Nibbles of Nostalgia with Artist, Geena Wilkinson

Words: Robyn Samuels | Photography: Matthew Pike | Artwork images: Geena Wilkinson

Candy floss at carnivals, handfuls of sour worms, Strawberry Whirls dunked in rooibos tea – the sweetest memories are often sugar-coated. That’s the beauty of nostalgia; sometimes, all it takes to unbox those memories is a Baker’s Choice Assorted Biscuit and a trip down memory lane. For some, that yearning for a bygone era – before you paid taxes, when life’s problems were solved by simply yelling “mum,” and ‘adulting’ seemed fun – is never fully sated. For visual artist, Geena Wilkinson, nostalgia is preserved by resin and protected behind glass. Close enough to touch yet out of reach, like a jar of candy that’s tightly sealed.


Photography by Matthew Pike, copyright and courtesy of the artist, Geena Wilkinson.

Geena Wilkinson on Food x Art

Represented by WORLDART gallery, Wilkinson explores themes of history, memory and nostalgia through ceramic and hand-cast resin works, often depicting confectionery from our collective childhood – jawbreakers, Jolly Jammers, Liquorice Allsorts, and Zoo Biscuits. We chat with the talented artist about core memories, the inspiration behind her sweet series, and her upcoming exhibition at the Investec Cape Town Art Fair.

There’s more to your art than cookies and candy; what sparked the concept for this series?

It started with cherry lips – the first sculpture I made of a gummy sweet. It was an experiment with resin after I had begun using it as a medium to make my cracked egg sculptures with their wobbly edges, frozen in time. The spilt eggs were a way of exploring the concept of how softness had become abject… the patriarchy has led to many women having a knee-jerk reaction toward being called soft; they equate softness with weakness. When we show too much emotion, we’re told to harden up – if we don’t, we’re called ‘hysterical’. Don’t forget that hysteria was a diagnosable physical illness until the 1980s. So, this series now started with a handful of cherry lips that I made deceptively hard.

Artwork images copyright and courtesy of the artist, Geena Wilkinson.

I showed them to someone the next day and they tried to eat them. It was the magnitude of their disappointment that told me I had to make more. Over time, I realised the frustrated reaction was much more layered than I initially thought.

Being reminded about the vivid candies and not being able to eat them was like showing someone a window into the past that they could only look through from the other side. There was something cheeky about them – a sculpture that denies access and triggers nostalgia without giving the viewer the satisfaction they crave. The candies take you back to your memories, but only as a bystander, and that discomfort sits at the back of your throat like heartburn.

When working with ceramics, you essentially ‘bake’ the biscuits, making them more brittle and delicate. Does the fragility of the biscuits carry a deeper meaning?

Yes! The biscuits were meant to be like ornaments – pretty to look at, pretty to hold, but easily broken. I could have just framed real biscuits, but there was something in the process of making a perfect copy that looked delicious and was forever frozen in time that I found delight in.

I initially made them to represent the collateral damage in cases of abuse – the innocence of youth, and the fragility of that. The biscuits are bisque-fired in a kiln to 1000 degrees and then glazed, mimicking the process of an actual bakery. The way I frame them now – in layouts one might see in a museum display of a picnic table, where no one is allowed to touch them – they still look delicious, but it’s meant to feel a bit too sterile or like a cake that’s too pretty to eat.

Portrait photography by Matthew Pike | Artwork photography by Geena Wilkinson | Images copyright and courtesy of the artist.

You did your honours in curatorship; has that influenced the way you’ve showcased your work over the years?

It’s made me much more aware of the baggage that comes with each object I replicate. Every biscuit comes from a different place, and every gummy sweet is shaped like a different animal or everyday object. They become emojis of the things they represent: a rocket but make it cute. *Biting off a crocodile’s head has never been so easy.

By this virtue, the sweets make us all-powerful consumers. It’s easy to completely miss what the little objects are anecdotes of. When was the last time you actually looked at Beacon’s Funny Faces? It’s concerning that they’re still in production.

I recently found out that one of the first producers of liquorice allsorts was a company called Wilkinson’s in England, they produced something called ‘Wilkinson’s Perfected Pontefract Cakes’ – a coin-shaped black liquorice candy, hand-stamped with the crest – that came a little before the Liquorice Allsorts we know today. It’s strangely enigmatic knowing I am somehow distantly connected to a bloodline of candy manufacturers.

Artwork images copyright and courtesy of the artist, Geena Wilkinson.

What’s been the most exciting part of working on this exhibition?

Definitely my new piece, Wilkinson’s Allsorts Amphora, which I’m making for the Cabinet|Clay section of the Art Fair. It’s made using a Japanese process called ‘Nerikomi’, which involves staining the clay with different pigments to create the colours; there’s no paint involved. The colour is worked into the clay body, and then rolled and laminated to create the different types of liquorice – so, basically made the same way liquorice is made if liquorice were made out of clay. I’ve been making these big, layered slabs, and then slicing them up into Allsort pieces – only to join them again into the shape of an amphora vessel.

