Salinas and Saudades – Part one


We are travelling north up the Portuguese coast from Lisbon, but before we leave the city, we visit the Jeronimos Monastery with friend and colleague Ricardo. He tells us that the church used to hold a mass for all the fishermen before they set off to fish in the faraway cold Northern seas; this was the importance of the cod haul to the people of 16th century Portugal. The emblems of fishing and the sea can still be seen carved into the majestic pillars of the interior of the church.


Our first stop is Caldas de Rainha, where we stay with the Periera family, Clara, Amilcar and their daughter Mariana, to visit nearby Salinas at Rio Maior. The town was founded by a royal princess who had a liking for the natural sulphurous thermal springs, and had a hospital built there. In Rio Maior, up in the hills about 20km away, there is a natural saltwater source which has been exploited for centuries.

Rio Maior

Today, a well is pumped using ancient technology to fill the shallow, geometrically arranged pools of salt. The salt is scraped from the surface of the drying pools and piled onto raised pallets, making something akin to a primitive shelter in form, and allowing it to dry slowly in the sun. The ‘village’ of salt warehouses and wooden cabins is mostly deserted when we visit, an EU sponsored tourist facility that seems to be on hard times; the main customers of the cafes seem to be the workers of the salinas.


The Perieras tell us that Portugal is like that; tourists tend to cluster in droves at the main ‘sights’ such as nearby Obidos, and not visit the less well known places. They invite us to have a barbeque with them and as they pile plates full of grilled sardines, bream, fresh corn bread, and salad, we hear migration stories old and new. The economic situation has caused young people like Mariana to consider moving abroad in search of work, as the only job she can get in her hometown is as an ‘intern’ in a lawyers office, with a capped salary of around 600 euros a month (after a postgraduate archeology degree). Meanwhile, her dad Amilcar describes how he was exiled from Angola aged 20, when the Portuguese rule ended, and his family came back to Portugal with nothing, only the clothes on the back, no papers, or money. He had to start from scratch and began working to support he family, eventually becoming a teacher. He gets emotional when he talks about the country he left behind, says he could never visit, he is a ‘soudade’ – a word he says is impossible to translate exactly. Its meaning is to do with absence, nostalgia, about missing someone, or somewhere, knowing you will never see them again.

The next day we travel on to Figueira da Foz, a bustling seaside resort with mega casinos and an endless sandy beach. The town is reached by a suspension bridge across a wide delta, on one side of which lie abandoned salinas and the other a busy port.

Figueira window

The salinas here are also a tourist attraction; going back out of town and across the bridge, we follow signs for the ‘Ecomuseu de Sal’. The new timber museum building is an echo of the sparse scattering of timber huts which dot the flat landscape of the delta. Cristina, who it seems functions as museum guide, receptionist, salt dealer and much else, tells us that she is an ‘intern’ like Mariana, and her job here ends soon. As she shows us around her passion and knowledge for salt and its production are apparent, and it seems a wasted opportunity that she is not given more security and reward for her knowledge.

She says her father runs an industrial salt production facility which she used to help out at. Describing the different processes, she says that the industrial one, where water is forced through rocks, takes only 5 hours and uses the material only once; the salt then has to be cleaned, and chemicals added to it. The Salinas’ traditional production uses a natural filtration system in which the saltwater is let into beds slowly, increasing in salinity as it gets shallower and more concentrated, and then evaporating naturally to leave ‘pure’ salt which also contains other minerals. The salt water is re-used 4 or more times, and the evaporation process takes 5-6 days. But whilst the industrial salt-making is still in production supplying agriculture and industry, the Salinas of Figueria have dwindled from 229 to 45, once employing 1500-2000 workers at its height, now many pans lie empty or are used for aquaculture instead.


This seems to parallel what is happening to Portugal at the moment, where the natural resources of the country are less valued, and globalised industries mean that young people with skills and talents are going elsewhere or working for a pittance. Not to romanticise the life of a salt worker – as we follow the guided route walk for 3 hours in the baking sun, we pass one hut where the workers invite us to join them for lunch, and give us freshly caught and grilled ‘Carapau’ with bread and wine. The guys are very friendly and despite our mutual lack of language we exchange a few words. They go and fish in the early morning and then come to work on the salinas, and its hot, heavy work. Back in the museum, Cristina shows us the 35kg baskets women used to cart back to the warehouses on their heads. We can’t even lift it.



