In Conversation

Ozoz Sokoh on Food as a Key to a Culture

In the days leading up to the fifth Forecast Festival, Sokoh spoke to writer Olamiju Fajemisin about her practice, and why she thinks the transatlantic stories of certain food items belong in museums.

By Olamiju Fajemisin

Each time Nigerian-born cook, food writer, and cultural historian Ozoz Sokoh uncovers a new channel in the annals of Nigerian food and eating, she offers anecdotal morsels with it, too. The stories she tells make palatable the complex, tangential histories of the cultivation and preparation of indigenous and imported foods in pre- and postcolonial Nigeria, as well as in places suddenly populated by enslaved people of Nigerian origin and their descendants.

Sokoh’s tangents tend to cross the Atlantic—usually more than once, sometimes making a few stops along the way. Her rhizomatic practice of exhibition making, digital resource curation, teaching, and blogging, brings life to the notion of food as a key to a culture.

The pan-diasporic, auto-ethnographic scope of former geologist Sokoh’s research is informed as much by empirical research methods as it is by her long-had penchant for writing, and her newly learned museological skills. Sokoh’s installations and presentations invite us to speculate on undocumented histories with the help of empirical facts pertaining to Nigerian agriculture and cuisine, as well as etymological evidence found in old dictionaries.

Participating in the current edition of Forecast under the mentorship of Swiss-born Cameroonian curator, Koyo Kouoh, Sokoh is in the midst of developing a series of short documentary-style films, narrated by spoken-word artist Tolu Agbelusi. The patterns within Sokoh’s work are at times unpredictable—ricocheting centuries through time, across borders and language—and yet we can only marvel at them.

The nature of this project, Coast to Coast: From West Africa to the World, coincidentally pays heed to Kouoh’s description of her own practice as an “organic imposition,” that is, a practice in constant evolution, one which responds to different needs as they arise.

Olamiju Fajemisin: What did you mean when you wrote that, “food is more than eating?”

Ozoz Sokoh: The first time I imagined food as “more than eating,” I was living in the Netherlands. The only thing that brought me comfort—that brought healing and strength—was food. To counter my homesickness, I started my blog, Kitchen Butterfly, in 2009.

I remember being out with colleagues at an Indonesian restaurant—a Dutch-Indonesian restaurant—one time. You could see the colonial Dutch influence right there on the table. We had a Rijsttafel, or rice table. It’s a popular Dutch-Indonesian colonial export. One of my co-diners started telling me about the foods he missed from home—he was a white Brazilian. He told me about this fritter, but he didn’t say what it was really. Instead, he crafted meaning through his description. Layer by layer, sentence by sentence.

Before he could say it, I just blurted: “That’s àkàrà!” “Yes, the slaves from Africa brought it over,” he said. It was clear from his tone that he thought of “Africa” as a monolith. “We call it acarajé,” he said. That blew my mind. I just knew that some Yoruba words had to come together to make that, but I couldn’t figure out which exactly, only that “” means “to eat.”

Sometimes, food names refer to place names. There are many different types of àkàrà, so I was looking for a place with connections to the slave trade, where the àkàrà is fried in palm oil and has the same characteristics—crunchy outside, bready inside. Then I found out about the àkàrà made by the Ijesha, a Yoruba sub-ethnic group from Ilesha. I also found out that the Ijesha were active during the slave trade during the old Oyo Kingdom. I looked at religious aspects, too. In Bahia, acarajé should be prepared for the goddess Iansã. Iansã’s twin name in Yoruba is Oyá, a goddess known to be venerated in South West Nigeria, which the Ijesha typically live.

Early mentions of acarajé can be found around the seventeenth, even sixteenth centuries. In those times, the enslaved people were not allowed to write, read, or keep records. Thinking about how they had held onto this food through the making and the oral tradition is so powerful to me.

Olamiju: What is it like to be mentored by Koyo Kouoh, a curator and educator known for her fluid, non-traditional pedagogical program at the RAW Material Company in Dakar, Senegal: Is your relationship strictly one of mentor and mentee? Or is it more symbiotic? I’m also interested to know what a typical encounter between the two of you would constitute? It’s easy to describe processes as “pedagogical,” but what does this mean within the context of your time with Forecast?

Ozoz: Firstly, I should mention that I came to this program with no fine art, art history, or museological background. I’m currently in my final few weeks of a certificate postgraduate course in Museum and Cultural Management.

Olamiju: Oh, amazing. Congratulations!

Ozoz: Thank you. I’ve always loved museums, but I didn’t really understand them until now. I have always had an idea about collecting, sorting, and categorizing. Curatorial strands. I’m also interested in giving voice to untold stories. When I applied to Forecast, there were two mentors who I really wanted to work with. I went for the one that was really going to stretch me. Koyo’s message just appealed to me.

Olamiju: How so?

