A catalogue essay written for the 2019 exhibition Alexandria Smith: A Litany for Survival, curated by Lynne Cooney at Boston University Art Galleries. A Litany for Survival featured figure-based paintings and drawings that explore Black female subjectivity. The essay considers representations of the split self in this body of work and in today’s social and cultural context.
Image: Alexandria Smith, The Nocturnes (detail), 2017. Acrylic on canvas, 60 x 84 inches. Courtesy the artist.
Catalogue essay for Jordan Weber: kNOw Spaces, curated by Jehra Patrick at Law Warshaw Gallery, Macalester College, St. Paul, MN
September 14–October 25, 2018
Breathing fully and freely is the birthright of all human beings and yet “that essential act of life...is often constrained or denied to people of color.” Across the United States, communities of color are treated as dumping grounds for toxic waste that sickens and kills the people who live there. Studies repeatedly confirm the unequal burden of environmental hazards: In 1983, multiple organizations, including the U.S. General Accounting Office, concluded that “race was so strong a statistical predictor of where hazardous waste facilities could be found that there was only a one-in-10,000 chance of racial distribution of such sites occurring randomly.” Some ten years later, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported that toxic waste facilities were more likely to be sited in Black communities nationwide. And earlier this year, as the Trump Administration worked to reverse policies created to reduce these inequities, the EPA reported that people of color, especially those living on low incomes, “are much more likely to live near polluters and breathe polluted air.” Communities of color are not only over-exposed to particulate matter, but also to poverty, police brutality, and other forms of environmental violence. It’s for these reasons that Eric Garner’s final words became a rally cry: “I can’t breathe” signifies his death at the hands of police as much as the larger systematic chokehold—the gross scheme of social, economic, and ecological oppression under which people of color live in the United States.
Image: Jordan Weber. Untitled, 2018. Courtesy the artist and Law Warshaw Gallery.
Written as part of a consulting project for the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, PA.
When art institutions embark on community-based projects, good intentions are sometimes overshadowed by actions that leave a negative impression or cause offense to the people they are trying to engage. Mistakes are inevitable; however, mistakes can be prevented by devoting adequate time to courting a community and figuring out how an organization can put its best foot forward. Best practices for community engagement are not dissimilar to common tips for making a new friend or going on a first date. The potential to grow that relationship is based not only on how we talk, but also on how we listen to the other person. Good conversation typically begins by asking questions, being careful not to make assumptions. Even when we feel confident about ourselves and in what we have to offer, there may be uncertainty about how we are being received or read by the other party. Amid the anxiety, there can also be joy in getting to know someone and forging a new relationship. So how might an art institution prepare to introduce itself to a new community? And what happens when you are introducing new technology at the same time?
Photos: (top) Barnes Foundation community engagement team meeting patrons and using VR headsets Charles Durham Free Library in West Philadelphia (bottom) Jihan Thomas, a Barnes educator on the Barnes VR community engagement team, leads a group in the Barnes galleries who came on the field trip. This group was from the South Philadelphia Free Library.
Walker Art Center Magazine, 2014
The metaphor of the table evokes images of folks coming together to break bread, to discuss personal and political issues, and to cultivate an atmosphere of community. For artists Seitu Jones and Theaster Gates, the table is more than a metaphor; it’s also a medium. In the Twin Cities, their tables are provoking dialogue about systemic reform, in local foodways and cultural institutions. Can these conversations actually effect change? Or is the change the conversation itself?
Art21 Magazine, 2014
An Amazon search for photography books returns well over 100,000 titles. Narrow that search to explicitly gay or queer portraiture and the return is infinitesimal by comparison. The photographer Gerard H. Gaskin knew when he secured his first book deal that it was a feat not just for him but also for the queer community he’s photographed for nearly twenty years. Gaskin has been called the official photographer of the house ballroom scene that was “born out of a need for black and Latino gays to have a safe space to express themselves,” he writes. “My images try to show a personal and intimate beauty, pride, dignity, courage, and grace that has been painfully challenged by mainstream society.”
On an overcast afternoon, Gaskin and I met for lunch in the Chelsea/Flatiron district of New York City, not far from the Art21 headquarters. Between bites of thin-crust cheese pizza topped with black olives, he told me about the long road to Legendary: Inside the House Ballroom Scene, which comes out this month.