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Saltfish in the (global) market

In preparation for my next research trip to Portugal, I’ve begun to map salt products in Brixton market. I found 8 shops/stalls selling a wide variety of salt fish products, although the Deli where Jose had talked about the saltfish trade loop had closed for the summer.


According to Mark Kurlansky, the salt cod trade meant huge growth for Portuguese fishing and saltmaking. Sites in Aveiro had been producing salt for centuries, but new saltworks in Setubal became leading suppliers after the 1500s when European exploration overseas headed West to the Americas. According to Deli owner Jose, the saltfish was essential to the long sea voyages which enabled the explorers and later colonisers to travel.


Ironically now it is both a national dish in Portugal and a traditional favourite of African Caribbean communities in the UK,  communities that have migrant roots intrinsically linked to those of the colonisers.

Sugar is often written about in connection with the slave trade, but the place of salt in global trade and migration has been less visible, perhaps because over centuries its value has diminished.



I was interested to discover that the companies producing the saltfish for sale in the market seemed to be based mainly in Grimsby and Hull, which was once the main portal of immigration for millions of eastern europeans, mainly Jews.

Other producers of saltfish I could find seemed to be based in China, Iceland and Norway. Therefore mapping the routes that this fish goes on before it arrives in the market is getting more complicated. Added to that, Jose said some of his customers take the salt cod they buy in Brixton back to Jamaica as they like its quality. So the saltfish travels even further today than in centuries past.


I went to eat Bacalau in nearby Little Portugal (Stockwell) and talked to Catarina, a Portuguese friend and Estefani, a Spanish friend from Galicia, Northern Spain. Bacalau is made with salt cod and while eating it Catarina told me about visiting a very old saltworks in Rio Maior and talking to a man who’d been working there all his life. But after my day trawling the market, I wonder how much saltfish is imported to Portugal today from China.


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Salt Pans of Gozo and Malta

I recently went to Gozo and Malta and searched out the many salt pans some of which are still in operation.

Salt pans Xwenji

In Gozo, the complex geometries of the hand-carved pans seem in harmony with the rocky cliffs and adapted to the terrain.


In Malta, the Knights of St John had built huge pans centuries ago which are currently being regenerated as part of an EU-funded program. They are going to restore them as productive pans and open a salt museum.

Seeing these pans and the importance placed on them in the past reinforces my understanding of the global currency salt once held. Now I’m working on developing my final PhD project that will link salt, stories and sites both local and diasporic.


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Salt rituals

I’ve been thinking some more about the metaphorical and material qualities of salt, and exploring these through journeys both far-flung and nearer to hand. This summer I went on a 26 day trip across Germany, Lithuania and Russia, accompanied by my sister Rebecca and for a short period by our father William. The aim of the trip was to track down some of the sites related to our family history and try to discover more about where family members might have lived before they migrated to the UK and South Africa. Our first stop was Germany where we visited Kassel to see the Documenta exhibition, and then on to Hamburg where we know that our Great-Great – Grandmother Anne and her father Nicholas Filaratov lived for a few years before coming to Hull. It was great to experience a port city that whilst it has seen extensive changes still retained some of the original warehouses. Going out of town to the emigration museum we found an area which was still very much a stopping place for current migrants – it felt cut off from the rest of the city and we had an adventure trying to walk back into the centre via motorway bridges, construction sites and abandoned wastelands.

Then we travelled by ship from Kiel to Klapieda and on by bus to Vilnius, Lithaunia. Concurrently to our actual travels we were making virtual links with the diasporic family on, and and through these sites we found that our very distant ancestors the Meisels had in fact lived in what was at the time the Vilnius Jewish area (later the ghetto, and now the heritage site of the city and full of boutique hotels and gift shops). After a very unproductive although comical visit to the archives where we failed to learn very much excpet that records relating to certain years were kept in other places they werent sure where exactly, we decided to use a more esoteric method of locating our ancestors homes.

Using a necklace purchased in the “Russian Market”, I dowsed the streets of the Jewish area, until eventually on a patch of grass I got the answer we were looking for. There we sprinkled salt in a line, marking the possible threshold of the home of our forebears with salt brought back from South Africa via England, the reverse of the route of migration of our family.

