Conversation w the Curators – Place Settings: Diasporic Food Identities

In case you missed it, I have a current contemporary art exhibition on until the end of the weekend, along with two of my esteemed colleagues Madeline Smolarz and Anya Baker. Entitled Place Settings: Diasporic Food Identities, it features works by Basil AlZeri, Tonia Di Risio, and Susana Reisman. A little bit about the show:

In this exhibition, relationships with oneself and others are measured and evaluated through interactions with food preparation and consumption. Identities are assumed and interpreted based on the food at hand and how it is used. Place Settings aims to explore the manner in which food reflects our identities, and, as a result, becomes a medium for individuals to connect with others. Identities derived from perceived and felt differences can create dualities of inclusion and exclusion in the experience of eating inside and outside of one’s usual dining contexts. This duality is difficult to address; how can one reconcile the familiarity of one’s domestic past when one is displaced in an alien substitute? Each artist seeks to address the situational complexity associated with identity formation in new and strange locations.

Because we are a wonderfully awkward and verbose trio, I decided to interview the three of us reflecting on the show. 

How does food relate to your own identity?

Madeline – As a second generation Canadian whose half-Danish, half-Polish upbringing was coloured with rich culinary overtones permeating nearly every meal, food is irrevocably intertwined with my identity. I cannot think of one without thinking of the other anymore, and I know that for me, that fact will never change.

Leah – My chosen method of exploring the world – both historic and contemporary – is through food and culinary experiences. My identity is made up of memories, stories, and fascinations that can be reminisced through my favourite recipes and dishes. A good recipe is one thing, a good recipe with a shiny, warm memory becomes a deeply treasured and loved meal that you can enjoy physically and emotionally again and again.

Anya – I’m not really a foodie. I don’t do a lot of fancy cooking, but any dish I would potentially make to “show off” my skills are all inherited recipes from my family. For everyday cooking, there’s not much to connect to my identity, but when I do try to make an effort, I become a vehicle for cultural memory: that is, every means of cooking a potato to feed ten people.

What was it like for museum identifiers to be thrown into the art world?

Anya – The exhibit was very comfortable. It felt like home! I don’t usually feel that way in art exhibits. I think we chose to display works that were very open to our hybrid art/museological interpretation; there were so many opportunities to interact physically with the works, to use all the senses in experiencing them. We were trying hard to be art curators, but I think the pairing and interpretation of the works was so interesting and the overall ambience so comfortable for visitors because we added our museological perspective to it.

Madeline – Oh, that is easy – in one word, I would say daunting… as in looking up at Everest when you’ve spent your whole life training as a swimmer. Museums and galleries do share some similarities, I’ll grant them that, but with art – contemporary art in particular – there is a whole other language, set of expectations, and legacy that I had only heard whispers of before we completely leapt into the fire.

Leah – Like what Madeline said, it was kind of like trying to make bread when we needed to make sweetbread. Disregarding the different audience tastes, behaviours, and expectations of cheesey-garlic bread people versus lemon-poppy seed loaf people, knowing how to prepare the dough, knead it the precisely the correct amount, anticipate the needed chemical reactions, and pull a successfully risen, delicately fragrant loaf out of the oven takes a complex understanding of the small but critical different approaches between the two types of bread. Luckily, we got about a third of the way through when we realized, “huh, we need to do this differently.” And with the fantastic experience and help of everyone on our team, I think we made a bomb lemon-poppy seed loaf. Metaphorically speaking.

How hungry did you get doing this exhibit?

Anya – Every time we got together to work on the exhibit, all we did was eat, so we must have been hungry.

Madeline – One of the many things that this team did well was keeping each other well fed. However, there were a few moments during installation when The Most Prized of All Closets’ contents were looking and smelling extremely tempting.

Leah – I was about to say, this was not an exhibit you could work on while hungry and reasonably expect to get any quality work done!

What surprised you the most throughout the process?

Anya – Maybe ‘surprised’ is the wrong word, but I loved talking to the artists about their works, and hearing them explain their processes and intended interpretations. It added a richness to my reading of the works, and I think we tried to carry that feeling into our interpretive panels, by giving the visitor a quote from the artists and a little background on the artist and work.

Madeline – I was taken aback by how much I learned about myself: group-dynamic-type things like my abilities as a leader and my shortcomings under pressure, as well as realizations associated with our subject matter, such as how powerful a role food has had in my own life. I anticipated that I would learn a great deal about contemporary art curation – and I did – but my personal discoveries came very close to surpassing my academic learning.

What is indispensable in your pantry?

Leah – It is a truth universally acknowledged in MY mind that cheese can only improve a meal, which means I get antsy when I have less than 3 types on hand. (It’s not unheard of at a restaurant for me to simply order “the cheesiest item on your menu please!”)

Anya – I really like garlic. I keep breaking dollar-store garlic presses.

Madeline – A few bottles of white wine, sweet potatoes, a whole supermarket’s worth of herbs and spices, various oils and vinegars, canned goods (beans, tuna, etc.), and back up peanut butter. You just never know!

Favourite alternative exhibit title?

Anya – Unrivalled Revelry!!

This is the true image we chose for our group communication page. It may or may-not depict some of our planning sessions. Source.

How did your senses come into play in developing this exhibition?

Madeline – Of course, I wanted everything to be visually appealing, so the visual aesthetics of the works and the emotions they evoked was critical in my mind, but sound and smell emerged as equally important a few months into the development process. Once we started stumbling upon pieces that incorporated the clamour of kitchens (Tonia Di Risio) or the scent of carefully presented foods (Basil Al Zeri), I started tapping into senses that I would never have imagined would have taken such a central place on our curatorial stage when we first started out last year. It was extremely inspiring and exciting when that happened.

What is one thing you want visitors to walk away with?

Leah – Food is a great gateway to show how differences can be something to be appreciated, and can yield to unexpected similarities. I want visitors to walk away from this exhibit with, simply put, a willingness to attempt understanding and appreciation of whomever they encounter in this diverse world.

How much food is reasonable for the curators to eat at their own opening?

Leah – The self-restraint we showed in the face of all that delicious food was truly a heroic accomplishment.

Place Settings: Diasporic Food Identities is up until July 3rd, 2016. Generously supported by the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus, the Faculty of Information, and Culinary Research Centre.



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