Kitchen Stories

Sounds, sights, and stories from kitchens

The Kitchen is an important site for making and creating for black women in South Africa. In this artistic offering, we meditate on the kitchen as a creative portal. The kitchen as a matrix of creativity, and a creation space of radicalisation.

Kitchen Stories


The kitchen serves as a nurturing environment for cooking as well as a location for memory retrieval and memory archiving. Collectively, our bodies develop. The kitchen is where food is prepared, and it's also where we discover who is in charge of providing people with both emotional and physical nourishment. Food evokes strong emotions with its sights, flavours, and textures. Where female creators develop their theories about surviving and remaining alive. In South Africa, black women's access to the kitchen as a place for making and creating is significant. In this artistic offering, we reflect on the kitchen as a place of creative expression, where routine making asserts domesticity's political and ideological utility as a concept and a physical location. The word "labour" is important, because the kitchen becomes the setting for black women's self-definition through both reproductive and creative labour. The purpose of this project was to investigate the kitchen's dual roles as a place of black women's living and a place of spatial practice. The project has transformed into a performance piece that explores the countless meanings and stories generated in the kitchen.

Launch Project


Kitchen Stories

“The kitchen…
The place where we hatched the strategies for our next uprising…
The kitchen: the place where we speak freely and practice caring for
one another.”
--- (Isoke 2018: 149)

The Kitchen is an important site for homemaking and creating for women in general, and black women in particular. The long history of women's work set in the kitchen is a testament to this. In South Africa; the history of black women as labourers exists in the realm of the kitchen. Here the kitchen becomes a working space, a space for dreaming, for world-making and a creative space. Kitchen Stories is therefore a meditation on the kitchen as a creative portal. Where every day making asserts a political and ideological utility of domesticity as both an idea and material space. Labour is a key term here, as the kitchen becomes the space where black women’s making is both reproductive and creative labour. In this work, labour is a process of self-definition.

In Kitchen Stories, we explore our stories emanating from the kitchen; how the kitchen is a site not only of black women’s living but also a creative spatial practice. As a performance piece, Kitchen Stories is an offering of two audio performance pieces and two videos. We are presenting different stories and meanings created in the kitchen. Refiloe Lepere is a writer, director and actress and Ezra is a visual artist and filmmaker. The collaboration of the artistic practice speaks to the mixing and sauteeing that occurs in the kitchen.

Kitchen as Portal

Growing up, the kitchen was a space for making food. It was also a space where families gathered. Where the latest news was shared and the newest recipes were tried. The making in this regard is therefore a making of worlds and life. In our mothers' and grandmothers’ kitchens, we witnessed organization and clear working systems. Over and above the preparing and making of food, the kitchen also revealed neighbourliness, giving of aid to others and a space where black women shared strategies for cooking, living, and loving.

Access to a kitchen that is not fully stocked with ingredients or utensils meant that we watched women make magic out of nothing. The kitchen as a matrix of creativity and creation is a space of radicalisation.

“The wild idea that animates this… is that black women are radical subjects who tirelessly imagined other ways to live and never failed to consider how the world might be otherwise,” (Hartman 2019: 8).

Kitchen Stories reminds us that one is creating within a tradition and lineage of women creatives. We are building on that lineage. As one person shares a story it is passed from one human to another, one generation to the next. Kitchen stories are not new, but a way of creating in community. We suggest a radical aesthetic that acknowledges that we are constantly changing positions, and locations, that our needs and concerns vary, and that these diverse directions must correspond with shifts in critical thinking. Narrow limiting aesthetics within black communities tend to place innovative black artistry on the margins. Often, this work receives little or no attention. Whenever black artists work in transgressive ways, we are seen as suspect by our group and by the dominant culture. Rethinking aesthetic principles could lead to the development of a critical standpoint that promotes and encourages various modes of artistic and cultural production.

Sound as Story

The sound of labour is key here, as the kitchen becomes a space where we recognise the labour of women in kitchens. This iteration of Kitchen Stories is made up of four stories, two in audio and two in video. Through these we understand:

  • What is the lineage of black women theorising about their lives?
  • How can performance offer another way of reading the lives of black women as radical and trauma-based?

Sylvia Wynter (1989) suggests that through performance we can see the black female as the site for the intersection of humanness as it relates to blackness. In these performance presentations, kitchen labour articulates embodied practice. At the centre of labour is a body that created the work, and the other bodies that can replicate it and its activities. In the book, This Bridge Called My Back - Writings by Radical Women of Color by Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua (1981), the editors make a case that black women’s experiences of the work through their bodies can and should offer us information on how things should be. They speak to the idea that the body knows and remembers, and it can create theories “born out of necessity” (1981: 25). They argue that the body also makes sense of the world in its way. That reason is shaped by how the body experiences the world.