Author: Joshua Bolchover
Phaidon Press, 2012
Vitamin Green provides an up-to-the-minute look at sustainable design. Projects were nominated by an international collection of designers, curators, critics and thinkers. I contributed several entries, writing about a split-level shipping container house in Chile, a portable garden in Berlin, and a solar handbag, among other designs. Vitamin Green is hailed “the best possible sourcebook of the most exciting and original green designs at all scales.”
Big, Red & Shiny, 2013
Why are artists increasingly cultivating edible crops as part of their practice? This article features Agnes Denes, Newton and Helen Harrison, Bonnie Ora Sherk, Fallen Fruit Collective, Nils Norman, Tattfoo Tan, and Lisa Gross.
Art21 Magazine, January 2014
I chose to pursue art without knowing exactly what path it would take. I never said to myself, “I don’t care if I fail,” but rather, “You have no choice but to succeed.” To leave Kenya to study art, while being unable to explain why or to describe what I was going to do, wasn’t considered proper. People in Kenya would ask me, “How are you going to support yourself?” or “Where has this thing you’re doing ever taken anyone you know?” I didn’t have answers to these questions! At the time, I didn’t know of any black female contemporary artists. I didn’t know of any African contemporary artists who had come from Kenya and gone on to do amazing things. I knew there were some painters in Kenya making modest livings, mostly men. As far as anyone was concerned, I was jumping into an abyss of failures. So for me the idea of failure began with being an artist.
One reason I pursued art is because I had witnessed my father’s professional challenges and eventual failures in his early to mid-forties. He proved that he was ill-equipped to run a business, which he had been trying to do for years. His business began falling apart, and we went from looking like we had money to definitely looking like we didn’t have enough money. But he was still pretending that we had it; there was all of this theatricality. I was very critical of him, in my teenage years. I remember thinking that I didn’t want to be his age and trying to go from one career to another, like from businessman to a poet or a tree expert or whatever crazy things he was doing at the time. My grandfather (my mom’s dad) would tell me, “Don’t do what your father did. Whatever you do, just do it really well and work really hard.” I was afraid to become an old person who was all confused, essentially going through my teenage years again with no sense of who I was or how to catch myself. That’s why I was so adamant about trying art early on. I thought if I failed, I’d still have time to try something else. “Let me go and fail” is not something I was privileged enough to say; “Let me go and try this thing out” was how I approached it.
Now, to be fair, my father didn’t have the same opportunities that I did. He was a male child born in pre-independence, colonized Kenya. He had come to the United States on the same scholarships that brought people like Wangari Maathai and President Barack Obama’s father here. My father wasn’t unique, because a lot of Kenyan students came to the United States on scholarship and didn’t quite know what to do afterwards. Idealism didn’t come in the shape of African nations then; there was a different set of cards at that moment. There were fewer opportunities.
I came to the United States feeling like I was boxing in the dark. I got into Parsons School of Design for Social Research, but I didn’t like it because it didn’t match my academic needs and pursuits, and I couldn’t pay the annual $30,000 tuition. A friend sponsored me the first year, but it didn’t change the fact that I would need another $30,000 the following year. So I left Parsons, and my options were to go home with my tail between my legs or stay in New York and figure something out. It felt like I was up against a cliff—until I found out about Cooper Union. I couldn’t believe there was a school available to me that was tuition-free. But the problem there was that they didn’t take transfer students unless someone dropped out and a space opened up. But it was the only thing I could apply for, so I stayed up nights and days and worked my ass off on the home test and application. I got in. Since then I’ve done most things singularly; I focus on the one thing I want to do. If I can learn through failure, I will. But I’m going to do everything I can to succeed because I have the opportunity to succeed.
In a sense, failure is a tail that’s chasing me. I’m running away from it, but it’s attached to me. It helps me project myself forward. It keeps me from looking backwards too much. At the same time, my work has grown bigger and moved further than I thought it would because I make mistakes along the way. For example, I’ve been making collages for years, but something will happen in the process of making a new body of work, and it will seem to ruin a piece. Sometimes it’s from over-flowing ink or over-spraying a section, basically doing something I didn’t mean to do, that forces me to look for a new trajectory, a new solution. I really do believe that embedded in a mistake is the next new idea, which is to me a metaphor for life and for death. That thing that kills a piece will grant life to another body of work. And the longer you live, the closer you come to dying, and the more you have to keep generating new ideas and new reasons to be here, to be useful, to be important, to be a living being.
