Tessa Silva

Feminised Protein

“Milk is an ur-substance, an originary substance (Cassirer 1994). It is the first substance to enter the mouth, to touch the tongue, to fill the belly. It is the first fluid to be incorporated into the body outside the womb. Pure white milk is an ideal-type or a norm and, as such, it is a product of our fantasy, just as it is a product of industry. Milk possesses various forms and properties. It can be liquid, solid, powder, emulsion. It can be poured, pressed, moulded, cast, extruded. It is formless, but can take on any form. It takes on shapes, the shape of the vessel, or the shapes pressed into it when in solid form. It is indexical.” 1

As an artist and designer, my practise focuses on materials as tools for storytelling, exploring what they can reveal anthropologically. Milk is my medium. For the past six years my work has been consumed by a fascination in milk, both conceptually and practically, with research resulting in the manipulation of milk proteins to produce bespoke sculptural objects. The unique material I spend my days wielding is an evolution of one existing in the 1300’s, originally used to lay flooring in Tudor houses. An example of this is at the Alfriston Clergy House, built in 1350, where the ‘chalk and sour milk’ floor is still in place. Chalk is formed from the skeletal remains of algae that have broken down on the seabed over millions of years. The seabed eventually became exposed, evolving into the landscapes we now know as chalk cliffs - an example being the White Cliffs of Dover. Working predominantly with a unique - but historically originated - formula of surplus milk and chalk, this material is a product of natural systems that have existed for centuries.

Black and white still from a film, showing a woman churning milk outdoors

Cheese Making at Home. 1918. [film] United Kingdom: BFI.

Black and white still from a film, showing a woman churning milk outdoors

Cheese Making at Home. 1918. [film] United Kingdom: BFI.

Milk products have helped shape cultures and western civilisation as we know it, with some of the earliest human artefacts including vessels containing residues of cow’s milk. As a raw material it is culturally loaded, from being the subject of multiple origin myths (for example, Zeus and Hera and the Origin of the Milky Way) to its symbolic role in social reform. As author and anthropology professor Andrea Wiley points out in her essay on milk consumption in India; “milk became a part of anti-colonial rhetoric starting in the last nineteenth century, as it was intertwined with cow protection efforts that were a rallying cry against British colonial rule.” 2 

If milk is such an important and life-giving substance, why has it been so extracted, abstracted and trivialised? Furthermore, how do modern dairy farms manage to generate a surplus of this precious liquid? 

In my quest to re-assign value to the material, waste milk is sourced from a raw organic dairy farm in Sussex, UK. Skimmed milk is a bi-product of the butter and cream making process (the fat is separated leaving behind a protein-rich watery substance). This farm completely rejects the factory model of farming - they have a very small herd of under 40 cows that are all organically grass-fed and milked considerably less than the average industrial dairy cow. As the farm is small, the material is finite. This is an aspect of the project I cherish; the research is not intended to commodify milk for batch-production, most obviously due to the cultural sensitivity required and ethical implications of using milk. Author and sociologist Richie Nimmo articulates that “Milk is not simply a natural substance, but is something enmeshed in a deeply heterogeneous assemblage interweaving humans and animals, reproduction and production, bodies and technologies, organisms and commodities, states and markets, ‘culture’ and ‘nature’.” 3

Image shows a close up of the artists hands working on a sculpture

Photograph by Sarah Victoria Bates

I refer to the project as a whole as ‘Feminised Protein’, a term conceived by author Carol J Adams in the early 1990’s to address the exploitation of non-human reproductive cycles to produce food on a mass scale, and how these female animals disappear from concern. 4 Agriculture is a predominantly male profession, with men tasked with the ultimate care of mothers. By giving this fraught and forgotten liquid a tangible form I produce work that I believe to be an homage to both the contentious and the extraordinary aspects of milk. Vases are produced from the material as a nod to the archetypal human-made object. Each piece is cast into a handmade fabric mould, mirroring the traditional processes used to manufacture cheese in cloths. They exist in our world as contemporary artefacts.

Image shows the artist tying a mould around one of the sculptures

Photograph by Sarah Victoria Bates

The aim of the project is to give this discarded material new life, to preserve it, but also to challenge the apathy that we’ve developed around materials as a whole. Milk is increasingly abstracted from its source as our food system becomes more and more industrialised. This project comments on the disconnect between us and the materials that surround us. I hope that my pieces unapologetically scream ‘MILK’, asking the viewer to question the female mammal’s role in a patriarchal social and cultural structure, and asking the owner to nurture the immortalised form that embodies this.

Image shows the artist holding two of the sculptures

Portrait by Sarah Victoria Bates

1Jackson, Melanie, and Esther Leslie. "Unreliable Matriarchs." In Making Milk: The Past, Present, and Future of Our Primary Food, edited by Mathilde Cohen and Yoriko Otomo, 63–80. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017. 

2 Wiley, Andrea S. “Growing a Nation: Milk Consumption in India Since the Raj.” In Making Milk: The Past, Present, and Future of Our Primary Food, edited by Mathilde Cohen and Yoriko Otomo, pg 41. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017

3Nimmo, Richie. "The Mechanical Calf: On the Making of a Multispecies Machine." In Making Milk: The Past, Present, and Future of Our Primary Food, edited by Mathilde Cohen and Yoriko Otomo, 81–98. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017.

4The term Feminized Protein was coined by Carol J Adams (link)

Featured film stills taken from Cheese Making at Home. 1918. [film] United Kingdom: BFI.

Tessa Silva is a British-Brazilian visual artist, with an interest in the impact of materials on society and what they can reveal anthropologically. Her focal body of work is titled ‘Feminised Protein’. The work is a study into the use of milk proteins as a material for the handcrafted production of fine objects. Tessa’s research and exploration prompts the inspection of our material culture retrospectively and prospectively, using craft as a tool to explore the relationship between humans and animals; particularly the female mammals role in a patriarchal social and cultural structure.