Zina Saro-Wiwa: performing table manners in 21st century Nigeria

Rizvana Bradley

The artist celebrates eating in the Niger Delta with her radical videos series

‘Tell me what you eat and I shall tell you what you are,’ wrote the 19th-century French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. More than a necessity, or even a means of sustenance, gratification, or pleasure, food has played a distinctive role in defining the contours of the self. Zina Saro-Wiwa’s work Table Manners (2014-2016) explores the political implications of epicurean communities, highlighting the performative practices of food consumption as indispensable to the imagination of belonging in West Africa. 

Presented at Art Basel Miami Beach by London’s Tiwani Contemporary, the multichannel video series portrays Ogoni men and women from the Niger Delta region eating in front of the camera. As in much of the Nigeria-born, New York City-based artist’s repertoire, colonialism, racism, and militarism are here examined through the lens of food, race, power, and capital. Highlighting the consumption of food as a definitive act in the making of community, Table Manners operates as a critical commentary on the normalizing landscape of the globalized present. The series stages eating as a collective act of memory. It illuminates the centrality of Africanity and traditions to existing and emerging communal and diasporic imaginaries, pointing toward contemporary political and socioeconomic struggles.Foregrounding the cultural specificity of the precise acts of eating her work depicts, Saro-Wiwa’s practice places art and politics in productive tension.

Though the artist has stated that she has been concerned with the devaluation of African food cultures in the extractive context of the oil-producing Niger Delta, where she was born, the aim of the video series is not to expose the racial commodification of food and the objectification of food cultures. Instead, Table Manners extends itself as a connective invitation: The ‘eaters’, as Saro-Wiwa calls her sitters, engage in performances that can be characterized less as confrontational and more as instructive and welcoming to the viewer. Barisuka Eats Roasted Ice Fish and Mu (Table Manners #2) and Victor Eats Garri and Okro Soup with Goat Meat (Table Manners #3), for example, show eaters consuming with their hands delicacies as well as staples such as pounded unripe plantain and goat meat. These eating performances are embodied rituals, enacted before the camera, given for unanticipated forms of individual and collective viewing. They call the viewer to enter and partake in intimate experiences of eating and being with oneself. Table Manners thus opens us not just to a shared bodily encounter but to the physical and philosophical horizons of eating and the art of ingestion in the Niger Delta as another modality of living and being. 

Formally, Table Manners is structured by a set of paradoxes: Food is spotlighted as the subject of the video series, but the encounters with food build upon and are more evocative of geography, history, and place. The medium shot portraits of Saro-Wiwa’s eaters seems to direct the viewer to the subject of an interview, yet their sustained presence and silence establishes a proximity to the viewer that discloses something beyond narrative objectivity. The name of each eater is revealed, and the place of filming is stated at the end of each video, but the sitter is able to maintain anonymity while onscreen. Each eating performance is an experiment in meaning-making. The encounters with the individual performers offer brief and evocative episodes that establish the subjectivity and integrity of the eater’s image. But Table Manners also generates alternative visual possibilities for the portrayal of character, as the enigmatic frontality of the image is inextricably linked to the attenuation of subjectivity. 

Each of Saro-Wiwa’s vignetted encounters is set against a punchy, colorful backdrop that stands in contrast to the minimalist use of the gesture shared by all of these subjects – the repetitive movement of hand to plate, to mouth – to performatively emphasize the act of eating. Saro-Wiwa has spoken of this minimalist gesture as an ‘act of metaphorical suturing,’ where the scoop and rise of the hand to the mouth from the plate and back again is meditative but also reparative. The gesture works to restore the subject’s relationship to an economically exploited landscape, and ‘binds’ the viewer to eating as an affective interlude. 

In each episode, the table is positioned as extending out of the frame, linking the off-screen viewer to the scene of eating. These table compositions do not so much break the fourth wall as enable the conscious and unconscious dimensions of the eater to touch those of the viewer so that both provisionally inhabit or approximate the same sensuous space. The imagined distance between the onscreen and off-screen geographies of performer and viewer is collapsed in the display of the plate on the table, which remains consistently positioned across the different iterations of Table Manners as a summons to partake in the visceral pleasures of eating. The series materializes how the act of eating and ingestion have historically been utilized to shape categories of race and gender in the ongoing construction of biopolitical subjecthood, as explored in Kyla Tompkins’s book Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the 19th Century. Eating, for Saro-Wiwa, is radically self-reflexive. It quietly announces the irreducible intersections of desire, taste, and pleasure. 

All the eaters in the work are silent, save for the punctuating sounds of the appetite: savoring, sucking, swallowing, smacking. In this visceral imaginary, we are forced to reject the uniformity of our globalized food culture as we become attuned to the differently textured mouthfeels, and to the mouth itself as a transient site and boundary that negotiates cultural distinctions between food and the body, but also between the self and other. At stake in the sustained act of eating is the mouth as a site of transference. For it is not so much the eyes that return the gaze, but the way the energy of the gaze is transferred to the mouth, which, as a site of ingestion, facilitates a renegotiation of the gaze as constructive of subject-object relations. In other words, the mouth becomes the site of introjection, for the irreducible fold of subjectivity, where one subjectivity extends into another subjectivity and folds into another.

But what happens when, as Diana Fuss put it in Identification Papers, ‘the subject refuses to incorporate and resists identifying with the other?’ Saro-Wiwa’s Table Manners is not limited to questions of identity but touches upon the everyday spirituality of West African cultures in ways that extend her interest in indigenous cosmologies. A recent iteration of Table Manners, Bush Tales #1, shows a man ingesting a turtle against a neon turquoise screen, which serves as a backdrop. This somewhat disturbing and alienating ritual of consuming bushmeat rebuffs more than it entices. Unlike the other episodes, we are not told where this performance takes place, but are directed to consider the mythology of the tortoise and what it means to ingest and metabolize folk tales across a shifting global landscape that would as soon erase such histories and forms of inherited knowledge. Perhaps here, at the site of introjection and transference, is where eating gives way to mourning, and finally to memorialization.

Rizvana Bradley is Assistant Professor of History of Art and African and African American Studies at Yale University. 

Zina Saro-Wiwa's Table Manners will be shown by Tiwani Contemporary gallery in the Nova sector of the 2018 edition of Art Basel Miami Beach. Discover more artists and galleries participating in this year’s Nova sector here.

Top image: Zina Saro-Wiwa, Table Manners: Season 1 (video still) (detail), 2014-16. © Zina Saro-Wiwa. Courtesy Tiwani Contemporary, London.