—As told to the author, November 2013
Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, 2012
In 2011, Brooklyn-based artist Heather Hart introduced her interactive installation The Oracle of Epicure: Tooth for Tooth. For this, she transcribed a selection of recipes onto note cards and adorned each with an original drawing. Filed in a recipe box and set on top of a desk, viewers were invited to take one card in exchange for a recipe of their own that was to be written from memory on the spot. This article gives the particulars of Heather’s installation with special attention given to the source of her recipes: Harry H. Hart’s Favorite Recipes of Williams College, with Training Table Records, Notes and Menus (1951). Harry Hart, a chef at Williams College from 1917 to 1954, was Heather’s great grandfather. Harry Hart, Jr., Heather’s grandfather, was also a chef at Williams College from 1938 until circa 1959. By way of Tooth for Tooth, the Hart family’s rich culinary history is conveyed for the first time here.
"Not Just Desserts," ARTnews, 2011
For some artists, cake is a subject. For others, it’s a medium. This article features works by Will Cotton, Marina Abramovic, Clare Grill, Dustin Wayne Harris, and Victoria Yee Howe.
Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, Spring 2008
In 2004, Bay Area conceptual artist April Banks traveled to West Africa, which produces seventy percent of the world’s cocoa, to learn firsthand about the cocoa farms of the region and their relationship to the modern-day chocolate industry. Her related research has been wide, including travel to cocoa farms in Cuba and a visit to the New York Board of Trade. Free Chocolate, Banks’s resulting body of work, follows cocoa’s global exchange from forest to palate, farmer to consumer, illustrating the mingled effects of desire, greed, and manipulation. This article examines two photographic works in the Free Chocolate series, placing them in their broader cultural and economic contexts.
Image credit: April Banks, The Hand I Eat With, 2007. C-print. Courtesy the artist.
C Magazine, Summer 2011
In 2010, New York-based painter Joy Garnett began to snap pictures of her home cooking and eating activities with her Blackberry camera phone. Like many modern-day food lovers, she turned to the Web to share her pictures with others, instantly uploading them to Twitter and tagging each image with the hashtag #cookstir, which she would later change to #tweetcuisine. On Garnett’s blog of the same title, any tweet with the #tweetcuisine tag appeared in a rolling list, a sort of moving menu of the moment. For a time, Tweet Cuisine garnered attention from like-minded twitterati (including me), who would use the same hashtag to share what they were whipping up in their kitchens. But on the Web, content and interest quickly comes and goes. Within a year, the novelty of Tweet Cuisine had worn off and participation slowed; the original blog will soon be defunct.
From the editors of Phaidon Press, 2013
Vitamin D2 presents 115 artists who are pushing the boundaries of drawing. Over 70 international critics, artists and curators nominated the artists featured here. I contributed the entry on Kira Lynn Harris.
Public Art Review, 2012
Featuring six artists who work with food: Amy Franceschini, Seitu Jones, Michael Rakowitz, Leah Rosenberg, Jennifer Rubell, and Tattfoo Tan. In individual interviews they respond to questions about the challenges of food as medium and shared their solutions to some of its unique problems.
Begovich Gallery, California State University, Fullerton, 2011
Organized by Six Pack Projects, this exhibition featured twelve established and emerging contemporary artists whose work focuses on our reciprocal relationship to food: what we consume, how we consume it and how it consumes us. My essay "Turning Tables" is featured in the exhibition catalogue.
In Chapter 7 of Anything is Possible, viewers are taken behind the scenes of Stephens Tapestry Studio in Johannesburg, the exclusive manufacturer of William Kentridge’s tapestries since 2001. As the camera pans this brightly lit space, occupied by looms and balls of spun mohair, women weavers work and sing in harmony as they translate one of Kentridge’s drawings into woven form. This scene is captivating not only for the joyousness portrayed in the making of the tapestries, but also because of this method of reproducing his drawings. Tapestry is a curious choice that begs further examination, in particular the question: why has Kentridge chosen this loaded Western form to illustrate South African history?
Art21 Blog, 2012
Michael Rakowitz made media headlines in December when U.S. marshals seized a critical part of his culinary project Spoils: the dinner plates. As it turned out, the elegant black and gold trimmed tableware, purchased on eBay, had been looted from the former palace of Saddam Hussein. Now repatriated, the artist has created a set of limited-edition paper plate replicas that accompanied the launch of his latest food endeavor, Enemy Kitchen (Food Truck), an Iraqi eatery on wheels.
