ICAF Lagos, 2017 - An Interview
Abraham Oghobase in conversation with Gor Soudan at I C A F Lagos 2017.
This conversation is centered on Gor’s food project in Nairobi and the influence of food, and the ‘stuff of food’, on our everyday lives and existence. What follows are some extracts from this conversation. This excerpt has been published in Kikulacho, Remains, Waste and Metonymy III, 2018 exhibition catalogue in Nairobi, Kenya.
Oghobase: Welcome to Nigeria, it is great to have you here all the way from Nairobi. Can you talk a bit about your practice and current projects?
Soudan: My practice, for a long time now, has been looking at patterns. However, what I am doing here in Lagos is a bit different, because I am here doing research for an upcoming exhibition in Nairobi, which is looking at urban landscapes through food. At the beginning it was difficult to find an entry point into this, as the concept of food initially seemed obvious. However, as I began to give this idea more thought, food soon became related to issues of politics, physical and ideological consumption, marketing and packaging, culture, language, human relationships, and the waste that comes from all of this. The simple word ‘food’ became this all-encompassing concept to start talking about urban life.
Oghobase: It is fascinating to hear how complex this theme of food actually is. We perhaps have a tendency to not reflect on issues so deeply, and as you say just see it as something obvious, or simply associate it with consumption to keep us alive. If you begin to look at food you can enter other social, political, philosophical and spiritual dynamics. For instance, if we think about Africa, food is used in ritual.
Soudan: I think what you have mentioned is integral to the idea of food. Ritual can be this formal aspect of taking communion in church, or fasting during Ramadan, for example. But also, even just sitting down eating a meal together, and the way we eat it, has a very ritualistic aspect to it. Though this also makes me think of how food brings us together and its production, or rather the movement from hunter gatherers to farming crops, has enabled communities to establish themselves and to settle in a place for a long time. So this advancement in knowledge and technology has allowed this change of living and a rise in settlements growing in scale; which also relates to urbanisation, in that urban centres increasingly came to rely on the surplus production of food from rural areas, to sustain those living and working there. There has been a whole industry created from this. Where we are now, if we look down on the streets of this part of Lagos, they are full of people selling fruits, vegetables and other produce. These are huge markets, and then there are of course the shops, advertising, packaging and other forms of marketing, all involved in the food industry.
Oghobase: This conversation is also making me reflect about looking at food from a historical perspective. For example, food has been, and in some instances still is, a symbol of wealth. Food is connected to trade and money. Food has played a major role, historically, in terms of our existence and developments of culture, and as a means of power over others. So from this we can also look at food from a psychological, political and social perspective. The dynamics of food are really eclectic. It can’t be quantified because it is life. Though also what if we look at it from the other end and start to think about waste? With you being here we can also start to think about similarities, and differences, between all these aspects of food and the different localities of Nairobi, Lagos and other urban spaces. For example, here it is popular to see a lady selling tea, eggs and noodles on the side of the road.
Soudan: In Nairobi the street food is often things like beans and chapati.
Oghobase: So even just talking about Chapatti shows the relation that Kenya and India have with each other. And from that we can look at other fruits and vegetables that we have today and how these are perhaps linked to colonialism. Soudan: Yes, food definitely represents the transference of culture. Much of the food we have is not native to the places where it is consumed. This makes me remember my primary and secondary education in Nairobi. We were taught how certain foods came with the Europeans, for example Irish Potatoes. Though, even now this is still happening. It is not only humans who cross borders but also food. One thing I can tell you about Nairobi now is the increase in Chinese restaurants. Even here I have noticed a number of Chinese restaurants. These restaurants serving food from different continents come to symbolise globalisation.
Oghobase: Do you think food can also be seen as a new form of colonialism?
Soudan: Perhaps a way to think about it is ‘who colonises what?’ Because in a way food colonises us. Like if I come back to what we were speaking about earlier when we moved from hunter gatherers, who never had a permanent settlement, to being able to have permanent settlements because we were able to grow crops. So it is these crops that colonised us because then we had to stay in a place – a place where there was sufficient water and a good environment for these crops to grow. So who colonises who? But as a result, this food has even inspired our architecture. We have to build places to store this food, like granaries, we build structures to protect the farms, and because we are in one space for a long time we can start to use different materials as they no longer need to be lightweight and easy to move.
Oghobase: These are interesting points and they also relate to issues of conflict which we see happening in Nigeria today. This has to do with the design of food, or the design of farms in Nigeria which are large fenced areas – which aim to limit peoples’ access to land. However, there are still nomadic tribes who travel to graze their animals, and because these farms take fertile spaces, conflict arises between the nomads and those who own the farms.
Soudan: This is a challenge that has persisted for a long time, the conflict between areas where people have settled and laid claim to the land and nomads who move from area to area seeking the best pasture for their livestock. How we grow, store and consume food has always inspired design. Especially when we start to think of functional design. Do we design things so that they function, or is it the function that inspires the design? One of the things that strikes me, because as I said I work with patterns, is when I was arriving to Lagos from Nairobi was the patterns on the land which are a result of our need for food. From up in the sky these patterns are really pronounced. These places of human agency, places on the landscape that we have touched, you see rows of crops growing, they have definitive borders with other farms or the wilderness, these farms are linked to roads and bridges, which through these passages connect the rural to the urban, connect the food to people, and in so doing enable these urban centres to survive.