From Vilnius we travelled onwards to Rokiskis, a small town in the north of the country, and a neighbouring village Obelai, where we had information the Beinart family had lived up until the early 1900s. As we drove North, the urban sprawl gave way to fields, lakes and wooden houses.

Through talking to a Jewish Genealogist in the US via skype, we found out the locations of the Jewish cemeteries in Rokiskis and Obelai, and thanks to a local guide we met at the Tyzenhaus museum in Rokiskis, we were able to track down the sites. Whilst walking the streets of the villages we had found it hard to find any traces of the once thriving Jewish community, as subsequent layers of occupation and use had all but buried the memories of the former inhabitants. But in the overgrown, half-hidden cemeteries it was possible to make out hebrew letters on the half-fallen over tombstones, and the lack of overwriting by anyone else gave us easier access to our ancestors’ past.

Here we decided to echo a performance (and film) we had made in the salt pans of Darling, South Africa two years ago, called Offere. We offered bread and salt which had come from the pans to each other, and to the ghosts in the graveyard. The stale salty bread reminded us of the dry salt pans and brought a sense of the journey we had made, the reverse journey of our forebears, into the space they occupied.

We then travelled onwards by overnight train for the final stage of our journey, to St Petersburg. This was the furthest point back we had traced the Filaretovs to, but despite the best efforts of our friends Olga and Misha and a fairly fruitless trip to the Russian state library, we were unable to identify further where they had lived, or what they had done. However, we discovered by chance that the street we were staying on had been the centre of the St Petersburg Jewish community over 100 years ago, and we decided to leave a trace in salt in memory of the mysterious Mr Filaretov. The cyrillic symbol for ‘F’ is also, curously, the alchemic symbol for salt (turned sideways) and the symbol for the golden ratio. We left a salted F on the pavement of Galernaya Street, a small sign of our presence and the transient presence of our ancestor.


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Unofficial Histories

In May, I attended a conference at the Bishopsgate Institute titled “Unofficial Histories” which set out to discuss “how society produces, presents and consumes history beyond official and elite versions of the past”. Then in June, I went on a visit with Hayley Newman and Slade PhD students to The Mayday Rooms, a new initiative which was set up to work with historical material and make it relevant to today’s social movements.

The conference was opened by Hilda Kean who started out with a quote from Raphael Samuels – of “history as a social form of knowledge”; an ensemble of practices in which a “dialectic of past-present relations is ‘rehearsed’”. She discussed different examples of individuals and groups consciously creating their own history, for example the suffragettes created own museum at time of their campaign, as they saw their own activities as worth commemorating.

She explored family history as a different way of exploring people’s relationship with the past, using material culture as a way into exploring identity, memory and absence, and the importance of recognising the link between emotions and history, as “feelings and analysis are not mutually exclusive”. Finally she described history metaphorically as a house of many rooms – with different inhabitants in different rooms, but said that at the moment academics see themselves as in possession of the house. How this might be changed was addressed through other speakers papers, and as Andrew Flinn began: “history is too important to be left to professional historians” (this was in the first issue of History Workshop Journal). He explained the progress of worker’s history from the first workers libraries in 19th century, through Ruth and Eddie Frow’s collection in their house of materials relating to working class history, to current initiatives, which grew out of the idea of “a usable past” (James D Young, 1990. The Workers City)

In my session I presented a paper titled Market Research (or) Unravelling the Idealized Spectre – artists producing history in the public realm, which discussed issues of the subjective role of the artist in constructing situations in public, breaking down the idea of a united ‘community’ or ‘public’ identity. Kyle-Patrick Hart spoke about the invention of AIDs through the media, and how self-representation localizes production and viewing of work, and Melissa Bliss spoke about reviving memories of hackney radical activism through guided walks. This lead to a discussion about embodied practices of making history, and the risks and responsibilities involved in this type of work. Making spaces for otherness to be heard was vital, but required careful consideration of how material is then processed and used.

I enjoyed Rosa Ainsley’s paper on her book 2 Ennerdale Drive, which explored architectural narrative and its place in the social, excavating family history through a new form of memoir. Her book combined image and text, memory and factual history to explore her own family story through the architecture of the family house. This type of topoanalysis or site writing – which combines poetic practice and theoretical analysis – is as she describes an approach to the “slippery hieroglyphs of family history”, cultivating a lack of certainty and ambivalence, and playing with both the official content and form of history.

