You would be forgiven for thinking you’ve arrived at the wrong place when you pass through the doors of AMP Gallery, an art exhibition space in south London. When I walk inside, rather than paintings hanging on the wall or sculptures behind roped-off areas, I find a cafe. There are tables and stools, places set with napkins and cutlery, jars of multi-coloured ferments lining the counter, and a menu that offers savoury porridge with kimchi. Quiet tapping and the glow of a laptop screen illuminates one corner.
But I haven’t come through a back entrance into the gallery’s cafe by mistake. Tender Touches, AMP Gallery’s latest six-week exhibition, brings together the work of 11 artists and encompasses everything that is in the cafe – right down to the brownies and the jars of kimchi.
Artist and co-creator of the show Inês Neto dos Santos greets me and explains that I’m not the only one to have been momentarily confused by the exhibition space. “Some people walk in and say, ‘I’m here for the exhibition, where is it?’” she says. “Some people have just come for the food or to sit down and have a coffee, and then realise it’s all by artists.”
A closer inspection of everything reveals clues that the art is hiding in plain sight – aided also by a glance at the gallery map. A set of aprons hanging by the window is in fact a work called “Fruits of Origin”, and hand-decorated with fruit-themed embroidery. “Goia Mujalli [one of the artists who made the aprons] does a lot of references to fruits and plants and their symbolic meaning in regards to the body and women’s bodies,” Neto dos Santos explains.
Then there are the plates, handcrafted with bumpy and uneven surfaces, and etched with symbols inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses and creator Bea Bonafini’s thoughts on the Holy Feast. Napkins are painted with pictures of salivating mouths. Pickle-shaped cutlery, the handles cast from actual preserved cucumbers, feels awkwardly too-big to hold at first, like being a child again and trying to use grown-up knives and forks.
“People have described it as children’s cutlery,” laughs Neto dos Santos.
When developing Tender Touches, it was important that the exhibition also worked as a fully functioning cafe. “We draw the audience a bit closer to the artworks than they usually would be,” explains Neto dos Santos. “It was about questioning what an artwork is: can I touch it, can I sit on it, can I eat it? And if the artworks are functional objects, does that change our approach to them and do we place the same value on them?”
There is something incredibly pleasing about being able to touch and use the artwork on display, a world away from hushed gallery halls with twitchy-eyed assistants on the look-out for wandering hands.
But, let’s be honest, eating art sounds like the best part of the exhibition. As Neto dos Santos cuts toasted bread into strips, drizzles olive oil over labneh and heaps pickles onto what looks like an upside-down cake stand, I quiz her about where the food fits in.
“I started integrating food into my work while I was doing my Masters,” she says. “That turned into my project called Mesa, which is a supper club where I’ll collaborate with different artists and create an exhibition dinner inspired by their work or our conversations. I’ve also worked as a chef in restaurants for the last three years to support my work.”
For Neto dos Santos, Tender Touches was a way to continue this exploration of how food can build connection between different people.
“Food is this thing that we all know and are all in contact with in different ways,” she says. “It’s using that common aspect of food as an entry point to engage and democratise the creative practice. We offer free coffee and have a bookshelf as an extra step to invite people to feel comfortable spending time here, without pressure to buy any food.”
And so, it’s time to eat. Neto dos Santos lights a beeswax candle, which sits in pair of terracotta hands holding a giant egg. She brings the labneh and bread to the table, and pours us glasses of kombucha. I quickly abandon my pickle fork and use bread to mop up olive oil that’s pooled in the hard-to-reach crevices of the labneh plate. Did Neto dos Santos have the shape-shifting plates in mind when she created the menu?
“Definitely, and things I had planned changed after seeing the plates,” she says. “The menu changes weekly and there’s always a dish which is inspired by the artists in the show. Last week I did pici, a hand-rolled pasta, which was inspired by Bea who made the plates. The plates are hand-sculpted and I wanted to apply the same physical labour to the food. These long strands of strange, thick spaghetti swam around the plate, feeling like it has a life of its own.”
This week’s special is for Lindsey Mendick, who made the bespoke cutlery. Unsurprisingly, there’s a pickle theme: “The dish is long strands of pickled cucumber, which also swim around the plate, with a British Gloucester cheese and chilli butter which is really spicy.”
Aside from the physical artworks, Neto dos Santos tells me that being the artist and chef has meant she’s taken on an unexpected role. “This space has become a studio for me because I’m here all the time and being here is almost like the duration of a performance,” she says. “When someone comes in and they’re open to it, I like to sit down and have a chat with them about the show. There’s some sort of repetition in that process. I see it a little like a performance.”
It’s time for my showing to draw to a close and Neto dos Santos has convinced me of one thing for sure. When it comes to art galleries: pickles > paintings.