Meet The Artist
Gor Soudan (1981), practice shifts fluidly from the conceptual and the philosophical to the physical and sensual. In its mind and body are dynamically engaged in an exploration, through material labour, of the social and material interactions observed in the world around him. His works simultaneously reference both the body and the landscape and cause us to reflect on how histories of human agency are written on both.
Food, and the nourishment it provides is vital in multiple and diverse ways; and it becomes central to people’s everyday experiences. Our relationship with and experience of food, its associated practices and the ‘stuff’ of food, is intriguingly complex, diverse, and ephemeral. Remains Waste and Metonymy III seeks to explore the ways that food – in all its diversity of material forms, meanings, symbolic association and values – has, and continues, to form, and give shape to multiple, contradictory, sensorial experiences of and insights into urban living. Using this as our central unifying theme, Remains Waste and Metonymy III considers the ephemeral and material significance of food; the multiple functions and interplay between food, performance, ritual and identity; the spaces for food’s production, distribution and consumption; and the multiplicity of physical, social and political networks and relations in which food is embedded.
Like the city, food is subject to change. It has an ephemeral nature; what is created, becomes consumed and provides vitality in a number of ways. Though what remains, becomes waste. Over time food decays, but its packaging remains, leaving traces of what once was. Food therefore is very temporary, it has a ‘life-span’. But this temporality extends beyond the tangibility of food into the multiple encounters associated with food and the mediating role of material things. The objects used to prepare and consume food, the tactile experiences involved in its production, consumption and marketing, the materiality of specific space, or the occasions marked by special dress, decoration and behavior, all influence and shape urban practices and reveal our sociality and our place in society.
Our connections with food – and the webs of meaning we spin with and around food – can be interpreted as a marker of our humanity. There is often something inherently communal about actions related to food – from growing, harvesting and slaughtering, to preparation, cooking, sharing and consumption. Food can, and often does, bring us together. It can also differentiate us. Meals often become a cornerstone of communal relations. Aspects of eating (what, when and where) and the associated rituals, ceremonies, fashions and taboos can be held up as powerful markers of who we are. And who we aren’t. Food is intricately linked to belief systems, cultural contexts, contradictory or coherent senses of self and community. This reflects the inherently complex socialites of food, which can denote, serve or reinforce social relations and boundaries, or alienate and set us apart. Access to food, or particularly kinds of food is also subject to restriction and shifting matrixes of inclusion and exclusion. Our relationship to food is influenced by governmental decisions that profoundly affect the economics of food production, and the quality and safety of food. Tyranny has often been built on the control over food, causing, at times, critical shortages, crises and famines.
The spaces used for eating, as well as food production and disposal, reveal different sites of control and power across the city. These may have been specifically designed, planned or designated, but such efforts are always limited, especially in Nairobi, where odd corners and verges of public space become appropriated to food production and consumption in improvised, yet creative and sometimes subversive ways. There are, in sum, many intriguing connections between food and place, inclusion and exclusion, gender, class, public and private, not mention bodies, persons and subjects, and the rituals, meanings and values that find orientation around or through the production, consumption and sharing of food; geographies of food, or in ‘foodscapes’ that reveal the fundamental role that food, and all of its diversity of social and material associated activities, plays in shaping urban environments and socialites. These foodscapes are much more than simply spaces of or for food production, distribution and consumption. They offer new ways to think about and participate in the socio-spatial practices of urban lives, both contemporary and historical, and the changing networks and relationships of people, plants, animals, places and substances that constitute the emergent city.
Using the theme of food as a way to think about and contextualize the urban lives and relationships that constituted and are constituted by the city, Remains, Waste and Metonymy III opens new possibilities for exploring and understanding the complex social and material lives that make and are made by urban environments; highlighting and questioning the varied roles food, the stuff of food, and its associated practices hold within everyday urban lives in Nairobi.
The artist proposes to make a visual installation presentation of work which will result from research in Lagos, Nigeria. The artist is intending to be in Lagos Nigeria, during the proposed production period for Remains, Waste and Metonymy III, to participate in another concurrent project with Vernacular Art-space Laboratory residency program 11th to 30th November, Lagos, culminating in an exhibition during Iwaya Community Art Festival, December 6th to 12th.
Lagos is Africa’s most populous urban center, and the artist`s work will focus on complexities revolving around production, supply, consumption and disposal of food in Africa’s most populated city. The residency period and festival will function as a research and production period for the work that will be presented in Nairobi on February 28th next year. The artist proposes to present an installation of work which will be connected, but not be limited to, the body of work that will have been shown in Lagos, in this way presenting a sense of Nairobi looking in and out with Lagos as the dynamic.
Lagos and Nairobi, apart from their obvious geographic differences share vast similarities politically, socially and economically. Both of them are dominant economic hubs in their respective regions and share the same colonial legacy, but they nevertheless vary in their sense of food culture. It is of interest to the artist to look at how this may be, in terms of texture, marketing and ceremonies that go with food consumption and production. How is food consumed publicly? How is food consumed at home? How is it disposed of? The artist will undertake visual research and production work in Lagos` at different places of food encounters; food production facilities, food markets, public eateries, in the homes and finally at points of food disposal as the I C A F Lagos 2017 Artist-in-Residence program requires the artist to embed themselves with a Lagos family and locality. As a result, the project will focus on sensing Lagos food production, consumption and waste from the artists` own origin, Nairobi, so as to offer a city to city transfer which hopefully will translate in a greater sense of perspective of complexities of food production, consumption and disposal for audiences in both cities.
Note: Iwaya Community Art Festival (I C A F Lagos) is now Iwaya Community Art Biennial (I C A B Lagos).