by Rahul KumarApr 28, 2023
That food is universal is a truism; yes, everyone must eat to survive and yet, it hides a deeper, more complex social, political, and economic nuance. A series of ten commissions at the heart of the 16th edition of Art Dubai, Chaupal explores this interplay of the intuitive understanding we all have, of the connections created over shared food, with individual lived experience.
All of the chosen artists hail from South Asia—from Delhi, Mumbai, Punjab, Shillong, Meghalaya, and Kolkata in India; Colombo in Sri Lanka; Jhalakati and Dhaka in Bangladesh; and Karachi in Pakistan. Exploring histories and stories that may be yours, that may reverberate around your own past and family narrative; or, ones that may feel distant and otherly. Several of the projects in Chaupal are pointed towards a loss of place, family, famine, and grief. Displaying a history of exile, war, migration or persecution that pervade works such as of Rathin Barman's Mete-Begun (Chicken liver with Eggplant), a recipe innovated out of necessity to feed a family displaced from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), or Amol Patil and Parul Sinha’s Péz—a form of gruel first served in colonial era prisons, that later became the only source of nourishment for farmers working on the fields in Maharashtra and the Konkan region of India.
A bitter-sweet grain by Prajakta Potnis examines the idea of labour, as well as the preoccupation with purity within the space of a domestic kitchen, while other recipes such as the Chhatu of Mahbubur Rahman bring forth the ability of communities to support one another in hard times. In that same vein, for instance, exists the Langar-Khana, a community kitchen that serves free meals to the needy, regardless of religion or ethnicity, and was especially important during famines like the devastating Bengal famine of 1943. The Pak Tea House by Faraz Ali offers insights into an important cultural landmark in Lahore, a historic tea cafe for artists, writers, thinkers, intellectuals; as well as the birthplace of the influential Progressive Writers Movement in South Asia. Tea is served as a conduit to share this history.
Elsewhere, the food of celebration, sweets and dessert, as well as games offers a more lighthearted entry into the aesthetics, dreams, and play of others. The Milk Rice (Kiri Bath) of Anoli Perera, is served as part of Sinhala and Tamil new year celebrations, each April. Tayeba Lipi offers the famed Rasamanjuri sweet, made with pure cow milk and small, juicy, sweet balls, floating in thick milk, which from their beginning in 1940s Gaibandha in northern Bangladesh, quickly became a staple at family events, throughout the country.
Global politics, histories of migration, and regional connectedness, as well as notions of community, family, celebration and love, displacement and bereavement, are all infused into the commissions of the art festival—allowing the food on offer to act both as a metaphor and a literal site of exchange.
Such encounters activate the stories behind each project as both highly situated and personal as well as interconnected and unifying. One question, it then poses, is what happens to these stories and experiences when placed inside the fair. While the food and hospitality offered by artists in Chaupal celebrate the spirit of community, it is set within the private halls of Madinat Jumeirah where Art Dubai 2023 was held. If Chaupal explores how food is both a unifying force and a way of describing historic and ongoing social injustices, it stands in contrast to this other transactional form of hospitality.
Chaupal aims to create a small tension in this arena. It functions both as disrupting the calm flow of static artworks, offering different ways of looking and experiencing space as well as providing a different kind of exchange from elsewhere in the fair. This kind of disruption is a way of making meaning through bodies and stories in space. Chaupal makes space for histories that are not only held within the artworks but rather extends it to live bodies and the concept of nourishment, as interaction and personal connection, extending beyond just symbolism.
Live art is an increasingly important part of contemporary art practices, and yet it has little commercial appeal. It is entirely possible to buy and collect performance art as such, but with an underdeveloped market for such works, few art galleries place emphasis on them within the context of art fairs. The contemporary art ecosystem is a complex beast—full of tensions and what can feel like mutually exclusive spaces of artworks as objects, against artworks as experiences—public and private, critical and commercial.
Art Dubai's commissions create a platform for such practices since they are devised in collaboration with both commercial galleries and not-for-profit art centres; they highlight how such artworks can cross divides. Without such interventions, an art fair risks suggesting that the primary medium of contemporary art remains painting. Centering live art, on the other hand, and connecting it to the other works in the commercial spaces of the fair creates a link between these disparate sites of production, display, and circulation.
There are also those who think that putting politically charged works such as those in Chaupal neutralises them—that the context of the fair reduces them to a spectacle. Contrary to that, rendering them visible within the fair, especially with all their vulnerability and the intimacy they seek to create, suggests a form of soft power for such stories. Even if it is not a radical disruption, it creates the ground for the exposure of the hidden social hierarchies and intertwined network of interactions and interdependence, upon which the fair rests.
STIR was a Media Partner for Art Dubai 2023 that took place at Madinat Jumeirah, Dubai, from March 1-5. See the exclusive coverage here.