by Manu SharmaSep 09, 2023
If the origin of the phrase ‘you are what you eat’ could be traced to the Christian theological representation of bread and wine as body and blood of Jesus Christ, over the centuries the phrase has countenanced a slew of changes in its connotation. It would not be easily refuted, besides being the popular motto for nutritionists as an indicator of health value, ‘you are what you eat’ is instrumental to determine, and even drive the identity politics. Of the deep cultural significance in India, the food has held a ‘special’ place, especially in the discussions of the last few years — to explain people’s right to choose what they want to eat. Amidst the global pandemic crisis and debatable modifications in the farmers’ bill in India, the World Food Day on October 16 calls to extend solidarity towards vulnerable groups involved in the food systems and further the practice of food sharing.
Recognising the essentiality of food, the artists have time and again put it forth as both the subject of their works and even to make a statement on the public culture. The text Codice Romanoff keeps the explicit account of Leonardo da Vinci’s culinary skills and food practice as he served as Maestro dei Convivii (culinary head) under the 15th century Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza. To draw references from literature, Ovid’s 'Metamorphosis' underscores propaganda for the meal without the meat anchored by Pythagoras, and Shakespeare’s writings oversee food as a recurring metaphor to offer a peek inside the mind of protagonists. As a social metaphor, the food habits often swing between the two points of extremes to emphasise – human interaction to build a sense of togetherness and eating as an exercise to enact self-consumed alienation. Striving to give creative expression to this conundrum is the work of Dubai-based Filipino artist Augustine Paredes.
Against the changing dynamics of everyday life, what does food mean to an emigrant when s/he finds himself in the uncharted lands waiting to be explored. The food at the centre of the work by Paredes is instrumental to function as a point of arrival: negotiation between cultures in an effort to know the self a step deeper. Expounding on this further, Paredes in an interview with STIR, states, “I have only started my appreciation of food as a form of self-portrait when I looked at how important Chicken Adobo is in my life as a migrant worker in the Philippines. Adobo has always been my go-to meal here, as it lasts longer compared to other food. I first started doing this process for my project in Campus Art Dubai, which was titled Cooking Adobo in the Hea(r)t of Dubai, it aimed to materialise how I was shaped by the span of time I have lived and worked in Dubai. It aims to introspect questions like “where are you from,” acts of violence that come with it and my relationship to the city of Dubai while having been away from the Philippines for two years. It questions relationships between a developing multi-cultural city and myself, it is all the more a journey inward into where one belongs and what it means to isolate oneself in shared spaces — preserving the sense of home, cooking for one and surviving the every day”.
The still life works, especially of food, border on the thin line of triggering an icy or an emotive response. Watching Paredes’ photography work on food, from the series Cooking Adobo in the Hea(r)t of Dubai is never far to entice you to take a closer look at the weave of polemic food items connected together despite the underlying cold nature of packaged food. It is the collection of eclectic items caught in a frame that lends a poetic sensitivity to his works. Like someone whose work is informed by Southeast Asian consciousness and queer gaze, the art of photographing food is, Paredes declares, “as if to mirror an experience, a thought, or a person. I have been working as a commercial photographer and art director for four years in Dubai, and part of the job is to photograph food. I gained my knowledge in photographing food through those day to day experiences, and in order to call it art (at least for myself), I take these still life images with a rhetorical thought”.
Paredes has had his moments of self-introspection and shared his inhibition on touting himself as an artist, he states, “Looking at photography as an art practice took a long time for me to accept, as I always thought I was a photographer and not an artist.” Interestingly, Paredes crafts lyrics not just with his camera, but also with the words stitched together in the form of poetry. The book on poetry, Conversations at the End of the Universe and his work of photography inform each other with an intention to bring a fresh layer of perspective on everyday things. Drawing a parallel between the two works of arts, Paredes states, “Conversations at the End of the Universe, like the title, is about creating a space to converse with an abyss. There are definitely gaps in my photos and words, and at the same time, I think what lacks in the visual can be filled by the text. I have always been an avid fan of poetry, maybe even before I was taking photographs. As a young boy, I would always visualise what Sylvia Plath writes about, for example. And I think to be gifted by this talent in taking photographs brings out my love for language”.
Since food has been a consistent part of Paredes’ artistic journey, would it continue to hold the centre-stage in the forthcoming works? The artist does not deny that food has been a great part of life while growing up. Disclosing his personal proclivity towards food, Paredes confesses, “My mother bakes cakes and caters to events, (amongst the many things she does) and every summertime when I would go home to her, she would let me work at the bakery, so I was always surrounded with food. I also think that my future work, as my past projects, would put my stories at the centre. And the food will be a big part of that”.
Encapsulating the core essence of the food – collective sharing – are the final words by Paredes, when asked about the final takeaway for the audience who watches his works, “I want them to resonate to my narrative, to my story, and if they do, I want them to know that they are not alone in whatever they are experiencing. My story is your story, is our story”.