Commissioned by the Smart Museum of Art for their exhibition Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art, Rakowitz’s food truck is the newest iteration of his ongoing project Enemy Kitchen wherein he invites people to help him cook a meal based on the recipes of his Iraqi-Jewish mother. The conversation that takes place over the course of the event is perhaps more significant than the food that gets made. The artist notes, “On one occasion, a student walked in and said, ‘Why are we making this nasty food? They (the Iraqis) blow up our soldiers every day and they knocked down the Twin Towers.’ One student corrected her and said, ‘The Iraqis didn’t destroy the Twin Towers, bin Laden did.’ Another said, ‘It wasn’t bin Laden, it was our government.’”
With Enemy Kitchen (Food Truck) Rakowitz extends the possibility for dialogue and debate to the neighborhoods of Chicago. Every Sunday and Monday throughout Feast the artist and his rotating staff of local Iraqi cooks (who prepare the food) and Iraq War veterans (who act as sous chefs and servers) will be cruising the city in search of hungry customers. Following are excerpts from a recent interview with Rakowitz in which he discusses his goals and overall relationship to food.*
Nicole J. Caruth: What prompted you to make Enemy Kitchen mobile?
Michael Rakowitz: It was one of the extensions that had always existed in my mind after the variant that I started in New York and then produced in different places across the country. I thought about some of the things that had been so dynamic and exciting for me as it pertained to Return, which was another project I did with Creative Time, where I imported Iraqi dates and operated a storefront. What was really great about that was, for the few months that the project was up and running, it was an excellent hub where conversation could happen and also a place where New York’s really small Iraqi population could convene with some regularity. I really enjoyed that. It was where my interest in urban space and interventionism could intersect with my love of story telling and conversation.
So my initial idea was to open a restaurant, but I now live in Chicago and opening a restaurant here is different than it is in New York. There were no Iraqi restaurants in New York until 2007, when La Kabbr opened up in Hell’s Kitchen and then, unfortunately, I think it closed in 2010 or 2011. In Chicago it’s very different because the city has one of the largest expatriate communities in the world. I recognized a lot of items that were on menus of restaurants here that declared themselves Middle Eastern or Mediterranean. But kubba or masgouf or things like that were evidence or traces of their culinary history in Iraq. In the same way, the trigger for Return was my visit to Sahadi’s in Brooklyn where the date syrup was marked ‘Product of Lebanon’ but it was actually a product of Iraq. There’s this veiling of the provenance, of where those products come from, which was a way that Iraqi companies circumvented the U.N. sanctions. And so this food truck is, in a way, about a circumvention of identity, about a certain kind of fear, about what it means to be labeled specifically Iraqi and what that means in America.
I decided that, better than opening a full-on restaurant, would be to collaborate with this really rich community here in Chicago … These restaurants are located in very specific communities, so the idea was that the mobility of Enemy Kitchen would not only introduce that food to different parts of the city but also make people aware of this almost repressed topography … Mobility is also an opportunity for the truck to travel to places like the South Side, where there’s a huge amount of military academies and young kids who are from this area end up getting recruited. I liked the idea of the truck being this kind of dangerous ice cream truck parked outside of the military academies and presenting another kind of narrative to these kids who might be buying lunch from the truck. Also, the truck is for me a way of engaging with a kind of contested culture here in Chicago, where food trucks are under attack essentially … There’s something about that that’s kind of nice as a way of indirectly referencing territorial contest or a certain tension around where you are and are not allowed to be.
MR: The restaurant I’m working with first is a place called Milo’s Pita Place. Right now I have Milad, who is their chief cook, his brother Mike, and his dad Jawher. They’ve run restaurants in Mosul, Iraq, a couple of restaurants here in Chicago and in Mexico as well. In terms of the Iraq vets, we have about four who are working with us now. I’m also working with the Iraq Mutual Aid Society and we’re employing cooks who are from different regions of Iraq. So a Kurdish family is going to have very different recipes than someone from Basra, for instance, so we’ll be able to represent those regional cuisines and Milad will provide oversight for the cooking of those recipes. Everyday a different flag will be hung outside the truck – a Kurdish flag when it’s a Kurdish chef or an Assyrian flag when it’s an Assyrian chef. It will kind of speak to geographies in Iraq that people don’t really know about except when they talk about sectarian violence. In this case, it’s more about sectarian cooking.
NC: You’ve worked with food on a few occasions, developing two projects for Creative Time and now the food truck for Feast. What is it about food that you’re drawn to?
