I recall sorting grains with my family in childhood, siting on the floor with a stainless steel dish and parsing the grains with our fingers to remove any debris. The activity lent itself to being social as our hands were occupied with a menial task, but we were free to engage with others in the activity. The idea of collective work as a form of social activity was inherent in pre-industrial lifestyles. In the modern world we seek social nourishment outside of 'work'. Labour has become mechanised, and labourers become machines, expected to perform and produce at the highest possible rate. The value in menial and repetitive tasks is overlooked in the pursuit of mass production.
Following my earlier 'FREEWHEEL' performance at NAE OPEN 2022, I was artist in residence at the New Art Exchange in Nottingham, where I connected with local growing spaces and the people of those spaces.
I wanted to sort the grains that were the result of the 'FREEWHEEL' performance so that they could be used again. I decided that the sorting of the grains was an important activity to perform, and not one I could accomplish easily on my own, so inviting others to share the work seemed a natural recourse. I invited nine women I'd met through my time at NAE to sit in a circle together and sort the mixture of nine different grains.
In entering the work, all I was looking to do was sort the grains. But in giving myself to the work, I realised it gave back in return.
The nine women were each asked in turn 'what is your relationship with food?'
This inquiry brought forth many perspectives from the experiences of nine women who all lived in the locality and had some connection to the green spaces there. Topics that emerged in their responses to the seed query were many and diverse. The women spoke about the structures that formed their relationships with food, and the factors that shaped and re-shaped them. The topics that took form in the sorting circle were; childhood nurture through food, domestic space contending for food use, intergenerational bonding through food preparation, recognising unpaid labour of care through cooking, repair of eating disorders through working with plants, friendships formed through learning to cook together, gardening as a grieving process, the dining space as personal sanctuary, restoration of family ties through learning to cook, belonging to community through shared growing space, sharing cultural food knowledge as a barrier breaking between cultures.
I chose nine women as I had nine grains to sort, and nine also has special significance in the Hindu mythology which I grew up with. I took this nine as being the nine goddess forms of Shakti that are celebrated during the festival of nine nights - Navratri.
"I think the simplest and most ordinary of actions that bring people together, that being women together, hold such subtle subversions in them.
That the work provides a space for conversation, especially a conversation about food and home and histories and identities, makes it extremely relevant and fulfilling"
(Janhavi Sharma , Visual Artist participant feedback)
The sorting circle took place in one of the growing spaces I connected with, Windmill Community Gardens close to NAE. Participants were invited to gather herb teas and fruits for refreshment from the gardens.
all images below were kindly photographed by Cindy Sissokho of New Art Exchange.