We often think of art as a way of escaping the realities of everyday life. Importantly, however, it can also help shine a light on some of society’s most pressing issues.
Public Health Scotland defines food poverty as ‘the inability to acquire or consume an adequate or sufficient quantity of food in socially acceptable ways, or the uncertainty that one will be able to do so”. This definition made me think about the 1888 painting A Frugal Meal by Aberdeen-born artist Alexander Mackenzie (1850-1890). You can see it on display in Gallery 10: French Impressions at Aberdeen Art Gallery.
A young peasant girl gently blows over a spoonful of her dinner to cool it down. Scenes of domestic life were increasingly popular in Scotland in the 19th Century. The child in the painting is placed on one side of the composition which allows the viewer to give equal attention to the modest soup pot and pieces of bread on the table. The realities of poverty are made clear not only in the painting’s title but also in the girl’s clothing and the crumbling plaster and torn reproduction of a painting on the wall behind her.
When I discuss this painting with groups of learners, I use it to highlight the issue of child poverty. Around 230,000 Scottish children – that’s almost one in four – are recognized as living in poverty. To put this figure in context, in 2014 the population of Aberdeen was 229,000.
During the lockdown, while my family and I stayed safe at home, the most repeated phrase was: “Mum, I’m hungry, what is there to eat?” Although the kids may not always have been too happy with some of my responses, they never went hungry. They have never gone hungry. Thousands of children in Scotland today will either not have enough food to eat or will eat less nutritious food as it is cheaper to buy and is more filling.
There are a number of agencies working to feed and support people in need of help. Food Poverty Action Aberdeen co-ordinates food banks in the city and work with partners such as CFINE, Instant Neighbour Trust and Aberdeen Cyrenians. As Christmas approaches, could we all do more to support these services?
Alexander Mackenzie painted A Frugal Meal more than 100 years ago. I wonder what he would make of his country in 2020, and the increasing number of poor and hungry children living in it.
Aberdeen Art Gallery is a safe and inspiring venue in the heart of the city. It’s free to enter and you’re guaranteed a warm welcome. Why not plan a visit in the holiday season? For details of opening hours and how to visit go to www.aagm.co.uk