Tales from the Kitchen Table
Introduction for the book
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us are spending much of our time at home: working, sleeping, socialising, eating at home. The kitchen has long been ‘the hub of the home’ in many homes all over the world; a place for sharing food and stories; a place for gossip; a place, hidden from the public eye, where we can be completely ourselves and posit political views we might not feel safe sharing outside of the home. In Fisksätra in particular, the kitchen has been the site of municipal injustice, with many apartments being ‘renovated’ with poor quality IKEA kitchens in order to increase rents and ultimately push people out of their homes. But now the global pandemic has, in a sense, radicalised the space of the kitchen, made it a place where everything and nothing happens.
Fisksätra museum itself also participates in this model of sharing domestic space: housed in a ground floor two-room apartment within a block typical of the area’s architecture, with immediate access to the neighbourhood’s main public square, it inhabits the threshold between private and public space. One enters the museum through the kitchen, thus as visitors we immediately feel at home, projecting ourselves back into our own kitchens elsewhere. The museum kitchen is an imprint of our own homes, thus the ideal place for telling intimate stories in public, for sharing and creating empathy.
It is this sense of being ‘here and elsewhere’ that has guided us in our navigation of these liminal spaces, asking ourselves again and again: How to inhabit a place that we are not physically in?
‘Here and elsewhere’ can mean that your kitchen table has now become your workplace; that the daily Zoom calls with your colleagues afford you new insights into their private lives, as you catch pixelated glimpses of their own kitchen table from which they now work. ‘Here and elsewhere’ means hearing from loved ones experiencing lockdown in Karachi, New York, Lima, or Cairo, while we sit in Sweden, a country which decided to face the onslaught of the pandemic with a uniquely loose approach to restriction measures. It also means hearing about political and social struggles in those ‘elsewheres’ in a time when it has become impossible to travel to those places.
We were particularly interested in making dwelling places out of borders, thresholds, especially in those instances when we are forced into those positions by necessity and circumstance. As a group of individuals from a wide geographical and temporal range of different ‘here and elsewheres’, we are all complex containers of languages and knowledge. How could we explore that fragmentation and those ruptures?
We approached these questions through experiments in collective writing, listening, and fictioning on the one hand, and by building physical dwelling places — a dollhouse inspired by Fisksätra’s highrises and a corona-safe makeshift shelter for holding workshop sessions— on the other. Most of all, we wanted to tell stories, and create new ones together.
So this is what we tried to do. In bi-weekly sessions over the course of six weeks, we sat around the kitchen table together, using the framework of the language cafe (språkcafé in Swedish), a space commonly provided by local organisations for new immigrants and refugees to practice their Swedish in an informal, low-pressure environment over ‘fika’.
Taking the general concept of the språkcafé, we reinvented it in a decolonial context by inverting its only rule—that we must write and speak in Swedish—so that instead of being yet another mechanism on the road to becoming more Swedish, a language café could be a tool for experimenting collectively with the richness and multiplicity of languages and knowledge present in the room, with ‘svenskaspråket’ as one expressive option amongst many. Themes were various, ranging from memories of home and definitions of a neighbourhood, to love stories and childhood dreams, but we always came back to this shared sense of being ‘here and elsewhere’.
Not only words, but also everyday items in the kitchen can be used as tools for empathy and storytelling. Activities such as cooking and eating together facilitate the sharing of stories, alleviating the pressure of sitting down and narrating by engaging in something together. Even peeling potatoes side by side at the table can create intimate moments of collective agency and empathy. In the museum kitchen, those very same potatoes became printer’s blocks, carving out images and a space for sharing. Potato printing is the simplest of techniques, whereby everyone, whatever their age or level of expertise, can create something, can tell a story. Further, the roughness of the prints in this technique leaves space for each person to see their own interpretation of the form - the same splodgy shape could be a cat’s nose, an umbrella, or a giant’s toe.
But how to be together physically in the time of corona? To accommodate the intensified virus restrictions from the Swedish government and to make physically-distanced workshop sessions possible as the weather grew colder, we constructed a heated shelter from waxed tablecloth. We took advantage of the museum’s architecture for the placement of the shelter and the backdrop for the workshops, placing our shelter on the threshold of the museum entrance, a transitory space between private and public, with one foot in the kitchen and the other in the neighbourhood’s main square. One foot here, one foot elsewhere, and a step closer, we hope, to understanding one another in the liminality we share there, telling stories to help us better care.