by Vatsala SethiDec 26, 2022
At Preston Gallery in Cambridge, Canada, eating the other was presented as a set of ruminations on food and identity as an entry-point into the racialisation of bodies. In her curatorial essay, Noor Bhangu speaks about the cannibalisation of racial difference that takes shape as a form of dominance and extraction, to serve white supremacist inhibitions. Here, four visual artists—Molly JF Caldwell, Rajyashri Goody, Gabrielle Paré, Alize Zorlutuna—were brought together to initiate a dialogue about belonging, subjectivity and racial violence, where the axis point becomes that of diaspora populations in western countries.
Through an essayistic framework that takes form through the exhibition of works, Bhangu refers to a bell hooks piece that speaks from personal experience of overhearing white male college students talking about women and their bodies through the lens of race, where sexual impulse or further, intercourse, functions as a way of cannibalising difference. In conversation with STIR, the curator speaks about the ‘cannibalistic impulse’ and through this specific example from hooks, the “desire to digest or eat difference through sexual intercourse.” Eating, nourishment, digestion become rich metaphors to draw upon and formulate a political discourse of resisting the process of ‘othering’ through claiming the space of such. In the curator’s words, food becomes a metaphor for the other’s flesh, where the dominant race gets close to understanding the other through imported spices and flavours, without doing the considered labour—required to bridge the gap.
Rejecting the institutionalised space of the art gallery as white cube, as it has come to be popularly known, the curation of the exhibition space reflects the differential politics of the art forms that are acceptable within such spaces. The works presented vary from studio practices that inhabit formalist and academic notions of institutionalised form and include fermentations, booklets of resistance literature, deconstructed books and installed carpet seating to invite new allyships. Speaking about the white-washed nature of the white cube, Bhangu tells STIR, "The affective world that the white cube creates is very present in our minds. And so, I wanted to use a lot of colour in the gallery to contest that. I wanted to give a different frame to the works on display. I selected turmeric, green and blue to play with ideas around authenticity and culture versus nature. Turmeric is something I have grown up with and sort of romanticise as a symbol of lost origins. Green talks about what we see as natural, along with blue.”
Alize Zorlutuna presents a constellation of artworks in conversation with one another, where there are instances of processing food, churning, distillation and preservation. Bhangu mentions the latter as being an important part of the queer artist’s practice, that involves collecting material including those provided by friends and family. One photographic image documents the making of a tomato puree, in video the domestic sphere of the kitchen is referenced where their mother is documented making dolma, a cultural specificity. Waiting, longing, and time are intertwined in this brewing of solidarity through cultural nuance. Nourishment, shared histories, preservation of culture, and ethical consumption turn the conversation towards that of community-building. On the other hand, Leaving the table, which is an installation of an ornate Turkish rug and personal items, sought to invite conversations, activated through the artist’s invitation in September 2022, when they welcomed exhibition goers with tea. Another constellation of works within the overarching display of Zorlutuna’s work are shelves with jars of preserved oil and other ingredients. Time becomes a constant player.
Gabrielle Paré presents a series of cut-paper compositions titled Diggin' 'round the root i-iii that take place as a ‘mining’ for lost histories and labour, commenting on the diasporic condition. The digging being referenced can be seen through the semi-performative action of layered paper that is being cut through, looking to the Filipino plant Atswete that has medicinal properties, its historical use, and indigeneity. A set of wrappers from the Filipino spice brand Mama Sita are an additional element, where the collected material contains information on import and the routes that the spice itself travels through in the world, a stand-in for the diaspora. In conversation with STIR, Bhangu here, refers to a new kind of world building that the diaspora imaginary produces, through its unique positionality.
Further, Molly JF Caldwell's The Veil is an art installation of a pearl necklace restitched by the artist, with layers of food items that are white in the Asian community, such as rice, tofu, MSG, referring to 'whiteness', on top of which a veil lies. The coded nature of food and its racialisation is enacted upon by racist backlash against Asians during Covid. The stitch that recreates the necklace, ties together the racialised past and present of diasporic reality.
Deviating from diaspora identity and politics, Bhangu also brings in Rajyashri Goody’s work that involves the digestion of Dalit histories and political fervour that arises from radical literature within the community. Dalit identity is based on the Hindu caste system, where historically oppressor caste communities continue to perpetuate violence on the Dalit community on the basis of social indoctrination. Writing Recipes, which finds its roots in this history, has been staged across many iterations and locations across the world and continues to be a pertinent and affective project, where the artist presents poetic responses to the food-based segregation and violence experienced within the community, and exudes the resistance that can be met with through historicising sustenance and survival. Often accompanied with a set of familial, joyous photographs from her own family albums, Goody's images are purposefully absent, where the curator speaks about the racialisation of bodies on sight, before even picking up the book. The cannibalisation of cultures is once again referred to here, and the sensorial is preferred over other consumption.