Babylon Ital

I’ve recently been experimenting with some cooking events in galleries and alternative art spaces. It’s a bit of fun. I’ve mainly been cooking vegetarian or vegan food – not for any particular ethical reason, but simply because I think it’s sometimes harder to find decent veggie food when eating out. I like the challenge. I love Jamaican food and many of the vegetable dishes associated with Jamaican cooking, so that has been an initial inspiration.

I met the artist Joe Walsh at a party and we got chatting about food and our mutual admiration for dub reggae and Scotch bonnets. Joe cooks regularly at the Bonnington Café in Vauxhall. It’s one of London’s oldest socially-run vegetarian restaurants, housed in a former squat. They have a different chef every night, and you can get a three-course meal for around 15 quid, which for central London is pretty good. You never know what food you’ll have or how good it will be, which is always part of the fun of the place. Actually, I hadn’t been to Bonnington for years, but Joe said he had a spot coming up and asked if I’d like to cook with him. Of course, I said yes. Joe and I did a few tasting sessions, and also came up with the concept of Babylon Ital. Ital is basically traditional Rastafarian food “from the earth”. Similar to vegan, but some hardcore Itals don’t use salt, and even more hardcore Itals don’t even allow metal cooking pots. That’s where the ‘Babylon’ part comes in. Babylon is the Rastafarian concept of capitalist corruption, kind of. So we used salt, and blamed it on Babylon. We also used metal pots. Babylon’s fault again.

For the night the menu was:

Start.

Fried plantain with Bo Boys salsa

Sweetcorn, okra, polenta with herbs

Main.

Red pea soup with vegetables and dumplings

Pumpkin and spinach curry

Desert.

Guinness punch

Coconut pie with lime

Mint tea

(We also handed out Jamaican country-style Irish moss drinks to people at the end of the night.)

Now, aside from all this Ital cooking malarky, I’ve also been working on some actual art. I have a solo show coming up at Exeter Phoenix, and as part of my research for that I’ve been looking at the ethnographic collection of the Royal Albert Memorial Museum. I’m interested in the history of collections and what they say about the people and cultures that put them together. I’ve made sketches from some of the objects in the collection that caught my eye, with the idea that I’ll somehow use them in the show. One of the works I found interesting was a hand-spun cotton cloth from Côte d’Ivoire, from the 1960s. The cloth features images of some ritualistic tribal figures. What I liked about the figures is that they looked like they would be very easy to re-draw and then turn into some type of print. I showed the drawings to Joe, and he suggested we use one of them for the flyer for the Bonnington Café gig, which we did.

Another night at the Bonnington came up a couple of months later, and we decided to stage a performance as well as cooking. After more brainstorming with Joe, we hooked up with costume maker Clare Farrell, who took the drawing and turned it into a wearable costume. We told maverick performance artist Tex Royale [pictured above] that we would pay him his weight in yam if he’d wear the costume for us, and he was more than happy to take up the offer. Tex did a great job, inhabiting the spirit of a West African tribal shaman, with a sprinkling of 1970s Ronald McDonald thrown in for good measure. No one knew what was going on, but the food went down well.

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