The exhibition is called ‘Women of Bethnal Green at Work’ and it features exactly that! Photographs of local women in their workplace or doing work in their community. As I visited each photo, on the walls of the café at Oxford House in Bethnal Green, I noticed how many of the women in the pictures were involved in feeding us in some way and how vital their labour is in our day to day lives. For our health, to refuel our energy levels for the days, weeks and seasons, to support us in providing for one another and for sharing food together and showing we care.
In the first photo was Anita, with a brilliant smile, re-stocking the shelves for us in a nearby supermarket – and this morning when I poured milk into my tea and breakfast bowl, I felt grateful to Anita and her colleagues.
Next was Perdi, arms high in the air with a pair of secateurs, pruning a climbing plant covered in flowers, whilst designing and developing urban gardens here in Shoreditch.
There was a photo of four women with crates of bananas, pears and apricots, working at a Tower Hamlets Food Bank, where they will unpack it and repack it, ready for the families and individuals in our community that are being let down by economic systems and our governments. In 2022, when there is plentiful wealth and food in London, there shouldn’t be a need for these women to run a food bank, but Sultana Begum, Merle Curtis, Armagan Middlemast and Husna Begum have seen hunger and a need to help. In March this year, Wen published an update on food support in Tower Hamlets, which lists the different services being run (often by volunteers) to help people who cannot afford food in our borough.
At one photo I stopped and stared for a while. Julie Begum wears a bright yellow apron, talking to a group of people who are behind the camera, her hands gesticulating and animated. I wondered where she was, who she was talking to, and why the apron. When I got home I looked Julie up, she is the Co-founder and Chair of Swadhinata Trust, promoting and retelling the histories past and present of Bengali heritage here in London. Looking through the website there were so many amazing projects, including tours, trails, dinners, talks, exhibitions and workshops like making Chanachur – a popular street food snack from India and Bangladesh which is now sold on the streets of Tower Hamlets – at the Museum of London Docklands in October half term. I’ve decided to make a guess that this is what Julie is doing in her yellow apron.
There was an action shot of Rachel Hippolyte, who is the Education Manager at Spitalfields City Farm. In the Photo Rachel is pulling net back over an outdoor garden bed, in boots and a green beret, perched on the edge of the bed as not to stand on the soil. I squinted to see if I could work out what was growing in the bed; rows of young seedlings that might need protecting from bird or insect pests, but I couldn’t tell. Sunflowers towering above Rachel told me the photo was probably taken in late Summer or early Autumn when Spitalfields Farm were in full growing and harvesting flow, providing locally grown and organic food.
Finally I started to feel hungry and smell the cooking coming from the photo of Anna and Maria Pellicci in their Kitchen at cafe E Pellicci on Bethnal Green Road. Cooking us full English breakfasts and Italian classics; the family café has been serving food since 1900!
In Tower Hamlets there are so many women involved in growing, selling, providing and cooking food for their community. Sarah, who worked with the women to take the photographs, says, I have encountered “many more unsung women who sustain and bind together the special community of Bethnal Green with their warmth, labour and friendship”.
I thought about that word ‘unsung’ – that we don’t celebrate these women and their work, that we don’t hear about them or see them, that somehow they are behind the scenes, and I reflected on the Feminist Green New Deal, that tells us that as a society and as governments and economies, we need to recognise and value care work, that care work is green work, and that investment in people is vital. Women who provide food, in whichever way they do, are people doing care work, and I’m looking forward to a new part of the Feminist Green New Deal with a focus on food, that comes out this Spring!
The photography exhibition is free and open to everyone until the end of March next year at Oxford House on the side of Weavers Fields in Bethnal Green.
Dates November 10, 2022 – March 31, 2023
Times 10:00 am – 5:30 pm
Location Oxford House Cafe
HAN SMITH, JUST FACT MOBILISER
Han values the power of community organising and has previously worked at universities, environment charities and both youth and student led campaign networks. Han is currently learning about food growing infrastructure in London suburbs.