A Food Connection: Interview with Wura Natasha-Ogunji by Antonio C. La Pastina

Small university towns are challenging places for cosmopolitan-minded individuals. When my partner and I moved to College Station, Texas, from Austin, only two hours away, we soon realized that contemporary, edgy art was missing. Over the last decade, we have periodically invited artists who we admire to respond to our home with a work, sometimes a new piece, sometimes the re-envisioning of a work previously shown. We then invite the local community to come to an open house to interact with the work and the artist. These events have become opportunities to expose the local community to works that most likely would not be available in a small town otherwise. For us, it quenches a need to have art as part of a daily conversation. It is energizing, challenging, stimulating. Collecting art was always part of our shared lives, but having an artist envision a work within the space we live in was moving away from collecting and owning, to building and sharing, a thrilling experience; and expanding that experience with other members of the community is a source of joy. When an artist like Wura Natasha Ogunji, interviewed below, transformed our home in ways inconceivable to us before and forced us to see our everyday though her eyes, we realized the full potential of art in a domestic space.

Antonio C. La Pastina:  I would like to start by asking you how the idea of using food evolve in your work and where did it come from? After your installation, I started reading about relational aesthetics and I realized your work address some of those concerns, the idea of creating an aesthetic experience through the relationships that food enables us to evolve and engage with each other.  Can you talk about how your idea of food and art evolved, especially in relation to your project on the Nigerian diaspora and Nigerian memories and experience?

Wura Natasha-Ogunji: I’ve always been interested in the way food connects us and connects us to people that are very different from us.  The act of sitting down and having a meal with someone is a vulnerable experience in some ways and also opens us up.   So that interest, which I’ve had for some while, has taken different forms in terms of performance, and for this project specifically I was really interested in how, in translating my experience and relationship to food in Nigeria to the U.S and bring the awkwardness and newness and the specificity of the food to the U.S., to connect with people and somewhat mimic the full experience of the food, either eating the food, or cooking the food, or having coffee with a person, so that the meal, or the coffee or the tea could be a vehicle to transport people to this other space.

A:  Why do you think it is important to transport people to this other space?

W: I think when our bodies physically leave the cultures or locations that we’re used to, we’re forced to confront ourselves in new ways.  Ideas about what is right and wrong, or what’s comfortable or what makes sense to our philosophies or to our belief systems, and it’s a place of discomfort, but for me, if I move through that discomfort I learn all these new things about myself.  For example, being required to eat food that tastes or smells really different, I have a certain reaction to that, but it also allows me to connect to people or a place in a new way.  This was my first time to visit Nigeria and it was such an important experience to connect to my father’s land, which I had never met or seen, and I was hyper aware of the sensuality of it.  The smell of the place, the taste of it, the smell of people, the feeling of the air, the way the sky looked, were sensory experiences that were heightened for me.  I thought that if I could somehow bring it to the U.S, I could show people how important that experience was and how significant it was, and how it was to be changed by that.

A:  So it’s really not about that unique experience with the Nigerian food but rather to connect with something that forces you into that new space?  I was thinking about what you did in the classroom, when we invited you to come and work to these freshman from different cultures, and you did a performance with them/us; it was amazing.   You really got them to think about memory in a very different way, and although tea and coffee were not central to the experience, they allowed the experience to happen.  Can you talk a bit about that project? Were you surprised by the students’ responses?

W: I was surprised, and I thought the experience would open them in a particular way, but I didn’t understand the depth of that.  That particular performance stemmed from my experience in Nigeria and being offered tea and coffee, which was either black tea or Lipton tea, and in having that tea there was all this effort put into it which I observed.  Just the boiling of the water was difficult because the electricity in Nigeria comes and goes very sporadically, so when you’re able to boil water you’re not doing it with electricity, you’re doing it with gas, and then you put it in this big thermos where you have  hot water for a long period of time to share with others.  So this was the first thing that people offered you in their homes in the mornings, otherwise people are offering food alot of times.   I wanted to create this experience of coming into a space that was totally different, but I also wanted to use it as a vehicle for the students to connect with one another and to learn from each other and to connect with their own historical, familial, ancestral past through this structure of the tea serving, but really that was a way for them to take a moment to stop and listen to each other, which they normally might not take in their normal days.  I think its something that people around the world do alot but I don’t think it’s something that all Americans do, its not traditional to see a stranger or meet someone and give them a cup of coffee or a cup of tea right away, you might not offer them anything and that would be totally acceptable.  But in alot of places, the person will have a cup of coffe in their hand before they can say yes or no and the conversation begins in an almost intimate way, about their day and where they’re at and what they’re doing, and there’s an appreciation for who  they are as a person.  It’s enough for them to walk into a space, and we appreciate them because they’re another human being.  Those are the conditions I wanted to create, because we don’t always have that moment to appreciate.

