JEDDAH: The inaugural exhibition at the new Hayy Jameel multidisciplinary arts complex in Jeddah explores how the food we eat is connected to ecology, personal and collective memory and a certain time and place.
The show — Staple: What’s on Your Plate? — presents works by artists not just from the Kingdom, but also from DRC, Germany, Thailand, India, Spain, Lebanon, the Russian Federation, UAE and Bangladesh, reflecting Jeddah’s diverse demographic.
“Staple is an international exhibition that represents Jeddah’s history,” said Rahul Gudipudi, Exhibitions Curator at Art Jameel, which set up the center. “Jeddah is a port city that through centuries of trade, cultural exchange and pilgrimage has a truly diverse community. In many ways this exhibition reflects this dialogue with the world that Jeddah has had for centuries.”
“We staged the show in collaboration with the Delfina Foundation and it asks very simple yet urgent questions such as how the choices we make with our food impact the world and our societies,” Gudipudi told Arab News.
On the second floor, the gentle sounds of an Indian woman singing can be heard from a life-size corrugated iron structure, the work of Indian artist Sancintya Mohini Simpson. titled “Jahajin,” it recalls the houses occupied by indentured female laborers taken from India to Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa) in the early 20th century to work on sugar plantations. As guests enter the structure they can smell the alluring concoction of spices, cardamon and earth while listening to the woman’s captivating voice singing the Bhojpuri folk song of Simpson’s mother. Inside is a film showcasing the seemingly endless fields of plantations.
Simpson uses her work to reflect on the experience of her maternal ancestors and the stories she found through archival research on female plantation workers.
As Simpson’s work demonstrates, gender issues permeate all aspects of agriculture. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, women constitute 47 percent of those engaged in agriculture.
“Africa Empty Europe Full Up” (2021) is a group of heads and one full body figure that at first glance look as though they are bronze. On closer examination we see they have been made from chocolate.
The sculptures are the work of Cercle d’art des travailleurs de plantation Congolaise, an arts collective based in Lusanga, DRC, composed of former palm oil and plantation workers. Since they are unable to afford to live off the wages they receive from their work, they use material sourced from cacao to create their artworks. The works they create are made in a collaborative setting and the materials used to recall and overwrite the exploitative economics of global trade.
CATPC presents a new model. While in the West we see how plantation labor has historically funded the art world via donations, here art is funding a new form of post-plantation trade whereby the group reinvests the profits from sales of their artworks into self-owned agricultural production in the DRC.
Works such as these prompt a reflection on the centuries of global trade and colonialism that have led to the world’s current predicament.
On the ground floor of the center more colorful works come into view, the most prominent being an installation by Saudi design studios Bricklab and Misht Studio called “Absent Dinner” (2021). The large-scale mixed media installation incorporates 100 percent cotton muslin hanging from the ceiling colored with dyes made from turmeric, Galangal, nutmeg and fennel seeds. Brightly colored casts of a cooked Jawi meal from South and West Asia stand on a series of white winding pedestals.
A simple meal, the Akil Jawi, stands as a testament to the once seamless integration into the Hejazi community. Today, the artists say, the diversity of Hejazi society is increasingly marginalized due to globalization. That diversity dates back hundreds of years as workers from Africa, Java, Central and South Asia settled in city centers in the Hejaz for trade, education and religion, and their cultural influences can still be found in these areas today.
Nearby are multimedia works by Saudi artist Mohammed Alfraji. His Jasb ‘Al’aesh (2021) features projections on found pieces of tree trunks. Alfraji explores the food practices of Saudi Arabia’s Al-Ahsa region in the eastern province, which is known for its agricultural abundance. His poetic video installation presents the region’s various food practices, from cooking, planting and planting to agricultural policies, as well as food’s connection to family heritage.