Ozoz: Her understanding of curatorial work as a space of negotiation; confronting difficult ideas. And institution-building. Crafting the next generation and showing them options for engaging in space. With Koyo, I’ve learned to see things and articulate my research in a certain way. When I bring materials together, she helps me contextualize their shared meaning. She’s given me words, and a framework.

I love ingredients. I love the singularity of understanding one thing, then exploring the multiple paths it takes you down. Acarajé and àkàra. When I first envisioned Coast to Coast, my primary instinct was to explore the connections between Lagos, Nigeria and Bahia, Brazil. I knew of the impact of West African culinary heritage across the diaspora, across the islands of the Caribbean and American South. But I was drawn to Brazil. I wanted to secure those ends, and explore the other things later. Koyo helped me expand my scope. She said, “Brazil’s good, but you need to stretch.” She told me to look at the horizontal connectedness. To look at the islands of the Caribbean and the American South, at events that were happening there during the same time. Koyo’s help was fundamental because we could talk. Back and forth. We could explore ideas. We could exchange. She brought more knowledge in, as did I.

One day we were talking about which ingredients to use, and Kouoh suggested cassava, which isn’t originally from the continent of Africa, but imported. The way we eat it now, you wouldn’t know. But it was brought over in the sixteenth century.

Olamiju: Where was it imported from?

Ozoz: From Brazil.

Olamiju: I see! Did it come over with the returnees?

Ozoz: It was brought over before, actually, but people didn’t know how to process it. It’s poisonous if not processed properly, so the crop was abandoned. Then when the returnees came eventually, they brought with them knowledge. Even bread—agege bread—was brought over with the returnees. Documenting facts like these is a huge part of my work. Whatever I do, the outcome should be easy to reference and shareable. I want people to be able to look up the outcomes of my work and learn from it, without me hand-holding them.

Olamiju: How do you understand conceptions of “newness” as they pertain to your phrase “New Nigerian Kitchen”?

Ozoz: Newness, for me, is seeing ourselves as worthy. It’s reclaiming and reimagining without the pressure of pandering to a Western gaze. The work I do provides new contexts within which to be explored.

Are you familiar with the fruit agbalumo? I have some in my freezer. Growing up in Nigeria, you would only ever eat agbalumo as is. You would never do anything with it. And since I’ve been doing the work I’m doing—and I’m not saying this is a result of my practice alone—there’s an agbalumo liqueur on the market, there’s agbalumo gelato in Lagos, there’s somebody making agbalumo powder. The work that I do provides documentation, definitions, and new possibilities for people to experiment with ingredients like agbalumo. How can we bring new knowledge out of old?

Olamiju: Tell me more about how you use documentary archives in your practice.

Ozoz: You know how carbon dating works? You take a sample, calculate it’s age, and figure out what else was going on at that time. That’s what I do with archival documents. I try to create timelines and reconstructions, which is a pretty geological approach.

One of the things that I did at Forecast was create a digital library. It has about 214 ebooks right now, and I was thinking about ways of organizing them. How can I make reference systems that other people can benefit from? I’m also making a series of films with some spoken-word artists. At the Forecast Forum last October, I created a documentary in which I combined archival maps with images, films, and contemporary materials.

Observation is one of my keys. My scientific approach toward experimentation and documentation allows me to observe.

Olamiju: You describe yourself as an “aspiring museologist.” What causes your affinity for the museum and its structures? I’m interested as it seems that the popular consensus today is to forgo the museum—restructured or even new—as a site in which productive decolonial praxis can take place. People want to move away from hierarchical structures such as the museum.

Ozoz: My interest in museums comes from a need to preserve. How do we preserve these things and objects in the long term? Museums are the only places I see seed banks, for example. It’s a system of preservation and exhibition. I preserve as much as I can in writing, but people need to see these things so they can make connections and build a wider frame of reference.

Our history is worth preserving; if only to save future generations from the constant, haunting search for identity. That causes a lot of needless anxiety.

Ozoz Sokoh
Ozoz Sokoh

Olamiju: Do responses to your work vary greatly across the diaspora?

Ozoz: There’s an overwhelming sense of surprise at the fact that the connections I uncover exist. A few weeks ago I did a cooking class at a cultural center here, lots of people of Caribbean descent came. I was teaching them about the technique of burning rice to create a smoky flavor—party rice, as we call it—and one lady exclaimed that she remembers watching her mother do the same when she was growing up, but that she just thought it was something random her mother happened to do, and didn’t exist beyond their kitchen. As much as my work explores West African culinary connections, I’m interested in tying that back to the global.

Olamiju: What do you see in the future of your practice?

Ozoz: Everything. Cookbooks, which will include historical references. Exhibitions: a solo photo exhibition, and a group photo exhibition. I am currently working with film—and am thinking about experimenting with sound—as a presentational method. COVID is delaying this, but I had plans to work with ceramics and building a pantry, too. I envision a wall of jars and clay pots filled with all sorts of things. I’ve also been working with an artist on a series of narrated collaged scapes which tell ingredient-oriented stories.

Olamiju Fajemisin is a writer and editor based in London and Zürich.