Let me preface this experience by explaining that for the past three years I have been working on creating ethical spaces under an organization I named “We Eat Together.” The name came from my need to succinctly describe the interconnectedness of all things, my graffiti tag (WeT), and a tattoo my ex-boyfriend, a rapper from New York, got on his forearm while we were dating. The name built off of the experience of sharing a meal to highlight the interconnectedness of all. When you eat together, whatever nourishes you, nourishes the other and whatever bad befalls the other, befalls you. Food has a unique way of binding humans and equalizing, humbling persons from disparate backgrounds. We all need to eat, no matter where we come from.
I feel the need to explain this so you can understand how powerfully I resonated with this next space – “Shamiana – Food for Thought: Thought for Change,” a temporary social sculpture by Rasheed Araeen, a Pakistani artist. The official description is as follows:
“Under colorful canopies inspired by shamiana (a Pakistani traditional wedding tent) Araeen, invites people to sit together and enjoy a meal based on recipes from around the Mediterranean, which have been cooked in collaboration with Organization Earth (a space I look forward to exploring tomorrow). ”
One of the hosts at the tents when I arrived explained that Araeen wanted to make space for strangers to come together and share a meal. Araeen designed a tent that was built to facilitate meals between strangers much like you would be eating with strangers at a wedding reception. Speak or not speak to one another, it did not matter, he believed that when people come together over a shared meal, their differences fade and real change and appreciation of each other is possible.
The installation itself is in a public square a few blocks from old town city center and a part of Documenta 14 – an art festival that started in 1955, ten years after the end of the Second World War, and happens every 5 years. The theme this year is “Learning From Athens” as Athens is where Africa, the Middle East and Asia come face to face. This is the first time that Documenta has been anywhere other than in Kassel, Germany.
Decorated in primary colors that illicit an appreciation of diversity, there is no assigned seating, no facilitated discussion, and all are welcome. The host explains that most people who come are locals who come almost every day, homeless people or refugees. Two meals are served each day – one at 6 and one at 8. The meal is traditional Greek food and vegetarian or vegan except for 2 meals a week that include meat. There are separate sections that each seat about 15 people.
The interpersonal experience of coming together despite differences is particularly important in this time when we have increasingly divisive politics and beliefs. To share a meal brings people together, reminds us all that we are so, so similar, feeds the needy, and equalizes relations through food.
In addition to the social aspect of eating together, food consumption brings up many additional topics. We all consume. Sustainability is a major issue facing us. Some do not have food. Homelessness, hunger and the refugee crisis are prevalent across the globe.
The first night I went, I sat at a table with a single mother from Afghanistan and her five children. They are refugees who settled temporarily in Athens a year and 4 months ago. I immediately became close with the young daughter seated to my right. Perhaps because she realized that I did not speak the same language with anyone at the table, she connected with me and combed and braided my hair.
Also at the table was a visual artist from Afghanistan and a drunk man from Athens that smelled like a mix between rotten fish and cigarettes. The latter was the only one at the table who spoke a little bit of English. He wore headphones throughout the meal at full blast but insisted on asking me lots of questions to which he would not listen to the answer and then proceed to critique something like what I was wearing – a short neon pink dress, or how I took photographs – grabbed my camera out of my hands and messed with the settings. I asked repeatedly to have my camera back but had to pry it out of his hands. He acted very offended by this.
Several times he put his hands on my back or arms despite me recoiling and asking for him to please not touch me. When I would ask him to please not touch me he would get offended and say he was just trying to be friendly nothing more and then proceed to touch me again and again. I finally resorted to not acknowledging his existence. This was particularly hard for me as I naturally try to please and connect to everyone around me. And the entire experience was meant to be about connecting to people in my mind. 😢😭 He eventually left, making sure to touch me for a final time to which I responded weakly – please do not do that and he responded in turn – I’m just friendly you need to accept that I’m just friendly to which I tried to explain that some people do not want to be touched you need to respect my desires to which he put his hand on my back again and then walked away. I remained at the table with the family and artist that were displaced by my government.
The meal was excellent. A mix of Greek vegetables with bread, feta cheese and a peach for dessert.
After the meal the mother smiled, held my hand with one hand and her heart with the other. Her children hugged my legs.
What this experience taught me
- Validation of we eat together. This piece so exemplifies everything I have been working towards. I resonate so strongly. There are other, more influential and experienced artists working through the same issues and coming up with similar conclusions.
- Precedent of social sculpture as art. Space as living sculpture.
- American at a table of Afghanistan refugees. They were nothing but welcoming and loving. Person to person we are a loving world. To sit at a table as an English speaker and be unable to communicate with anyone was humbling and so important. Not to mention that the people I was sitting with come from countries my government has ravaged and are refugees from their country largely because of what my country has done.
- Precedent of the transition of art from an object on a gallery wall into social service and social good serving the desperate and fundamental needs of persons in our current political climate. The gallery is dead. Art exists in real life.
- You can create space for connection and yet have no connection. It is OK to not want to get along with everyone – that is a part of coming together. That is a part of the art.
- To offer food free of charge to the community is the most important aspect of this project. The artist expressly does not want to be considered an artist. This has been something I have struggled with. Art is the world where my works have been most accepted but I have never considered what I do as art – see it more as a social service or public offering. But this space makes it clear that these are not mutually exclusive.
- Diverse communities that come together will not always understand or be tolerant of other perspectives. I could not feel comfortable with a man touching me and he could not respect that I did not want to be touched. During the experience I recognized the man was seeking to make a connection, and that the entire space was set up so that people from different backgrounds could make a connection. But I did not feel comfortable and he made no effort to respect my cultural differences and desires. For someone like me who professes to want to include everyone and to love everyone, I was presented with someone who I tried to tolerate, be respectful of but ultimately could not feel comfortable around. This was a huge lesson for me that I’m still processing. Perhaps I am not so tolerant after all. Or perhaps this is just a typical experience of a woman in this world.
- Even if I have thought about a topic for a long time, the experience will be surprising and bring new perspectives.