Ouma Lunches: a research experiment by Clare Butcher
Clare Butcher’s ongoing research project: a taster
The 1940s was an incredibly dynamic period in South Africa’s history. Following one World War and moving into the next – it was a time of the country’s economic recovery, containing some major industrial, cultural and of course political shifts not only at a local level in terms of the Union, but also in regard to South Africa’s role as an increasingly major player within the British Empire at large and the Commonwealth. Nonetheless, this decade also signifies the “lead up” to apartheid, when the 1948 national elections saw the voting out of the “liberal” outward-looking South Africanism promoted by Prime Minister Smuts and the voting in of a new kind of politik under Afrikaner Nationalist apartheid.
Within all of this, two major international exhibitions of contemporary art unfolded. One between 1947-8, an initiative of the British Council, brought an unprecedented number of “contemporary” (works created roughly in the 30 years preceding the show) British paintings and drawings to be shown in various institutions throughout South Africa and Rhodesia. The works were meant to expose South African gallery-goers to a distinctly European kind of “modern” content and style. The public discussion, logistical organisation and institutional parleys leading up to the exhibition’s arrival and the subsequent debates generated by it are telling in many ways. The second exhibition came, in a sense, as one of the responses to this. In 1948 the South African Association of Visual Art in connection with the Tate Gallery, London organised what was meant to be a small scale showing of a few “good” examples of contemporary South African art, and what soon turned into a nation-wide selection of 141 works by over 50 artists made since 1900. Sponsored by the Union government, the exhibition was the largest representative show of contemporary South African work presented in Britain at the time, from where it travelled to Amsterdam and a number of other countries.
More than anything these exhibitions reveal the converging currencies of Culture and art history, manifesting in certain forms of an imperial modernism, as well as the greater and the lesser politics of commonality that constituted this thing called “the Commonwealth”. Of further significance, these two exhibitions operated as diplomatic vehicles: one last flight path connecting these ends of the Empire, at the closing of an era when South Africa’s relations with the Imperial world went into cultural isolation.
Ouma Smuts issued a recipe book as part of the domestic contribution to South Africa’s War effort in 1940. The book comprised of “South African” recipes from both British kitchen traditions as well as Afrikaans/Dutch lineage, and with a mix of wartime ration thriftiness in-between, contributed by (white) women all over the country. It was so popular amongst housewives locally and also those who’d married foreign soldiers and moved abroad, that Ouma’s Cookery Book of Tested Recipes was published in 6 editions.
Her “tested recipes” include “government-issued sugar” and tips for how to take economical shortcuts to still “keep up” certain culinary standards. And in a way, these meals index the sector of South African society that formed a major constituent of the contemporary art public in the country at the time. When Lady Florence Philips began her cultural endeavours for example, which would one day lead to the establishing of the Johannesburg Art Gallery in 1910, colonial galleries and the collecting of modern art were apparently considered as quite appropriate “projects” for a woman. It is quite likely that many urban housewives attended the series of Lunchtime Lectures held during the 1947-8 exhibition of Contemporary British Painting and Drawing at the National Gallery in Cape Town because of the time of day and less formal setting.
It is this ambiguous, seemingly informal traversal between private and public spheres making up the particularities of the South African urban 1940s moment and the literal concocting of cultural manifestations which I would like to capture in a series of lunches after the style of Ouma.
At these lunches, set around Ouma’s original “tested recipes”, guests will be invited to contribute to a growing body of knowledge around the issues brought into encounter with one another in the shape of these two exhibitions. Broad themes of transnationalism and the making of a modern South African subjectivity, will be brought to bear with knowledge of individual artistic practices and influences, as well as institutional anecdotes. All over melktaart or cream of spinach soup!
The lunches will function not only to gather research material, building an historical architecture around the exhibitions themselves, but will also serve a discursive purpose – experimenting with the ways in which art and exhibitions are mediated in a contemporary context and how these might be made more complex and at the same time, less formal.