A:   You asked the students to be in groups and share a memory, which is different than just conversation, and talk about family.  In the group I was sitting with, the first couple of speakers were very hesitant, and then one young man shared a poignant memory about his mother. His story created an incredible emotional bond.  What makes people willing to share such an important memory?

W: I wonder if we always want to share in that way, but that we’re not always asked to share.  I wonder about the circumstances.  There’s something powerful about sharing that information with a stranger, because they’re willing to listen and bring with them a non-judgemental stance and they are able to take.  One part of this exercise was that the person answering the question had to talk for two minutes, and everyone else had to listen, they weren’t allowed to comment.  That means we are asked to absorb and take note of what’s being said, instead of reacting and judging and trying to respond without stopping to listen.  That’s a really different way of interacting with people and it’s very powerful.

A:   Especially in this moment we live in, a time of immediacy and 140 characters, suddenly you have two whole minutes; I was surprised to see how difficult it was for some students to talk for two minutes.  That’s not much time at all, and it was a big revelation for me to see how there was an anxiety to share, but a discomfort to talk; to be heard.  I think you’re touching on something else I have observed in my own work, a powerful difference between nations, but also age groups.  But let’s talk about food.  You had 50 or 60 people come to the your performative installation as part of Projects on Ashburn and you cooked something very laborious, it took 12 hours of your labor for you to both install and enact the work. There was a sense of creating a space of communication, creating a space of letting people relate to each other through food.  But there was also a sense of you committing yourself to the project.

W: I chose a food, moin moin, that I really loved, and that only had a few ingredients.  It was a Nigerian food that I could cook successfully, along with pepper soup, but I thought it was also something that wasn’t going to taste the way I had it in Nigeria.  I saw my cousin make this and it seemed like it only took her an hour to make.  She soaked the beans and skinned them in the morning, and I went with her to a neighbor down the street who has a grinder and she grinded the beans and put the pepper in and not even that afternoon we were having the food.  I thought, I can do this, but I couldn’t get it to taste like hers.  I was very interested in the disjunction between the original, or real, and what I could make in the U.S.  I think alot about my connection to Nigeria, and the information I carry in my own body and how things change because I’m in the U.S. and I’m experiencing them through a particular filter.  So I felt like the food should be something that had a process, but an enjoyable process that transported me to Nigeria.  That all of the steps of the process would allow me to almost like I was in this place again, but yet removed from the specifics of Nigeria.  Because the ingredients are slightly different, or even because I’ve only made it 4 times and my cousin has probably made it hundreds of times. So, there’s something about the older you get, you become a better cook, and the energy you put into the food carries life experience.  I knew it wasn’t going to have the depth it did in Nigeria, but that it would have a different depth, it was going to be my own thing.

A:   How did the food dialogued with the installation: the video, the sound, the use of water.

W: I name it Oyibo, and it means foreigner or white person, and people called me that on the street because of the way I looked.  I was interested in how my translation of Nigeria would be Oyibo, it would be something that was important and significant but different from the original place.  So I wanted to create this feeling that we were in Nigeria, but I couldn’t do it completely. So my cousin had a water tank with indoor plumbing but it doesn’t always have electricity so there was alot of carrying  of water in buckets from one place to another to wash dishes and to bathe, and to cook with, so I wanted to create that feeling in the house, and in a way it was this epic path I created for myself.  To cook in the U.S and to have to carry water after not doing it your whole life, it’s not an easy thing to get in the rhythm of it.  I wanted people to have the feeling that these multiple things could exist at the same time so you could have this amazing food and have to wash your hands with water from a bucket and be watching these videos, some of which were my own performance art or documentation of the generators in the market for example or me having tea with my auntie in Nigeria.  There were all these visual elements and central elements that were intended to invoke this place.  A foreign version of this place, because it had to be, because that’s who I am.

A:   You talk about the memories of Nigeria that are in your body, and you talk about how although this was your first trip to Nigeria, that Nigeria has always been a part of you.  I was thinking about drawings that have this problematic for quite a while.  How do you work with this memory of a place that you have never been before, but you have also always known?

