A conversation with… Inês Neto dos Santos

I’m a big fan of everything you do and how you see the world, the connections between everything we see, we touch, we eat. Food can represent a place and a culture, a person, a mood or a story but it can also be democratic, bring communities together, help fight injustice – it all depends on which angle we are looking at things from. When did you decide it was time to embrace life from a different perspective?

Thank you! I can’t say if there was a definitive moment where I decided to work with the materials and themes I work with. I was weaving food into my artwork as a way of bringing a social element into what I did, and slowly started realising I was pulling on a lot of threads which I couldn’t ignore. I understood, slowly, that care and sustenance are the building blocks of our existence. And there is so much wrapped up in that – so much that is hopeful, but so much that feels hopeless, too. 

What are your favourite ingredients to ferment and why?

I like things which are simple to ferment, because they remind me how approachable fermentation is how it really is everywhere. Like fermented peaches, or blueberries or yoghurt. In the summer I love making fermented fruit sodas. 

Fermen-tour or How to stop burning your onions, Inês Neto dos Santos. For A Toolkit for the Future, V&A and Arcade East. Photo by Katie Davies
Sacred Elements by Inês Neto dos Santos. At Adventitious Encounters, curated by Anna Skladmann and Huma Kabakci.

What inspires you?

Plants and their stories, people and their stories, cooking, eating, reading, talking, listening!

“Between each forkful, there’s a full breath”, I love that, it’s such a wonderful metaphor. Art and fermentation are practices based around constant motion and transformation, which are also characteristics of a creative mind. How can we find space between each forkful to take a full breath?

I see this metaphor as a way to urge us to take time, and to think what lies beneath, beyond, before and after our food. What are the stories that lie in those spaces? What does it mean to eat a juicy peach in summer, and what does it mean to eat it in winter? Who made our food, and why are we eating it? There’s always space between each forkful for a full breath. 

I know you are a huge fan of beans, they are a big part of your culture. I am from Spain and I too grew up in a family that gave beans the respect they deserve, but for someone who is not familiar with them… tell us, why do we all need more beans in our lives?

Beans are an amazing food. I fell in love with them after being away from home and re-learning how to cook them gently, infusing them with flavour by using the simplest things. Beans form part of an agricultural approach called Milpa, which is native to Mesoamerica. The Milpa involves growing three main crops together, called The Three Sisters: corn, squash and beans. For various reasons, these three plants support each other as they grow, and take away the need for fertilisers.

The squash and the corn consume nitrogen from the soil, while beans infuse it back in, for example. I learned recently that the Milpa isn’t just a farming technique – it is a whole network of relationships between land, plants and people. Beans are also incredibly resilient plants, and often serve as an overwintering crop to protect the soil during the coldest season. They remind us of the importance of care, resilience, and the interconnectedness of our world. 

The weight of the world, by Inês Neto dos Santos. Radical Residency V, Unit 1 Gallery | Workshop. Photo by Liz Gorman

How can fermentation change the world?

Fermentation is perhaps the most amazing metaphor I’ve come across, ever. It is a way of visualising (and sensing, more widely) the invisible work of a variety of microorganisms. Microorganisms which inhabit the spaces within and without us – they are everywhere, and are largely what keeps us healthy and active (our bodies contain ten times more bacterial cells than human cells). Fermentation has the power to help us see how much we are a part of an entangled web of life – not separate or superior. In more practical terms, it is a simple, effective, cheap way of enhancing our meals; via taste but particularly via fermentation’s beneficial contributions to our gut microbiome (linked to all dimensions of our organism – physical and mental). Fermentation is open, levelling and ever-growing – it is democratic. I see it as an incredible reference point for how we are stronger in diversity, in mutual support, in understanding our interconnectedness to everything around us.

There’s no doubt that food connects us all, it brings us together. It’s something that we all have in common in one way or another, and yet, sometimes, it feels quite dividing – food became very political. What can we do as a society and individuals to make sure the future of food is democratic and not dictatorial? 

Food has always been political. There’s no way to escape it. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing – food can help us understand so many things which may feel overwhelming or unreachable. It can be a tangible way of seeing the effects of our actions, as humans. Real food justice means social justice, across the board. I think we need to keep asking questions, to be curious about how our food is produced and where it comes from. We need to educate our children about cooking, about plants, about agriculture – about fermentation! About their importance in a fair and safe life for all, not just for some. These are the tools we need to build our futures – I believe it was Ursula Le Guin who said that we need to learn the tools for building and imagining the futures we want, otherwise someone else will do it for us.

‘Tender Touches’ was your latest project of 2020 and it also became a book. Congratulations! The cover (and in fact the whole book) got me, it’s so up my street and it’s beautiful! Tell us all about it.

Thank you! Yes it’s been a long project and we are so happy to have made it into a book. Tender Touches was originally an exhibition in Peckham, which I co-curated with Huma Kabakci, as part of Open Space’s annual programme in 2019. It existed as a fully functioning café, where everything (furniture, crockery, cutlery) was made by artists. We wanted to challenge traditional exhibition structures, to break down barriers between audience and artwork/audience and artist. I was there cooking, everyday. We were open for six weeks and, by the end, realised the project was still spilling over with ideas and material. So we decided to make a book! Which is now available to buy here. It is a cross between archive, cookbook and artist book, full of little surprises and beautiful works by the artists involved. 

Tender Touches, curated by Inês Neto dos Santos and Huma Kabakci. Photo by Liz Gorman, courtesy Open Space.

You are an amazing artist – you teach, you cook, you write… what next?

For now, as most of us, I have retreated home and have been doing the parts of my work which can exist digitally (teaching, mostly). I have also been experimenting with materials through fermentation, and dreaming up ways to share my work and research once we are allowed again.  One very exciting thing I’m involved in is Food Cosmogonies, a 9-session online seminar I devised with Nora Silva, under the guise of our new collective Stiff Peaks, which will be hosted by the Institute for Postnatural Studies in Madrid. You can register here! Starting on the 1st March 2021.

Inês Neto dos Santos is a multi-disciplinary artist, born in Lisbon and based in London. Her practice stands between performance and installation, using food, people and spaces as metaphors and 
prompts for discussion and conversation. She creates contexts and frameworks through which to explore sustainability, narrative, collaboration and togetherness.  

Alongside her art practice, Inês teaches, writes and cooks.
Her work has been exhibited in London, Lisbon, Madrid, Kuwait, Athens and Porto. 

She has founded Mesa, a project that  runs on collaborations with other artists, and results in performances, supperclubs and events which explore food as a global language, to democratise access to art and the creative practice. Through the project, she expands on her interest in how using symbols, metaphors and re-tellings can help us overcome, discuss and/or understand contemporary issues or emotional states.


Instagram @inesns

Mesa @mesa_supperclub

Fermentation workshops and inspiration to transform your health from the inside out