MR: When I was a student, one of the professors who changed my life is this really amazing artist and architect named Allan Wexler. He works with the social environment that gets created around the gathering for a meal. Growing up in a Jewish household, I was attracted to the way that Allan would enlist those rituals. Allan was great at pointing out the way that ritual, in terms of the scripts and the very rigid rules of something like doing a Passover Seder, were not so different from Sol Lewitt’s sentences on Conceptual Art. I loved that intersection quite a lot. You know, this was a rich part of my life but I was feeling like those traditions wouldn’t find a way into my practice, that they were mutually exclusive. And so I was interested in the ways that Allan played with ritual and the implements that accompany ritual from a design and art perspective—the design of silverware, the design of tables, the design of architecture. He introduced Okukura’s Book of Tea in his class and that’s been such a huge influence on me.
You know, cooking is like building things and I really love that sculptural quality of doing something like making a kubba, which is this rice flower dumpling my mother taught me to make. There’s something about consumption and ending up with nothing afterward. You end up with an experience and the evidence of it is something that’s been totally emptied out or traces of something on a plate or tablecloth. It’s also the immediacy of a call and response. You put something out in the world and it’s not that people might see it or might engage with it. In the case of cooking, people are right there engaging with it. I liked the way that food created a participatory moment that wasn’t threatened by the failure that so many participatory projects experience, which is where you put something out in the world and all you end up with is a dead project. I’ve made things like that and I think a lot of artists who work in this realm have made things like that. In the case of a meal, people are there and you’re making something with them and for them. I liked the way that food dealt with participation, form, and social engagement. It seemed to be the perfect tool.
NC: It seems this food in art thing has become, well, trendy. I’m curious to know if and how that has impacted your work over the past few years?
MR: There’s something that’s simultaneously reinforcing about the way this kind of practice has pervaded the field, but then I get skeptical anytime something becomes a fashion. I want to head for the hills when that happens. It maybe means that the frictions of it have disappeared, that it’s almost predictable. One of the reasons I started doing what people call social practice was because I was reacting to the dissatisfaction that I felt with my work just showing in a gallery. But I needed that to create an adequate amount of claustrophobia or friction to allow me to decide, ‘Well, f**k it. I’m going outside. I’m going to do something out in the world.’ So I worry a little bit about what happens when you start to say, okay, well this is a thing, so now it’s a category, and now we’re going to make a niche — a research nice, a study niche, a curatorial niche. My fear is that it deadens it, it takes the air out of it, it softens it. But that’s not to say there aren’t projects I find incredibly powerful. Feast is a case in point. I think it’s a really great, critical, looking back at what has become now a lineage of artists who are working with these similar tropes or tools. And there’s something really great about having conversations with different artists and having projects pop up here and there that you feel a kinship with. So there’s something both good and unsettling about it.
*This interview was conducted for an article in Public Art Review.
Art21 Blog, 2010
Has Walter de Maria’s New York Earth Room ever made you crave brownies? Have you ever noticed how much Andy Goldsworthy’s Storm King Wall looks like a meandering Payday candy bar? Probably not. But trust me, your take on contemporary sculpture is about to get a whole lot sweeter.
Three years ago, New York-based artist Paul Shore and art historian Nicole Root began collaborating on a series of contemporary candy sculptures that was sparked by a conversation about Richard Serra’s retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. “As I remember it,” said Root, “Paul and I were having a summer afternoon beer and I mentioned that I would like to make a Serra sculpture out of meat. There was something about the texture of his large ellipses that appealed to me. Paul said it would work better with a piece of taffy. Imagining a small-scale Serra you can stick in your mouth was just too funny—the opposite of his serious, large-scale, large-budget works.” Trips to Duane Reade, Economy Candy, and Dylan’s Candy Store quickly ensued and what started as a joke between the artists became a full-blown project of more than 70 miniature parodies.
might be good..., 2009
A new body of work by Houston resident Mequitta Ahuja is currently on view at the New York City gallery BravinLee. The exhibition, titled Automythography I, refers to Ahuja’s ongoing exploration into the “auto-mythic,” a term coined by author Audre Lorde to describe a combination of history, myth and personal narrative. The artist absorbs this notion in depictions of Black hair that, according to her blog, physically and conceptually convey “the psychic proportions hair has in the lives of Black people.” In Ahuja’s hands, long boundless locks suspended from inverted heads become abstract, and sometimes colorful, forms. Drawn shapes and surface textures are likened to hair texture. Entangled tresses morph into exquisite illustrations of cultural experience and exorcism. Below, the artist expounds the concepts behind her first installation in the Automythograpy series.