W: This question for me goes back to my experience studying photography, the history of photography, learning this history in grad school and wondering “where are the people of color in this history?”  One of my professors would say the photographs just don’t exist.  For me, I felt like, we exist, and we existed and we have a history, so regardless of whether the actual documents are there, there’s a place where I can pull imagery from my body, and I can remember things and I can know things because of the body that I’m in.  My body is not only a combination of my mother and my father, so I not only walk with them, but all the people before them, so, you know, the gestures, the cellular information, the sound of a laugh.  For me, for a long time I felt like I carry this important information in my body, and I know things that I was never taught.  As a child, I felt this connection but I haven’t always been able to articulate it, or know what’s happening when I see certain things, or know things without being formally taught them.  But I think we all have deep knowledge that we can access and do the work of accessing.  So alot of the work I make is about bringing that information forward through my body and using the body to ask particular questions.  One of the questions I asked before I went to Nigeria was does the homeland long for us, does this place that I’ve never visited have any desire to connect to me?  Do the people that stayed in Africa, who didn’t come to the U.S. as slaves, or who didn’t come to the U.S in any other manner, do they wonder about their descendants? Do they wonder about these people, who were lost, or who left?  Through these performances, or through the use of video I really try to answer that question and think about, if I’m my ancestor and I’m trying to get to the Americas, how do I get there?  I have to fly there, or walk on water.  So, what would it be like if I could create those circumstances, as a connection not just between the Americas and Africa but between Africa and the Americas.  That connection, and that question relies on the given that there’s something in our bodies and in our memories that connects us, in our cells, in our ancestral memory that allows us to tell the particular stories that we tell.

A:  Can you talk about the video you showed as part of Projects on Ashburn, “My father and I dance in outer space”?

W: “My father and I dance in outer space” was about this question, about what it would look like for my father and I to dance together, because he passed away over 10 years ago and I never met him.  I thought “where could this happen?”, and outer space was the place I thought of because I was thinking of the spiritual realm, the spiritual and futuristic realm, or maybe Afrofuturistic realm. There’s this place by my house where the landscape looks like another world, and then I spent some time out there trying to fly and trying to create a dance out of that movement.  The dance, the movement, the flight is really about being blown around by the wind and moving with the person that we wouldn’t see, he would be a spirit or some ethereal energy in that outer space realm.

A:   When I think about this video, and several of your other video works and documentation of your performances, and when I think about you placing demands on your cooking, it seems a lot of your work demands a high level of endurance and commitment to physicality. Why is that? How is this energy important to you work?

W: For a number of reasons.  My body is so important to me, it’s a source of alot of information.  I feel like when I’m using my physical body in a particular way, it really clears my head and allows me to enter this spiritual and creative space.  The endurance part of it pushes me, and it’s almost like the body is pushed beyond a limit, and that’s where the the learning happens.  So that’s a part of it, the physical experience of the push.  I’m also interested in the body as a vehicle for information, as a vehicle for the spiritual, as a vehicle for history and stories.  Growing up as a black girl in the U.S. there’s this sense of being invisible so alot of my younger years were about pushing against that force of invisibility and realizing “wait, I have a body, I’m in this body, this body is strong and important”.  So what does it look like to use this body to tell stories or to learn something that I had never imagined, or to push my own understanding of the world or the people in this world?  So, I’ve always had dreams about flying, and it’s been a force of power, imagination and creativity for me since I was a young child.  As I got older, I stopped flying in my dreams, and I thought “Is there a way for me to do this in my adult body and have this experience of flight and push my body to do this?”  In the bodies that we have now, we don’t get very far when we try to fly, but we can try and there’s something there.  You can project yourself a few feet in the air, and get a little bit of distance, so I wanted to take those moments and put them together in a sequence that showed this gesture.

A:  I want to go back to food for a minute.  As part of Oyibo, you cooked pepper soup that was fantastic and then you cooked moi  moi. You took a lot of time and you had three students helping you throughout the process.  So what was going through your mind as you were in the space, in that moment cooking?  You were by that stove for hours and you were very calm and in the moment, present but also in your own space.  You were just talking about this endurance giving you the ability to connect to this creative space.  So how was that happening to you then?

W: I think there’s something very ordinary but very epic about those moments.  So I’m doing something ordinary, I’m talking to people in the kitchen while I’m cooking, and on the surface it seems like something we all do and it’s something that’s not that’s not really special in a way, and at the same time I’m both in that ordinary world and another world, and my thoughts are about trying to make this thing taste the way I feel like it should taste, so that I can taste it and be like “yes!”, and I want it to taste like it has a history to it.  It’s almost like I want it to taste like a 100 year old woman is cooking this thing that she’s been cooking for years, so it’s the best moin moin and pepper soup you’ve ever tasted, because she has a history with the ingredients and the space and with the entire process.  That’s where my head is, vacillating between these rudimentary things like cutting up garlic, or wrapping up the banana leaves, and putting out food for people to eat to feeling like “well, I hope this is working, I hope I haven’t stepped into this massive task only to meet with disaster”.  Because when you have 50 or 60 people eating at your house you want them to be satisfied!

