Reporting back on the International Symposium on Food Studies in Pretoria, South Africa


This past weekend – the 21st and 22nd of July – I attended an International Symposium on food studies at the University of Pretoria. The Symposium was organised by Professor Desiree Lewis, from the Faculty of Arts, University of the Western Cape and Professor Vasu Reddy, from the Faculty of Humanities, University of Pretoria. It forms part of the work of the Food Politics and Cultures project, a capacity building project based at UWC.

Drawing attention to the the centrality of “food in discursive and cultural processes”, the symposium asked questions such as how might we move beyond purely focusing on “issues of consumption, survival and food security to focus also on complex relationships between food and human experiences”. The interdisciplinary program aimed to “generate conversations among academics, postgraduates and artists interested in deepening humanities-oriented food studies and inter-epistemic dialogues about the social, cultural and human meanings of food cultures and systems within transnational encounters.”

The event hosted speakers from a range of disciplines, such as Cultural Studies, Sociology, Public Health, Literary Studies, Drama, Sociology, Gender Studies, Fine Art, Culinary Arts, Food Sciences, Media and Communication. This opened up the space for a wide variety of presentations on the program, from presentations on African literature and food, to food waste, to meat and masculinities, to art and the representation of food. The opening talk was given by Professor Gabeba Baderoon from Penn State University, whose presentation was titled “Groundwork: Food, Making and Metaphor.” I thoroughly enjoyed this talk on the importance of uncovering histories on foodways from times of slavery in Cape Town which have been widely neglected. Her beautiful personal and political presentation wove together history, literature and the uncovering of threads about foodways to tell a powerful and neglected history of how Cape Town came to be. Professor Jonathan Bishop Highfield from Rhode Island School of Design presented a talk titled “All Yesterday’s Meals: Food as Archive.” This was focused on a fascinating set of work he has been collecting on foodways and maize in Africa, their origins and formations around the continent. It was very exciting to be able to spend some time talking about maize farming and foodways with someone else researching a similar theme.

In the last session of the conference I presented my research and where I am so far with the PhD.  This final session was dedicated to exploring creative approaches to researching and communicating issues surrounding food. This therefore felt like a great opportunity to explore some of the ideas I have been trying to develop around using art as a research method and method of communication. I decided it would be nice to try and bring an element of installation into the room and to use this to tell the stories of the butterflies and moths that I spoke about in my previous post and gathered on our project trip to KwaZulu Natal.

Before everyone entered the room I filled it with hundred of white paper butterflies. I then covered the side walls with glow in the dark moths. At the end of the presentation I referred to the butterflies to explain narratives gathered from farmers and scientists. First I explained the narratives about the butterflies and then tuned off the lights and while we sat in the dark,  surrounded by the glowing moths, I told the stories about moths. This allowed the quiet dark space only lit up by glow in the dark moths to become a space of reflection at the end of the conference. This seemed to engage the audience and create the space for interesting and enlivened dialogue.  Although it could definitely be improved upon, it was exciting to have the opportunity to play with these ideas. The audience made some great suggestions for taking the work forward, such as researching some literature from the region which includes agricultural stories and references. The last presentation that followed was by Sandra Spieler from the University of Minnesota who presented  a set of videos on her community theater work. It was titled “Celebration, Investigation and Reverence through Community Art.” The community theater project works extensively with ideas of food and seed sovereignty using various theatrical methods. This somber but at times joyful performance work opened up a great space for becoming more embodied after a long and very thought-intense set of sessions. It really opened my eyes further to just how important the visual and sensory can be for communicating.


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