In October, I visited London for an art fair in Battersea where my work was featured, and during my visit, I went to the British Museum to see their African objects collection. There’s been a huge uproar at collections like theirs, which were assembled during the colonisation of Africa and the large majority of the objects on display were plundered, and that’s how they have them. Knowing this and the discourse around it, I went to see for myself, and I was shocked at the oversimplification in their wall texts on African ceramics: ‘African pots are cheap, versatile and functional’ – an excerpt from their one-paragraph long description of African Pottery. How anyone thought they could summarise the oldest art form on an entire continent into one paragraph astounds me, but what was actually written was far worse.

So, with this piece, I have taken an ancient shape of functional ware: an amphora vessel – a shape originally used for shipping containers, often seen as disposable – and then crafted it using Nerikomi. In England, it’s referred to as ‘Agateware’, where clay was stained, marbleised to create a stone-like appearance, and used as an intricate way to adorn teapots for the social elite. My creation is both intricate and non-functional; my liquorice amphora is also adorned with holes between the layers of liquorice cake lookalikes. It teases the viewer with its sumptuous walls – liquorice is fifty times sweeter than sugar, so if made from real liquorice, it would make anyone who tried to consume it sick.

Portrait photography by Matthew Pike | Artwork photography by Geena Wilkinson | Images copyright and courtesy of the artist.

The candies take you back to your memories, but only as a bystander, and that discomfort sits at the back of your throat like heartburn.

This is your first time showing at the Investec CT Art Fair. How does it feel to be a part of Africa’s largest art exhibition?

It’s super exciting! I am hugely honoured to be a part of it. To be given the platform to show work alongside many of the best contemporary artists in Southern Africa is a massive privilege and also daunting! It’s given me the courage to push the boundaries of new ways of making things.

I’ve been exploring some unknown territory in sculpting and ceramics. Doing anything new in ceramics is particularly terrifying because you never know if your work is going to explode in the kiln – one air bubble and you’re done! So, it’s a really big risk to try something new, and then, if it comes out alright, it’s time to put it out into the world and see what the response is.

Nostalgia is often associated with food; why did you want to focus on confectionery specifically?

I’ve always associated gummy sweets with holidays. It reminds me of holidays at the sea – swimming, lying in the shade of a tree on a sunny day, and being carefree. It’s a treat for myself, and something I find quite relaxing, despite the constant narrative of sugar as a food that has been labelled as ‘intrinsically bad’. Confectionery is a food group that is always labelled as ‘guilty’ alongside pleasure. I think a large part of this is because of how much the beauty and diet industry profits off women being unhappy with their bodies. Sugar is one of those things that, because of this narrative, brings a learned shame when we consume it.

My most recent addition to the collection of sweets in this series is sour worms, so I’ve titled the new piece after a WhatsApp conversation I had with a friend talking about the time Heidi Klum dressed up in a worm costume to a red carpet event. The press interviewed her when she was lying down in her worm costume, and I think it was one of my favourite interviews I’ve seen. The whole thing went viral because she’s a woman who fits perfectly into the mould of classic beauty, and for her to cover up her body and present herself as a slimy worm is, in a way, declining to be subject to the male gaze or any gaze at all.

Artwork images copyright and courtesy of the artist, Geena Wilkinson.

Confectionery is a food group that is always labelled as ‘guilty’ alongside pleasure. I think a large part of this is because of how much the beauty and diet industry profits off women being unhappy…

What’s your fondest childhood food memory?

My mom used to make great cakes for my brother and me growing up; I think the best one she made was a cake in the form of the Slinky Dog from Toy Story, with the giant rainbow slinky spring in the middle. She sculpted the ears and face to look exactly like the little sausage dog with a slinky spring for a belly, and decorated the ground around his paws with pebbles made from Smarties. It was a cake for my brother, but it was still my favourite.

If you were a biscuit, what kind would you be and why?

Probably a Strawberry Whirl; it just seems fitting as a strawberry blonde. I spent most of my life in high school telling everyone who called me a ‘redhead’ that I was, in fact, NOT a redhead, and that I was strawberry blonde – until one friend pointed out what colour strawberries were. Despite this, I still feel a strong kinship with the fruit.

Artwork images copyright and courtesy of the artist, Geena Wilkinson.

What mediums do you hope to explore in the future?

I really want to get back into oil painting. I have too many folders on my phone with photos I want to paint – just snaps from walks or outings, sunsets and parties. I’m really drawn to certain times of day, and the ocean. I also want to do more with coloured clay and slips.

While researching my Allsorts Amphora, I came across a video on Greyson Perry’s vases, which I was well aware of before, but really loved seeing how he creates the drawings he makes on them. He scratches into the surface and paints over with coloured slips, then scrapes it away to show the really fine lines. Clay paints can be very clunky to paint with, but I have such a love for the medium and for colour, so it could be amazing to do a few experiments using clay and make full use of all the various techniques to make a painting.

It would be a challenge to use clay as a canvas because you’re constrained by the size of what you can lay flat in kilns, and then getting it to dry evenly is another challenge. But, all these challenges are met by the same thought – what if it works?

Portrait photography by Gabrielle van der Merwe | Artwork photography by Geena Wilkinson | Images copyright and courtesy of the artist.

*Experience Geena Wilkinson’s work at the Investec Cape Town Art Fair, WORLDART booth, from 16-18 Feb 2024 at the CTICC. Visit the links below to explore more of her art. 

geenawilkinson.com | worldart.co.za

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