Multicultural soap inspires Swiss artistic creation

“Imperial Leather” – Act 1, No. 1 (left); “Crusader” – Act 1, No. 14 (middle) and “Clear Essence” – Act 2, No. 7 (right). Studio Beat Zoderer, Courtesy: Bartha Contemporary, London

Swiss artist Beat Zoderer has been hoarding bars of soap – yes, soap – as material for his latest art project. He perceives them as the mirror of a multiethnic metropolis and creates a new work on this basis, The London Soap Opera.

This content was published on August 20, 2022 – 10:30

Brigitte Ulmer

The road to Beat Zoderer’s temporary London studio is through jackfruit and kaftans, papayas and kurtas, dates and djellabas. It’s easy to deduce the composition of the population from the enticing supply of goods: Tower Hamlets, in London’s East End, is home to more Bangladeshis (32%) than white Britons (31%), and they mix Pakistanis and Somalis as well as immigrants from India, the Caribbean, Ghana and Kenya and their descendants.

Here, more than 50 mosques and Indian restaurants cook halal – that is, according to Muslim rules, while fashion and cosmetics embrace the beauty ideals of the Hindu-Indian, Caribbean, African and Western worlds as well as the chaste muslim rules.

Zoderer landed “somewhere between Karachi and Dhaka and Bombay”, he says as he opens the door to his studio on Smithy Street. The Landis & Gyr cultural foundation in Zug awarded it to him as part of an artist residency. He is visibly stimulated by the multi-ethnic bustle of the city on his doorstep.


Tower Hamlets, Whitechapel Road, London. Nathaniel Noir / Alamy Stock Photo

One thing in particular caught his attention: the wide range of bar soaps. “I’ve never seen such variety as there is here,” he says. Between Whitechapel and Bromley, Banglatown and Bethnal Green, there are bars of soap made from vegetable and animal fats in multiple flavors of all colors and shapes. But he says that at one beauty salon in particular, in Mile End, he came across an almost limitless range of soaps, from nail sets to artificial hairpieces. “I was interested in consistency and color range,” he says. “I let myself be guided by the material.”

This was the starting point for his last artistic project, The London Soap Opera.

His decision to leave his native Switzerland, a haven of cleanliness and order, for one of London’s most chaotic neighborhoods – and then start hoarding soap, drew some wry remarks, including from the shopkeeper Mile End Indian. . For Zoderer, however, visiting the pharmacy was the equivalent of a trip to an art supply store for other artists. The color palette was everything the artist, for whom color is central to his work, could have wished for.


Beat Zoderer at the opening of his exhibition The London Soap Opera in July at the Bartha Contemporary gallery in Notting Hill. Brigitte Ulmer

everyday objects

Since the 1980s, Zoderer’s art has been inspired by everyday materials. His objects and installations are tinged with social criticism. The 67-year-old is a trained structural draftsman who is often treated as a descendant of the Zurich Concreteists – an art movement that sought to disassociate itself from realism – due to his work focusing on color, form and pattern. . But unlike the Concreteists, he works with the wreckage and wreckage of everyday life. Wooden beams and metal slats. File covers and plastic ring binders.

He used ring binders in work mocking the Swiss love of order. In 1984 he also created Billig Bill (Cheap Bill) a satirical work of an exhibition poster of the father of concrete art. He cut wooden versions of the four triangles that formed Bill’s precise square painting and simply bent them outward. This is Zoderer’s way of giving life to what he calls a “democracy of materials”.

From his soap-seeking expeditions, Zoderer brought home green, yellow, white, red, blue, and black bars. They are transparent or opaque, monochrome or marbled, oval, rectangular, square or circular. In a work almost meditative in nature, he sculpted them into miniature sculptures in the ancient art of glyptics or stone carving. His sketchbook, open on the table, contains dozens of small form studies. It was his starting point, but he interpreted them freely.

Zigzags, semi-circles, circles, triangles, cubes, concave and convex shapes, mini mazes and concentric rosettes like desert roses make up London Soap Opera. It is a series of 72 miniature reliefs which now hang in neat rows in his London gallery, Bartha Contemporary in Notting Hill. This creation is like a mini-retrospective of his vocabulary of form, observes his longtime dealer, the Swiss gallery owner Niklas von Bartha.