The conference prompted me to thinking about who the producers and the consumers of history are, what is fuelling the desire for history, and which versions of history we are told; are consumers fuelling a desire for certain versions or types of historical material/content, or are producers offering certain versions for consumption?

Visiting the Mayday Rooms new headquarters in an old Newspaper Office on Fleet Street offered another perspective on these questions. Their intention is to create an active space for the use of history, processing materials which relate to the ‘unofficial’ histories of social movements, artists networks and education, but rather than holding an archive, to encourage people to come in and use the material in relevance to contemporary concerns. Therefore, history becomes a tool for researchers challenging current power structures. The project grew out an archive which was set up at Central St Martins to rescue material relating to the educational history of the institution, much of which was outside the current ‘image’ the school wanted to portray. Recognising the value of this alternative history in the current struggles of higher education, the instigators of the Mayday Rooms set out to collect and republish/index this material, and now the physical space of the project allows many more possibilities.

Set in a building which is located by the site of England’s first printing press, it offers imaginative approaches to how material culture, technology and research might be combined to creatively use historical materials which relate to those marginalised and untold stories of struggle, and working outside of or against structures of power with their ‘official’ versions of history.

What both the conference and the Mayday Rooms offer is a renewed interest and passion to not only tell marginalised histories, but to re-examine who does this and why it is done. The suggestion is that these histories, and this material, can have power in changing the contemporary, so that past figures are not just spectral but can offer ways to materialise questions that have still not been resolved about power and control of our cities and institutions.


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Silk routes

I started the residency at August Art, Shoreditch High Street, last week and have been slowly making progress with the map of routes, based on the Brixton stories we collected last year. I based the map on lace making patterns, which relate to the history of the area as a centre for the Huguenot silk trade and fabric and lace-making.

I went to the national archive at Kew where there is a collection of Huguenot silks and laces. The paper patterns are still partly visible on the reverse.

I traced the filmstrip narratives of the Brixton stories onto paper, and these became the patterns for the journeys on the map.

I then began to pin out the routes, using silk thread to knot around the pins. As the journeys converge and cross, a patterning of lacework will emerge. I am calling the work “Pattern Language” which relates to the idea of a design syntax, of a set of variables which can be used as a vocabulary and grammar to describe ‘solutions to problems in a field of interest’. It also relates to my interest in translation and the incoherence of the palimpsest of different histories that make up a place, the tangle of interwoven lives at any given moment.

I will continue the residency over the next few weeks and am also interviewing local residents and passers by, which will add to the archive of narratives to draw on in the next stage of work.

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Contested Sites..

In early March, Rebecca and I went to Chelsea College of Art to take part in a conference called Contested Sites organised by TrAIN (Research centre for Transnational Art, Identity, Nation. We resurrected our market stall and asked conference participants to tell us their narratives and journeys that their research had led them on. Some of these became lines of thread on a map, a trial piece for the work I am now making in the gallery.

We also presented a paper on the Brixton work, which lead to an interesting discussion about the nature of memory, who memory belongs to, who can collect and tell it. This echoed the themes of the day which were sparked off by keynote speaker Eyal Sivan’s discussion of memory and representation through filmed image, in his context in Palestine, where the settlers ‘created’ the image of an empty desert.

He asked, who is looking? Who is giving the commentary? Who is the actor and who is the witness? The contestation becomes not just over site but over the role different individuals and communities play, and the role we play as researchers and actors in our own research.

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Nomadic Sites

I’ve been reading ‘One Place After Another’ by Miwon Kwon, which has led me to thinking about the nature of practices which engage with site. In the book, Kwon discusses the genealogy of site-specific art from the Serra era of works which respond to environmental conditions, to Suzanne Lacy’s new genre public art and beyond.

What emerges through the text is the evolution of art practices in which site is structured intertextually not spatially; site as a fragmentary sequence of events and actions through space (a model being the itinerary of a journey). This changes the role of the artist, as “..the intricate orchestration of literal and discursive sites that make up a nomadic narrative requires the artist as a narrator-protagonist…”; of the artist as facilitator of relationships in space.

