In 2003, when the second Gulf War was underway, Michael Rakowitz endeavoured to change a somewhat prejudiced American perception of Iraq through what he called culinary intervention. The Iraqi-American artist embarked on a project with his mother in New York, the city where he was born, teaching and dishing out Baghdadi cuisine to the public. Among the attendees were students whose parents were fighting the war in Iraq. The Enemy Kitchen project, through food and conversations, was aimed at dispelling misinformation and mistrust about Iraqi people and countering hostility with hospitality. Years later, Rakowitz drove the theme further when he moved to Chicago. He acquired a food truck, emblazoned it with an eagle, which incidentally adorns both the Iraqi and American coat of arms, and rendered the Chicago flag in Iraqi colours. This mobile public art project was stationed outside an art museum, where Iraqi chefs whipped up dishes, Army veterans served the food and the public happily consumed it.
Rakowitz demonstrated how this synergy of food and art could become a leveller, a vector for change in society, a repository of culture, traditions and memories, and a weapon of peace.
While food, in all its forms and processes, has for long played an enabling role in art practices and movements, this engagement is evolving in newer and deeper ways. Artists are deploying food and food cultures as tools to evoke memories, nostalgia and communality, and also trigger conversations on gender, politics, discrimination, migration or loss, sustainability and several such issues.
Goa-based Serendipity Arts Festival, for instance, has had a curated segment devoted to culinary arts since its inception. In its 2022 edition, art projects ranged from locating disappearing vegetables in Indian cooking and forgotten identities of food to underlining the sovereignty of indigenous seeds and seed protection for Adivasi communities as well as unearthing tribal cuisines. By bringing together artists, chefs, food designers and writers, art festivals have successfully attempted to celebrate the food-art synthesis.
Editions of the Kochi Muziris Biennale, too, have seen creative explorations of food, with projects like Edible Archives digging out indigenous varieties of rice grown in India that are in danger of falling off the food map. The idea was to not only showcase the flavours of rice through cooking demonstrations, but also mine memories, songs, customs and rituals related to the grain. Likewise, the just concluded Art Dubai festival brought together 10 artists, all hailing from South Asia, who reimagined the histories and memories associated with food.
While food and drink as a visual spectacle ruled still life and banquet scenes of European masters, especially the Dutch artists, radical movements in art also saw food take new forms on the canvas and even step out of it as a sculptural, sensorial and both tangible as well as intangible mediums. So, while food evokes an easy, familiar resonance through popular works of art such as Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper or Vincent Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters, it probes and provokes as in the iconic 32-piece Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962) by pop artist Andy Warhol or the monumental sugar installation Subtlety (2014) by Kara Walker. Warhol’s soup cans triggered the enduring debate on whether the artwork was an attack on consumerist culture and mechanised production or simply an artist-consumer’s nodding tribute to the product itself. Similarly, Walker’s sphinx-like 75-foot candy sculpture of a Black woman raises questions about slavery and sugar trade and is an eye-opener on the horrendous hardships that workers face to bring food to our tables.
It is this very concern that artist duo Jiten Thukral and Sumir Tagra grappled with in their Farmer is a Wrestler exhibition a few years ago, putting the spotlight on agrarian distress. At the inaugural, visitors were served makki di roti, saag, jaggery and ghee — the humble fare of the toiling farmer.
Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, too, turned the tables, so to speak, on art and spectatorship. His early installations were about converting galleries into makeshift kitchens or dining spaces and serving food to visitors, subverting traditional notions of the exhibition-going experience and deploying creative spaces for social interaction. This blurring of cooking and art is not a new phenomenon, but Tiravanija was able to sustain this project for decades.
Closer home, artist Subodh Gupta has extensively used the food-as-sharing trope in his works. Known as the man who elevated humble stainless steel utensils to monumental art, Gupta took the next creative plunge when he donned the apron and cooked a full meal inside a hut of vessels created by him for Art Basel in Zurich, a few years ago. At a more recent show in France, Gupta put forth this question in his artist’s statement, “In which way does the way you eat a meal and the community-based act of sharing it, or not, reflect a story that is bigger than you?” Much food for thought there.
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