Inspired by the Islamic vocabulary of form, Zoderer sculpts soap. It follows the rules of traditional stone cutting. Brigitte Ulmer

In the post-colonial metropolis, the bars of soap explore an entangled subject with a wide cultural and historical scope. Bar soaps were invented in their current form by the Arabs in the 7th century and made from heated fats, oils and alkaline salts. They were despised in the Middle Ages, then rediscovered, manufactured and marketed for mass use. The bars of soap now serve as a mirror of the multi-ethnic capital of 9 million people, reflecting cultural and social ideals.

There’s Fair & White, for example, made with olive oil that has melatonin-reducing properties and brightens the dark complexion of women (and men) looking to conform to Western beauty ideals. Or Crusader, which is believed to prevent inflammation and boils with its antiseptic properties. There are soaps based on argan oil, shea butter or papaya enzymes, or Aleppo soap based on olive oil and laurel. But the soaps also carry in exile the perfume of their respective homelands – Maghreb, West Africa, Philippines or Syria. Soaps carry memories.

Civilize the “savages” with soap

At the same time, the soap reflects and records the history of the former colonial power and its self-image. “Soap is a civilization” was once a slogan used by the British company Unilever. The success of the English Level brothers, who founded the Lever Brothers soap factory in the northwest of England in 1885, is closely linked to colonial exploitation.

In 1908, they began operating their first colonial palm oil plantation in the Congo, intended for the production of soap. Modern soaps were based on the innovative use of palm oil instead of tallow (animal fat). It was only through colonization and exploitation that Europe gained access to the miracle ingredient – ​​and a booming trade.


The miraculous properties of a piece of tallow or palm oil are extolled in Victorian soap advertisements. They suggest that even a black child will become fair if washed thoroughly enough with Western soap. Photo by Alay

Even before that, in Victorian society, soap had become a fetish object to which almost miraculous properties were attributed. Pear growers, who started making their soap near Oxford Street in London in 1807 as the first mass-produced product, made adverts trumpeting the civilizing effect of washing. “The consumption of soap is a sign of wealth, civilization, health and purity of the people”, claimed their slogan.

It was no more and no less than civilizing “savages” with soap. Magazine advertisements suggest that the soap used to wash black children can turn them white. Magazine advertisements even invoked Rudyard Kipling’s ideologically charged poem, The white man’s Charge, and the soaps were touted around the world as a sign of Britain’s evolutionary superiority. Colonial subjects had to submit to the hygiene rules of imperial power – for their own good, of course.

In the past, soap was presented by some advertisers as a force for civilisation. Pears regarded soap as a symbol of the virtue of cleanliness. The ad was inspired by the title of Rudyard Kipling’s poem The White Man’s Burden and the West’s imperial mission to adorn “the dark corners of the earth.” North Wind Picture Archives / Alamy Stock Photo

The packaging design was also part of the cleaning promise. Zoderer unfolded the soapboxes and carefully glued them to paper, where they look like constructivist works of art. He also kept a list of the names and ingredients of the 72 soaps. They are called Eden and Madame Ranee, Faith in Nature and Clear Essence, and their ingredients reflect an amazing range of traditions and preferences.

Many of the more exotic scents are not unfamiliar to Zoderer. Frankincense and myrrh, for example, remind him of bus trips through Syria, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq. But more than the scents, the Islamic vocabulary of forms remained with him. Calligraphy, the organic form of arabesques, the architecture of mosques, but above all the non-representation of Allah contributed to Zoderer’s understanding of abstract forms.

What fascinated him in Sufism was the coexistence of ecstasy and order. “Islam, not the concretists, led me to abstraction,” he says. It’s another reason why he doesn’t feel at all out of place in the bustling mess of London’s Muslim-majority East End. During his travels through India, says Zoderer, he learned to do something with everything.

Even soap.

Translated from German by Catherine Hickley/ds

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