Connecting present with forgotten past

The concealed histories of our vegetable patch and the fascination of migrant seeds

This Spring, as you turn over the soil for your cabbage patch, stop for a moment to think a little about where your seeds come from and what they mean to you.Through two different approaches, artists Lauren Wells and Maria Thereza Alves are exploring how the histories of commerce and labour have led to the wealth of choice we now take for granted in our domestic vegetable gardens.

Born in the USA in the 1980s Lauren Wells has travelled extensively throughout Europe and is just one member of a globalised and mobilised generation of young professionals who understand travel, study and work as one and the same experience. Working in the USA, Scotland, England, Portugal and Italy in the space of just a few years, Wells realised the distinctiveness of food culture in each new territory she visited and gradually, she started organising events which enable her to find out more about the food produce and customs she’s encountered. To learn the local names attributed to fruits and vegetables, she organises food-forage walks, inviting people to visit private vegetable patches, meet the owners and hear their secrets to a bountiful harvest. Moreover, as a way of coming to terms with her own constant sense of dislocation from her familial culture, Wells produced the programme of evens ‘Tasting Home’. This project enabled her to follow the stories of sisters Anna, Alba and Maria Izzi and their history of growing up during the 1970s between the mountain village of Cerreto, Molise in rural Italy and the city of Brussels.When Wells started working in the village of Filignano, near to where the Izzi sisters live now, she invited them to an introductory dinner made using local organic produce but following recipes from her childhood in the USA. Colleague Teresa Buono interpreted as Wells talked about her motivations for making artworks, and the significance of the recipes she had chosen. The sisters reciprocated with curiosity about the nuanced changes to flavours they were familiar with, and soon, the group was sharing stories about their everyday choices in preparing dishes, and how these are an expression and reinforcement of their family histories and identities today.

Far away, on the other side of the world, Brazilian artist Maria Thereza Alves, grew up adapting to a different kind of migration: the profit-motivated immigrant companies which extract native resources for international commerce with little or no consideration of the environmental and economic impact left behind in their wake. It’s no surprise that Alves has built an internationally acknowledged career making artworks, which unravel the stories of environmental exploitation for capital gains, and her works are now found in exhibitions and collections throughout the world.In her recent project “Seeds of Change: A Floating Ballast Seed Garden” for the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol, Alves gently sign-posts the provenance of the hybrid nature of today’s communities, the legacy of centuries of international commerce.Ballast-flora is a category of non-indigenous plant species that have become established in foreign lands after unintentionally being carried in the soil used to weigh-down empty mercantile ships as they crossed the oceans. Upon arrival at port, the ships would be emptied of their soil as expeditiously as possible, often sold for land-fill or just thrown away onto the nearest patch of unused land. Season by season, the seeds within the soil would become acclimatised to the new environment, explaining why today many ‘migrant’ species can be found growing successfully throughout the world.Working with the local botanical garden, Alves collected and nurtured seeds from ballast-flora growing wild around Bristol and made a floating garden; a place where people from all backgrounds can now meet to share the stories of the plants and produce they grow and enjoy every day.

So, whether it’s maris pipers, ladies’ fingers or cavolfiori, next time you’re planting out your seedlings, why not pause for a moment to think about where they have travelled from, and when ripe, invite your neighbours to share the bounty and stories of Tasting Home.

Deirdre Mackenna
Deirdre’s field of practice is both interdisciplinary and intercultural, facilitating an interest in the intangible elements of cultural hybridity, time and place. Deirdre builds bespoke partnerships with a diverse range of collaborating individuals and agencies in order to enable the complex nature of cultural hybridity to be engaged with in ways which transcend cultural norms (e.g. conventional attitudes, dominant practices, and existing institutional models).
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