Sauerkraut & Feminism – in Conversation with ROSALYN D’MELLO

In 2003, the Fellowship Program for Art and Theory was established at Künstlerhaus Büchsenhausen with the aim to create a place for discussion and artistic expression. Artists, writers, and scholars are encouraged to reflect on international art and societal discourses in relation to regional topics. 

This year’s Büchsenhausen Fellows examine the process of coming to terms with the past through a feminist-queer lens, in order to create a better and more profound understanding of our present. Since the 12th of May until the 16th of July the fruits of their creative endeavors can be seen at the Neue Galerie in Innsbruck (Rennweg 1, Großes Tor Hofburg) in the exhibition CORPOREALITY REPAIR CONCILIATION – Investigating Ways Into a Better Coexistence curated by Andrei Siclodi. 

exhibition view at Neue Galerie | photo: Rosalyn D’Mello

In our blog we introduce you to all four Fellows and their projects. After getting to know Olga Ştefan and her project The Concentration Camp Exhibition we talked to Rosalyn D’Mello about her project In the Name of the Mother, a speculative artistic research exploring art created by housewives which will eventually take on the form of an ever-evolving essay. 

Rosalyn D’Mello is a writer, art critic, columnist, and researcher. She grew up as a “Bombay Goan” in Mumbai. In 2015 she published her critically acclaimed memoir A Handbook for my Lover. Two years ago, she left New Delhi and moved to Tramin in South Tyrol. In an interview she told us how this life change affected her, how alternative, feminist approaches to research can elevate academic discourse, how she turned jam into fine art, and what sauerkraut has to do with feminism.

Rosalyn D’Mello

Did you grow up in an artistic environment?

I grew up in a middle class, migrant family in a very Catholic neighborhood in Bombay (now Mumbai). In my childhood I participated in a lot of activities organized by the church – singing in the choir and doing social work. I think all of that was artistic in its own way. It wasn’t necessarily intellectual, but it was about caring and community building. My parents were not artistic in the conventional sense, but they were very resourceful. My father always had creative and imaginative solutions for things. For example, when we had a school play, he would make great DIY costumes for us. One time he stitched a remarkable devil costume out of red satin for me, it was very cool. 

How did art become a central focus in your life?

If someone asks me if I am an artist, I will say that I’m a writer first because words are my first point of contact for anything. From the age of 12 I knew that I wanted to be a writer. Words were always my thing. Even as a teenager, when I was writing shitty poems – that felt very profound to me at the time – I felt comfortable with language. Still, it took me some time until I could confidently say: I am a writer. Even after studying literature, if someone asked me what I did, I would not say I’m a writer, I would say I write. I just did not feel as if I had arrived. However, at some point I started to live like a writer and earned my living by writing. Only then did i feel more comfortable in saying „I’m a writer“ 

What’s your writing process like?

I write from lived experience. In a sense, my texts are something that my body secretes after an exuberance of living. It’s not like I write every day or keep a journal. I write when I feel like I have something to say. A big part of my writing is consolidating all my handwritten notes since I write everything by hand. It gets messy. My writing sometimes feels like its own creature that I have not yet been able to tame and that excites me – the fact that I don’t have as much control over it as I would like to have. 

Do you write fictional stories as well?

I have published some fiction, but it tends to take on an experimental form. I’m always inserting myself in the narrative and therefore even my fictional stories are never pure fiction. Everything I write represents my own perspective on the world and I don’t know if I will ever be able to leave that behind and enter a pure space of fiction. 

Was there one specific piece of writing that really struck and inspired you?

In my undergrads I came across the essay The Laugh of the Medusa by Hélène Cixous and this continues to be one of my favorite pieces of writing because it is electrifying that someone would write theory like this. It feels so cross genre, it feels so sure of itself in terms of its language. It’s not just something static on a page but rather feels alive, almost like a performance. Each sentence has an energy running through it. The way Cixous tells women to write their bodies and steal from language feels like a manifesto. I still find myself returning to that essay. It changed something in me and for me. 

Auto theory is a central concept in your research and texts. Can you tell us a bit more about it?

The idea behind auto theory is quite simple:  Generating theory out of lived experience. A lot of what we understand today in auto theory can be traced back to the writings of Third World feminists and black feminists. They had to write about things that happened to them as a way of speaking about their otherness and marginalization. In doing so, they were inadvertently reaching out to other women, validating their experiences of being similarly invalidated or marginalized. I think that is the crux of auto theory: Finding universal themes in individual lives, emotions, and thoughts.  It makes you feel less alone when digesting your own experiences. Moreover, auto theory implies that theory is not something that happens in a particular public domain, but that it rather is something very personal. Just like feminism it has this notion of saying that the personal is also structural. 

I also like the fact that in a certain way you absorb your own world and generate something new out of it. Not by aestheticizing it, but by extracting the quintessence and drawing out the insights. 

Why does auto theory speak so much to you personally?

In academic discourse you are supposed to distance yourself from the subject. This frigid objectivity is a very male approach, which makes sense when you consider that academia was formed mainly by men. This way of research, however, was not exciting for me at all and it felt disingenuous to who I am as a person.  Women usually approach things with more empathy, which was historically held against us in the notion of: women think with their hearts, not their heads. I stopped studying literature because I didn’t want to adapt my way of writing to fit into this predetermined frame. I am naturally inclined to generate theory out of lived experience, it is like an innate part of my writing that I do not want to abandon.

I really hope that auto-theory will change something in academia, because I think being self-reflective can be crucial in research.  Let’s say you are writing a thesis in psychology – how can you not be self-reflective? Only recently Lauren Fournier published her book Autotheory as Feminist Practice in Art, Writing, and Criticism that I think will create a framework for auto theory and give it a place in academic discourse.