A:  Did you feel that you accomplished that?

W: I did and at some point I just decided “well, however it turns out it’s going to be fine”.

A:  Why?

W: Part of it was, there was some point before guests arrived where I think I said to you “oh my god, I’m so nervous”, and you said “why? you’ll be fine”  and you said something illuminating for me and I was like “he’s totally right, there’s no reason to be nervous, this is just an ordinary act and people may like it or not like and the point is that we’re here talking and sharing and telling stories”.  I think that allowed me to appreciate and to hear the exchange that was happening.  It was really amazing, you and other Brazilians were talking about their relationship to this food which had the same basic ingredients as acaraje in Brazil.  There was somebody else from somewhere in South America and she was talking about a similar food or something similar that they do.  I just love how we just have this tradition of making labor intensive food and we usually make them during the holidays or with big groups of people because they take a while, and I loved that we all have this relationship to if not the specifics but the process of what I was doing.

A:   That’s exactly what I loved about it.  Through this act of forcing, or creating conditions for people to socialize, not just to come and look at art and talk to the artist but really be part of it.  The act of washing your hands in a bucket of water instead of a faucet, and to eat food prepared by you, the artist, they were seeing in the videos and engaging in a whole environment that you had created; it was very intense and there was an emotional charge that was much higher than other types of art events that we put together as part of this project, where we use our home as space for an artists’ intervention.  I’m thinking about how our aesthetic experiences are ephemeral and once they pass, what lasts is only our memories.  We have photographs and videos but the experience is gone, but to me that’s the beauty of creating these situations that create memories; but they require huge amounts of emotional labor to make sure these memories happen.  We were all happy that it was happening but also tense that it was happening and anxious and all of that labor enters in the process of getting this accomplished.

W: I think that the thing about being ephemeral is that it is and it isn’t.  What happens is that we have this experience and this story, and we’re very much in the moment which food often causes and so that memory becomes embedded in our bodies in some way, and it make take forever for it to surface again, but there usually is a moment where it resurfaces, someone might have a smell that is remembered or they might travel to Nigeria or meet someone from West Africa, it could be anything which stirs that connection and that experience resurfaces in some way.

A:  It goes back to the idea that these memories are rooted in our bodies and that they resurface in some moments where we might be having tea or moin moin again.  So how do you make moin moin?

W: You use these beans, I don’t know what beans they are, and you need to soak them before you peel them because you want the skin off so they’re soft.  Then you blend that with peppers, usually habaneros, and water and then you put some salt in there and onions.  That’s the basic recipe, but people put other things in there, like meat, I use some pepper soup stock to flavor.  So you have that paste, then you steam the paste in a fist sized amount wrapped in banana leaves and the banana leaves give it this amazing flavor.  Some people will also serve it with a hard-boiled egg inside, and you also add palm oil.  So that’s the basic stuff, and there’s other stuff that goes into it which you kind of experiment with.

A:  Any other comments, questions, or other ideas you want to share about food and art, about their connection?

W: I think one last thing I wanted to say was that I’ve been thinking about how serving and sharing food with people gives people their humanity in a crucial way.  I think we, sadly, miss this in various situations in the world but there’s something about the sharing, making and the energy of food that connects us to our own personhood in many ways.  It’s the most powerful experience to connect with your fellow human beings in a meaningful way, and people that you might think you have no connection to but of course you do.

A:  I think the power of relational art is that it forces or creates an environment where people act in it.  So it’s not art that is isolated or that is being consumed, but is art that you can enter and participate in, so it creates the environment of a guest, where they become participants and actors and central for the art to exist.

W: Ironically, we have this term because we lack this type of interaction.  I hear the term relational aesthetics and it’s so painful because isn’t that what it is to be a human being?  I feel like it’s being created out of a context of deep and old dehumanization, and that it’s calling for a type of connection that we should have anyways.

A:   I think that’s the difference, that human relationships have lost some of their social bonding with urbanization, increasing movement, and especially mediated forms of socialization and communication.  In this context, relational aesthetics is not only referring to human relationships but the way art perform itself.  Thinking about art not only as an aesthetic experience, but a space where we can interact and socialize and share an activity.  It’s a different way to think about how we relate to spaces, peoples and memories.