Suzanne Lacy describes what exists between ‘public’ and ‘art’ as the unknown relationship between the artist and audience; a relationship that may itself be the artwork. So if architect and site are displaced by community, audience and social issue, as different kinds of spaces, how does this affect approaches to practice in the public realm? One way can be for artists to see community as what Bruce Robbins calls an ‘idealized specter’, enabling a fiction of unity that in fact reinforces ‘a closed system of differences’ (Chantal Mouffe).

Through conversations with my sister and collaborator Rebecca, I have been thinking about how our work could reverse site and situation, in an attempt to counteract this. Rather than the physicality of site, to insert situation INTO site. So that the practitioner and site are effectively nomadic, and we design and adapt situations according to the conditions we find. Situation as a filter for design; site as answering a set of criteria for situation, rather than the other way round.

What this has made me realise is key to my work is the logistics, and negotiation processes, involved in creating situations in sites. That in fact this might be where the practice is: not just in the outcome or the final event but in the processes and relationships, and the knowledge accumulated through dialogue.

Therefore, developing work for a new exhibition at August Art in March with curator Winnie, what emerged was the idea of a live residency in the gallery which will create the work on site, in part using the Brixton stories we collected, and also responding to conversations which take place with gallery visitors and passers by. I’ll be researching and posting further ideas on the work and process over the coming weeks…

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The Charmed Life of Objects

At the Wellcome collection, an exhibition called ‘Charmed Life’ showcases the Victorian collector Edward Lovett’s 1400 amulets, with responses by artist Felicity Powell. Her delicate wax traces on mirror-backs are far more ethereal than the stumpy rough-hewn objects invested with magic power by the Victorian poor of London. The other exhibition on there, of Mexican ex-voto paintings, collects hundreds of hand-painted images of near-death experiences and salvation, naïve offerings in gratefulness to the divinity who has prevented catastrophe.

I then visited the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford and come across more charms and ex-votos. Wax castings of body parts giving thanks for healing; diverse objects with magical powers to cure (including a potato carried around for 3 months as a cure for Rheumatism); a bottle carrying a witch. What is fascinating is the solidification of the spirit; the investure of the material with power so strong it can kill or cure.

I bought a book called Dime Store Alchemy, a series of texts by American poet Charles Simic about Joseph Cornell’s boxes.  I find one box I keep coming back to, called Untitled (“Dovecote”). It is reminiscent (on a different scale) of Alexander Brodsky’s works, which I saw him talk about last week at the Royal Academy. Between art and architecture, his works frame or contain vanished memories. For one work, ‘Grey Matter’, he used unfired clay to recreate lost objects from memory.

In one text by Simic, titled ‘Totemism’, he talks about the secret rooms inside everyone. “Every once in a while an object on the table becomes visible: a broken compass, a pebble the colour of midnight, an enlargement of a school photograph with a face in the back circled, a  watch-spring – each one of these items is a totem of the self.” These totemic objects ‘give the soul something to grasp onto’. (Michel de Montaigne, Essais, 1580 in Charmed Life Exhibition catalogue)

So, is it possible to fabricate totemic relics in response to a specific set of narratives? I wonder how might they become visible, be displayed, and contained – the reproduction as a deliberate attempt to render loss physical, to retain loss.


All photographs taken at the Pitt Rivers Museum.



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Melting pots

Whilst getting the material together for the upgrade seminar I presented last week, I was searching online for  ‘Brixton’ and ‘melting pot’, and saw an advert for this on Gumtree.

So I tracked it down and had a exchange in a Tesco car park, and now it is in my studio awaiting further experimentation. I’ve been reading more about salt and alchemical processes, and how salt represents the stable, ‘fixed’ element in alchemy.

Hillman talks about salt as ‘soul’; “the mineral substance or objective ground of personal experience”. In Hillman’s analysis, salt represents the drive to remember, and a trauma is a salt mine; it is a fixed place for reflection about the nature and value of our personal being, where memory originates and personal history begins. This connects with Jung’s psychoanalytical framework based on the four stages of alchemy: nigredo, albedo, citrinitas and rubedo. So I’m thinking about the connection between objects, memory and transformative processes, (and salt), and wondering how I might use my melting pot to translate narratives into physical material, or vice versa…

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