The project you’re researching in the course of your fellowship at Büchsenhausen is called In the Name of the Mother. Why?

The title In the Name of the Mother is an opposition to In the Name of the Father, which is how we begin most religious ceremonies in a Christian world. But even in non-western contexts everything is rooted in patriarchy. It is all about male lineages, about what is passed down from father to son. With my project In the Name of the Mother I want to embrace things done by women that were generally disregarded by institutional structures controlled by men. For example, embroidery. When you go to an art school you will learn painting, make sculptures, and new media but you won’t learn textile work. Crochet, häckeln or lacemaking – all these creative things, conventionally practiced by women, are not considered fine art. I wanted to put a spotlight on these skills and techniques that were and still are passed on from mother to daughter, grandmother to granddaughter. They are usually taught in a non-institutional way – in the kitchen or in the garden, through recipe books, diaries, word of mouth or observation. I wanted to create a context, where these things, that were traditionally left within the realm of the domestic, are understood as art. I call it the art of the housewife. 

The kitchen is a central element in your research, why?

In the course of writing a recipe book for my best friend, I began to think about cooking as a powerful activity where you are the keeper of the flame. I also started to research the history of the housewife. Feminism, especially in the West, had to get women out of the kitchen in order to assert the demand for equality. As a consequence, a schism between the housewife and the feminist was created. You had to be either one or the other. If you wanted to be a modern empowered and liberated woman you had to leave the kitchen, because it was the site of oppression, which it historically was. However, it was also a place, where all sorts of magical things happened, a place of creativity. In my research, I want to put the spotlight on these aspects of the kitchen.

exhibition view at Neue Galerie | photo: Rosalyn D’Mello

What was the biggest change when you moved from New Delhi to Tramin in South Tyrol?

First of all, living in South Tyrol definitely gave me the opportunity to slow down. I grew up in Mumbai and then lived in New Delhi, both are intense cities. Suddenly living in a town with around 3500 people, where everyone knows who you are, really changed something for me. I stopped feeling like being caught in a rat race because no one around me seemed to care about social status or how much you earn. It also changed my perspective in the sense that in this tiny town I felt a bit more divorced from the rest of the world. 

I really like this microcosm where people stop by each other’s houses to drop off a jar of jam. I was finding myself longing for this sense of community, because in these big cities in India it’s kind of a double-edged sword. On a certain level there’s a lot of closeness and social contact but on the other hand there are also so many grounds that divide people. Castes, class, gender. I found that in South Tyrol the class differences were not so pronounced on a general everyday basis and I really enjoy that. Which is not to say it’s not a patriarchal system. It has its very own issues with patriarchy. 

Has it affected your research?

Working on the fields with farmers and caring for land definitely changed something in me. Moreover, my partners unmarried aunts, Monica and Maridl, were really inspirational. I love these small but wholesome worlds that they have created around themselves. They feel so rich and vibrant.

Apart from all of that, learning German also had an impact on me. For example, the German term for mother, Mutter, has so many interesting dimensions. The starter for sourdough is called Mutter, the placenta is called Mutterkuchen. This was exciting to me because it made some connections and concepts even more evident to me – motherhood, cooking, fermentation, and baking. Mutter is always something that transmits something, creates a lineage and that became more evident to me through the German language. 

What does Sauerkraut have to do with feminism?

I have to thank Lauren Fournier for that. She had done a project called Fermenting Feminism some years ago, which resulted in a beautiful magazine, which is available as a PDF online. It explores how feminism is not static. It’s constantly evolving, things are being added and it constantly adapts, just like cultures of fermentation, constantly reacting to the atmospheres around them, picking up new bacteria and modifying. Lauren made out these parallels and elaborated on them. 

In addition, fermented products are good for your gut health and the notion of a “gut feeling” or Bauchgefühl, relates to “female intuition”. There is also an ecological relationship. Cultures of fermentation are cultures of preservation. Something is being preserved for future consumption, for nutrition. All throughout history, it has been the task of women to preserve food, to save it, and thus to provide for hard times. 

Moreover, Sauerkraut is usually made in conjunction with the moon cycle which relates to the female body and the menstrual cycle. It goes on and on, so if anything, the connection between feminism and Sauerkraut is obvious (grins).

On January 28th you hosted a Jam Tasting Event at Schloss Büchsenhausen. Artists, curators and art critics were invited to a blind tasting of jams made by locals in Tramin.  How did this idea come about?

It came to me while living in South Tyrol. Every morning we would have jam and it was never store bought. It was always made by some neighbor or friend and the blueberries were usually hand collected. Having lived in Mumbai and Delhi all my life I felt like this was something very special. Growing up, the jam we had was quite synthetic and sugary. I don’t know if it even had actual fruit in it. So, for me eating homemade jam felt like a luxury. Every week we would have a different one. It really excited me to find out what the next jam would be. Jam and making jam are such integrated parts of everyday life of the people in Tramin. As a way of sharing my new life with my friends and family back home I started to upload videos of me tasting jams on Instagram. I called myself a non-native informant and jam criticism was my way of making it light and fun. At the same time, I made it look serious and talked about the different jams as if they were very important pieces of art. Based on this, I started the project Traminer Marmeladen Almanach. I would ask people to invite me to their houses while they were making jams and then I would interview them. I created a collection of jams with exciting, interesting flavors and eventually brought some of them to Schloss Büchsenhausen for the jam tasting event.

How did the people of Tramin react when you told them that their Marmelade will be part of an art project?

They were genuinely excited. Some were a bit unsure of what I wanted to do, some were kind of amused by the idea. It was nice to dig through their memories a little bit and get them to dwell on something that is so commonplace for them.

| Johanna Hinterholzer

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