Artists and the food diplomacy

Ashok Ogra

The quest for spice was one of the main reasons for westerners to roam the globe. In 1497 King Manuel I of Portugal authorized Vasco da Gama’s voyage to India in ‘search of spices.’ Seeing Vasco da Gama’s messenger on shore in Calicut, a Muslim merchant from Tunis who happened to be there, asked him in Spanish, “The devil take you, what brought you here?” His succinct reply: “We came to look for Christianity and spices.” (Nayan Chanda in Bound Together)
When Vasco Da Gama returned to Portugal with spices and silk, the legend says that he earned four times the money he spent on voyage just by selling the spices. This exhibition tells us that food in art continues to nourish, and reward.
Few cultural products express beliefs and values with the same power as food. In art, food helps convey status – certain dishes and ingredients connect to royalty, while others relay the plight of the populace.
Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters (1885) was an attempt, according to the artist, to show ”manual labour and they have thus honestly earned their food. I wanted to give the idea of a wholly different way of life from ours, civilized people.”
Depicting the global-local politics of food in South Asian countries, is the focus of an ongoing exhibition titled “The Food Diplomacy:Makkan Ngga Makkan Asal Kumpul.” Organized by the South Korean Embassy in New Delhi, the exhibition highlights the food practices of people of Indonesia and surrounding areas and how it relates to local culture, art and society. (In Indonesian language, Bahasa, the saying “Makkan Ngga Makkan Asal Kumpul” refers to gathering of family and friends, emphasizing the importance of togetherness.
The month-long exhibition is curated by the noted Indonesian trans-disciplinary artist M. Haryo Hutomo, and is supported by various artistic methods conveying the social, industrial and political tale of the country, and the cultural landscape through its culinary traditions and habits.
Fajar Abadi has created a small boxing ring, in the middle hangs a punching bag stuffed with homemade snacks- as a symbol of local industry being overwhelmed by big corporations.
Fransisca Retno reflects on the ‘unhealthy’ food practices of today’s generations. His life-size projections of slides of human cells that have been affected by some of the food we consume today. Fransisca Retno conducts live participatory performance by engaging with visitors in the making of herbal concoctions, and have them taste the same.
To Jakarta based Natasha Gabriella who uses video installation, household pests with a cockroach figure are celebrated heroes- as the only species that has the ability to survive. She is emphasizing on the fragile eco system and sustainability.
Adi Sundoro artistically recreates the food distribution process of global companies using their transportation tools.
The civil unrest and agrarian crisis that rocked Indonesia in 1960s that is supposed to have influenced people’s relation with what they ate- is the theme that Bakudapan is reflecting in the work ‘Cooking Under Pressure.’
The women collective, whose work reflects the concerns over unsustainable growth models, create leather-alternatives from the effluents from Indonesia’s soy production facilities – major source of pollution in the country.
Also, on view are installation and video work by XXLab about the process of industrial waste that produces tofu into ready-made fabrics.
The exhibition is open till July 30 at the Cultural Centre of the South Korean embassy in New Delhi.
Politics of food is what the artists are highlighting in this exhibition that is open till July 30. Food is taken out of its culinary discourse and presented in a much broader social context.
History is replete with examples of food being used by regimes and emperors as a tool of coercion.
This is evident from the conduct of Sultan Selim II of the Ottoman Empire. He did not care nearly as much about his people as he did about drinking, and his favorite drink was wine from Cyprus. When he started to run out of this wine in 1571, he decided to get more by attacking Cyprus. Though at first successful, the backlash from his act of war was devastating. Salim lost almost his entire navy, and the Ottoman Empire began a decline from which it never recovered.
There is a common saying: “leave it to the French to take their pastry seriously.” No wonder, pastry became a reason for France to wage war against Mexico. The story goes that a well-known pastry shop run by a noted French chef Romontel, was looted and destroyed in violence that hit Mexico in mid 19th century. France demanded reparation but Mexico refused to oblige. That was the start of what is popularly known ‘Pastry War.’
Most Asian countries have similar cultural backgrounds and therefore are similar in terms of food relations, bio-political practices and its changing practices on the way people consume without considering where the food comes from. The exhibition aims to make people aware of the chain of food production and distribution and how that influences ethical, social, cultural, economic, and artistic values.
(The authori is a noted management & media professional/educator.)


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