In On Being Human as Praxis, Sylvia Wynter (2014) articulates clearly that there are certain ways of being, thinking and practising that create colonial ways of knowing. This colonial way of thinking, being and practice is rooted in a cartesian form of knowledge-making that precludes the mind as the all-knowing avenue. She further explains that there must be a way, a possible form that allows for understanding differently. This understanding or knowing, for us, is rooted in the idea that individual bodies are the producers of knowledge (Wynter 1989). For instance, there has been little to no research on how the bodies of black women and men are represented within a settler context, and what kinds of narratives and knowledge we can glean from them. We know that the historical knowledge of black bodies is embodied - it is oral and performative knowledge (King 2019). Performance allows for visibility - it allows for those embodied knowledges to be acknowledged. At the same time, performance can also hide (make invisible) things that women want to preserve for themselves. Performance can therefore be a tool of resistance - a space that allows for interpretive work of meaning-making and consciousness building. Central to this argument is that by reading the embodied acts, artistic and everyday performance can counter the dominant discourse that regularly dehumanizes black women. It can also provide meaningful, inter-subjective learning experiences for all involved.

Story 1: Ulushi

In this recording, we share a first-hand story. That is shared about the lived experience and the realities of black women and their families. She opens her home and her space, and shares freely about her life. Her sharing is not only a theory of sorts but also a practice of living. She shares systems and strategies of how her family lived and survived.

We are all aware that life experiences at times exceed the limitations of the written word (Turner, 1975) because they are lived and performed.

“Knowing is not so much about the assemblage of existing knowledge as it is about recognising our constitution as ‘ourselves’ within the fragments that we process as knowledge; ‘hailing’ and being ‘hailed’ within the discourses that produce us and the narratives we spin; directing our socially, culturally, psychically, and spiritually marked focus of attention upon that which we appropriate as ‘data’ or ‘evidence’.” (Brah 1999:5)

In her reading, Brah suggests we acquire knowledge through experience. Life experiences, at times, exceed the limitations of categorical language in the written and verbal.

Story 2: "I Did It"

In her text, ‘The Mute Always Speak: On Women’s Silences at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Nthabiseng Motsemme suggests we must read gestures made by humans such as sighs, silences and cries (Motsemme 2004) to understand what consciousness and subjectivity mean for South African women. When thinking of trauma and experiences of oppression,  the world puts currency on our abilities to speak,  but  Motsemme suggests a performative valuation. That trauma performs, and the expression of it is not just dependent on speech and words for legibility. Schneider (2013) suggests that when a person suffers from a traumatic experience, the symptom of the trauma is seen as replaying events. In this regard, the experience has a sense of performance, a rehearsal, a play and a re-playing.  As a theatre-maker,  gestures and bodily acts are a means of making meaning. More importantly, they are those created and re-acted that are important in making meaning and understanding human experiences. The work is situated in the tradition of asserting black women's agentic claim to gesture, creating and communicating in a myriad of ways. Work, silences, moans, groans and songs of black women are seen as radical performances. These stories are a form of theatre-making that make links of imagining and engaging trauma as performance. When we think of storytelling and black women, it often resides in the realm of pain. Of gender-based violence and trauma. All this is relevant but what is equally important, What makes us laugh and what makes us cry, is deeply personal. It is who we are and can never be forced.

In this video presentation, the story of Mokotong is presented in fiction with the metaphor of recipe-making. The making of bread. The idea of the recipes carries a couple of themes: a recipe is a theory, a story, a way of making sense of the world and history, and a hands-on understanding of work. Recipes are ways that women have been able to write themselves into history. Recipes are a form of inquiry, "that successfully merges the theoretical and the practical, and that promotes a self-reflective and interactive model of an inquiry," (Heldke 1988:15). A recipe is a description and collection of instructions for making or replicating a method of preparing food. Recipes are also an embodied praxis - they not only carry both theory and clear instructions on method, but this constitutes a bodily practice.

This performance is a knowledge-making process. Thinking about a recipe allows us to imagine the performance as a method, and it allows black women to write themselves into theory. It is about thinking of a method of creating.

Story 3: Phelisa Mathousand

In this story, Phelisa embodies a woman taking control of her life. She explores trauma, agency and resilience. Though her life is rendered as ending by a bizarre tale. Phelisa takes her own life into her own hands. The presence of the odd bravery is transformative in the process, both the provider and the providing (con)text for the upgrading of women’s condition. Sadistic action has a familiar ring to it. She finds ways of reclaiming and reimagining life. Documentary theatre playwright and actor, Anna Deveare Smith (2000) writes that it is insufficient for artists to “study” issues and ideas like traditional academics, but instead, she insists that artists need to “become the material” (Smith 2000:96). She further states:

“To study [as an artist], you enter into a situation with your whole being, you listen and then begin to move around inside it with your imagination. You can study every situation you are in. You can learn to read life while life is happening” (Bogart, 2001:2).

What we are doing is testing and engaging with the limits of space and artform in order to communicate complex information in a nuanced manner that transcends the limitations of text.

Story 4: "Your Love"

We are fascinated with the idea that in our everyday lives we find ways to theorise - even in things as seemingly simple as recipes or stories passed from one person to the other, through bodily performance. Here we see that the story of hurt is not not only a theory but also a practice. Storytelling is a praxis.


This paper is part of broader research that is being conducted on creative research and claims of intellectual intervention that best represent our lived experiences. In this research, we experiment with what it means for theory originating from what we live and breathe. The research is made possible by the National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIHSS).

Voice: Nasiphi Nkumbesi
Dumpling: MmaDineo Moektsi
Washing: MmaMauba Lerole
Voice: MmaMavis Ntshigila


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