Small Gatherings for Big Thoughts
Bring your own ingredients, meet a stranger and cook together without a recipe!
A society is similar to a house divided into rooms and corridors. The more the society resembles ours in its form of civilization, the thinner are its internal partitions and the wider and more open are its doors of communication (James Hillman).
When I started the residency at Fusion Arts at the East Oxford Community Centre in June 2015, I was looking for organisations in the area that help refugees and asylum seekers. I have been long exploring the idea of separation in my work and I felt this particular issue as one I needed to explore. I knew the charity Open Door was was operating in the community centre as a drop-in service and I decided to approach them and offer my help in the kitchen to prepare their weekly free lunch. I found a welcoming environment in which people could feel safe and share their stories and experiences naturally. It was a real pleasure to be there and I was learning other people’s cultures and personal stories through food. From this place of exchange and positivity I started to question the way I was approaching the work I was trying to do. So far I was addressing negative aspects of being in certain situations. I strongly felt I had to look instead at what we have in common and find ways to share the insights I could draw out from the experience of cooking together.
After a long process of reflection and various trials, 'Small Gatherings for Big Thoughts' became a process-based cooking experience that invites people to reflect on 'bigger thoughts' of how we can come together with our differences and build together new possibilities. Although the process is open to everyone, it is restricted to a small number of people to facilitate intimacy, exchange and a deeper level of dialogue. Its form is simple because it aims to be highly inclusive, but at the same time it touches on several complicated aspects related to free movement, environmental issues, food consumer choice, dialogue and democratic processes. It considers how the personal can become political and touches on the notion of the local and global within a capitalistic context.
During the process inputs are given to participants to make connections between themselves and the ingredients brought to the table and everyone equally shares the responsibility to make decisions of how and what to cook. Through food we can reflect on how the tendency to want to preserve our cultures can contribute or not to forms of separation. Does living together in harmony means to let go of our identity, cultures or heritage? I believe that confronting ourselves with different people and situations can help us to make boundaries porous. The gatherings create a light-hearted space in which participants travel across the world trough imagination. By meeting strangers, we enrich ourselves through the memories connected to ingredients. Through imaging together and reliving experiences we connected and got to know different cultures. Through the alchemy of cooking together, a sense of humanity in continuous movement and transformation comes alive. In this arena, where personal and intimate moments are shared, encounters are brought together to reveal their interconnectedness to the world. Small Gatherings for Big Thoughts is a poetical act, a ritual to initiate a world without frontiers by giving value to our imagination and to the ability we have as human beings to shape the substance we share. It gives the a opportunity to reflect on how coming from different parts of the world, we can participate all in creating new possibilities without hierarchy, preconceptions or expectations to build a common ground.
In 2016, the project was chosen to represent a new community engagement crowd funding campaign at Royal Society of Arts in London leading to a commission by the International Academy of Greenwich to devise ‘Small Gatherings for Big Thoughts’ into a creative learning workshop for children. Between 2015 and 2017 It participated in various festivals such as Fringe Arts Bath, AntiuniversityNow! and Spark Festival and it was exhibited in different venues in Oxford and London.
Fusion Arts, Oxford, 2015
Introducing ideas about coming together through the act of cooking as part of the artists' residency programme hosting Social Sculpture future practitioners.
VERBATIM CONVERSATIONS EXTRACTS
JULY 21ST 2015
I just realised that we don’t have oil… which is fine…very healthy…healthy cooking. Do you think we can?
What is the goal? Is it being together?
When do you make the decision of being more efficient?
There’s something there shifting from coming together and making food to have assigned roles and responsibilities.
In order to make this risotto, we need to bring certain ingredients, so in order to make an idea we also need to have certain ‘ingredients’. Here it was the other way around, from what we’ve got than we have the idea.
I was picturing us in this situation…if we don’t make any decisions, we are not going to eat…as I am responsible, everyone is responsible…You keep the natural flow going…
If you were to disagree with the group, How far you would go with that disagreement?
The routing changes it, other priorities changes it.
How do you use your time?
What was important here was the randomness of what we brought.
...because we are from different cultures, if you leave one of us doing it, it will have a different result each time.
If you meet regularly to cook a meal, you would probably end up allocating roles and responsibilities, you would have rotas; it wouldn’t be as rich in experience.
If we were to meet up for a week and we don’t know what the other brings with, every night we would end up with a random selection of food.
Isn’t that the difference between habit and routine and novelty and chance?
We have tasted these ingredients before, because we have cooked them before. So it’s something like: “Oh I know how this tastes together with that. So I know how this goes together with that…” It would be really different if we were to use ingredients. That we never seen or tasted before…
We comfortably slip into habit and routine but actually to make things interesting, we tend to want that chance element and we live between these two things all the time. It’s very easy to get into a comfortable routine, but to really test yourself and express yourself you have to do something that pushes you out of your comfort zone. I think that is the richest experience of life.
BK.LUWO refugees women's organisation, East Oxford community centre,2015
meeting the organisation's members through cooking
BK.LUWO is a Northern Ugandan refugees women’s organisation. It started as a response to the need of preserving and supporting African heritage, as women were experiencing difficulties in adapting to the British system and were fearing for their children to lose their African traditions. Now open to all women, it aims to break isolation and provide a safe place to meet, share experiences and learn new skills.
I owned a lot to these wonderful women who became my refuge during my stay in Oxford. The warmth and the support I received from them is indescribable. Their home became my home as well as the base for the project. I won't forget the laughs, the tears and the food we shared together throughout the months I spent at the East Oxford community centr.e