I meet foodbabysoul and fearless George, her driver and willing accomplice, in Braamfontein. This following many messages back and forth across the social media ether.
I have been stalking foodbabysoul. My curiosity about the city streets has long led me in all sorts of interesting directions. I often say wryly that in Joburg if you put your hand in someone else’s hand and let them lead you to places they know best you can find the most incredible things, and parts of yourself you may have lost in the humdrum, dog eat dog, taxi in the oncoming traffic lane day to day. You could also end up naked, and in a ditch wondering where your wallet went. So far my luck is in.
What caught my attention about foodbabysoul is her stitches across the city, threads woven into a tapestry of fabrics, adorning the plinths of public artworks, wrapped onto columns holding up shops on Diagonal Street, bowties and woolly hats adorning Newtown’s delicately carved wooden heads, her markings on the usually nondescript bags hauled by the thousands of recycling waste-pickers crossing the city into the suburbs and back each day.
She uses embroidery and applique, crochet and weaving. The stuff that once belonged in the hands of leisured ladies in drawing rooms now brought to bear on a gritty and unkempt city. The fabrics are a mix of scraps, much of it collected from legendary couturier Marianne Fassler whose designs sell for thousands of rands, and screen printer and artist Yda Walt who renders the world around her in quirky felt artworks. Offcuts of Jacques van der Watt’s intricate laser–cut designs from his label Black Coffee, a fashion week catwalk favourite, were recently added to her collection and will find their way to the streets.
These brightly coloured works make you see when your eyes have long been glazed over by the dirt and noise, and need to watch your back while keeping an eye on the path ahead for errant taxi drivers, missing grates and cellphone-loving opportunists.
We take to the scrapmobile (a Mini Cooper heaving with stitchwork, and many random items bought from street vendors – under my foot I retrieve a large wooden spoon) and head into the city. I learn that foodbabysoul is American, a “trailing wife” as she puts it, transplanted to Joburg, on a spouse visa so without a permit to work.
An artist, she volunteered at her child’s suburban school to design costumes for school plays. That led her to volunteer at a poor school, which drew her to her current thinking. “I didn't want to do good. I wanted to act.” In turn this led her out onto the streets where she fabric-bombed trees. This was how she connected with Fassler, who saw her work and wanted her own trees adorned.
Her philosophy of “scrap impact” developed as she moved from suburbia to the city with the idea that “giving should be difficult”. With so much need on every street corner giving should mean you can’t just pop a coin into an outstretched hand and move on.
I accompany her to Newtown’s Mary Fitzgerald Square where we spot one of her jaunty bowties on a street sculpture. The knitted hats she placed on Newtown’s wooden heads have long gone and we hope to spot someone wearing one on this winter’s morning. Her trademark red heart is stitched onto them.
We stop for a warm greeting from two Zambian brothers selling fruit at a nearby taxi rank. Her heart sticker marks the boxes bearing the fruit. We buy some naartjies from them for the ride. Foodbabysoul is all about the local economy. In Diagonal Street we chat to a spaza owner who tells us on a good day she earns R120, sitting on the kerb at her table from morning to sunset. Foodbabysoul shares a padded seat that she has stitched up with the church ladies who sit on the stony ground in parks around the city in mind. She offers it to the trader, saying you can sell this and add to your R120, and if it works maybe you can make them. “I know you know how to sew”.
At the heart of her adventures around the city that connect her to this new place is a drive to nourish society, by recycling scrap to make it worth trading, to make it worth selling. It’s also underpinned by the thinking that one is more likely to guard something that is handmade and homemade. Each item she creates is an idea for an opportunity that adds a gossamer thread stitched into the conversation about reducing the ever-growing gap between rich and poor. It’s food for the soul.
To follow foodbabysoul’s travels across Joburg find her in Instagram @foodbabysoul.