvertently, the watcher.
TABLE MANNERS #1: Felix Eats Garri & Egusi Soup
How does this work (Table Manners) support the idea that the personal is political?
I think just by existing. My response to all the political talk surrounding the Niger Delta is to show people eating and enjoying their food in their own environment. Locating them firmly in their own space. Exposing the invisible forces that bind people to where they are from. Eating is a powerful act I feel. Sharing a meal with someone is also powerful. Even if the viewer of this work is (probably) not eating, they are sharing something with my sitter through that monitor. And that connection, I think, is important. Most of the world feels as if they have very little in common with someone from the Niger Delta. And yet the connection is there. It is one of the world‚Äôs primary oil producers. People should know about the place where the oil and petroleum-based products they make use of has come from. So in a sense this work invites people to come in, sit down and commune with people from that region. That is just one small aspect of this work I suppose. Connecting people not through political rhetoric but through food. But that is only one way in.
“Until recently when it came to discussing food and Africa it was always discussed through the lens of malnutrition and how to help poor women farmers.”
In ‚ÄòThe Mangrove Banquet‚Äô essay in your new book you write, ‚ÄúThey don‚Äôt give much up. They say very little. But if you take the time and ask questions, those herbs, plants, seeds, and spices all have a story.‚Äù What do you mean by that?
I think I was referring to the problems of extracting information about food that I personally experienced whilst working in Nigeria. I wouldn‚Äôt presume to speak for all the other culinarily-curious Nigerians out there, but getting information about our individual ingredients and foodstuffs is not as straightforward as picking up a book, going online or even asking people. In the Niger Delta for example there is the language problem. There are so many local languages and one leaf has multiple different names. I think that a general trend is that we in Africa and certainly Nigeria have not told our food stories and shared recipes to the same extent as other cultures. That is an understatement in fact. Though it is getting easier every day as more information is being put online (social media is an exponentially generous gift in this regard), compared to other food cultures there is very little information about our local West African or even just African ingredients.
It‚Äôs funny, a lot of seeds, spices and leaves that we use are often written up as being ‚Äúfrom Asia or South America‚Äù. But there are no stories surrounding African usages of such spices. I remember listening to a recent BBC Radio 4 food program about ‚Äúbitterness‚Äù. Talking about how bitterness has fallen out of favour in mainstream Western diet but that cultures in the Far East and India still valued its medicinal properties. I kept waiting for them to talk about some of the African ideas about bitterness but it never came. There was next to no acknowledgment that this is a part of our own approach to nutrition. The idea of bitterness is such a big deal for us in Nigeria. I think about bitter leaf and bitter kola. Falomo bitters. But I guess it‚Äôs because we don‚Äôt tell our own stories enough – and we certainly don‚Äôt tell our culinary stories. Also there is this pervading idea that we are ill-at-ease in some way in our environment: we can‚Äôt farm properly; we suffer from drought; we can‚Äôt feed ourselves.
I used to complain about this perception a lot and now things are changing I feel, but up until recently when it came to discussing food and Africa it was always discussed through the lens of malnutrition and how to help poor women farmers. There was nothing about the immense amount of knowledge these women farmers actually have. Nothing about the food we make and eat. Our food culture was supposedly about lack, not about abundance. So for me it is about crouching down and listening. Learning. That is what I was writing about in my book. I think of food – fruit, vegetables and seeds and not just animals – as having a form of soul. Telling us a story. They are kind. Some of them are shy. They are very polite also. But once we have decided to listen to the plant or spice, and later listened to our bodies, then I believe that it will tell us all sorts of things. Then we can have some fun.
The Niger Delta historian Ebiegberi Joe Alagoa wrote about the exhibitions held at Boys‚Äô Quarters, ‚ÄúAt each exhibition Zina serves food and drinks created from local Nigerian produce.‚Äù This seems an obvious choice considering the location of the gallery, but the fact that it bears mentioning hints to a bigger significance. If so, could you speak about what this simple act means for you?
Feeding everyone that comes to the gallery is very important to me. People come for the art but for me it is important to nourish them from the inside also. To show creativity and tell stories not just through paints, materials and video art, but also through local ingredients. Food tells stories once it is inside you too. It has this mysterious power that I want to harness as part of my practise. My gallery exists to explore the relationship between self and environment and so food must play a part in that, as food is a part of the Niger Delta environment. I serve dishes that I have invented using local ingredients. It is about re-imagining what we already eat. They have included meat pies stuffed with goat and papaya, tigernut and orange cake, goat and hibiscus soup, puff puff with pineapple and scent leaf curd, akara stuffed with pounded avocado and sorgor leaf salad‚Ä¶ the list goes on. Some of the recipes are in my catalogue.
Why did you include recipes in your book?
I think it was to honour this part of my experience in the Niger Delta. The book is not just a catalogue of work that is in the show, it is also a book that talks about my residency in the Niger Delta. Food was and is a big part of my life there, so it seemed strange not to tell stories about that aspect of my experience in my book. As usual food found its way into my practice and now the recipe stories occupy the beautiful orange pages in the book. Someone described these pages as ‚Äúpalm-oil stained‚Äù. I love this.