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Understanding kitchen politics through art

From identity to gender, a new exhibition looks at the many facets of food through cookbooks, video works and conceptual art

The show looks at how food circulates as material, trace, memory and culture.
The show looks at how food circulates as material, trace, memory and culture. (Courtesy Reliable Copy)

At 1Shanthiroad Studio/Gallery, Bengaluru, an ongoing exhibition is focused on the many aspects of food, through books, text, video works, photographic documentation and conceptual art. A cookbook by the artist Salvador Dalí, published in 1973, shares space with a recipe book by writer Roald Dahl and artworks by Chinar Shah, Nihaal Faizal and Pushpamala N. At The Kitchen Table has been put together by Reliable Copy, a Bengaluru-based publishing and curatorial practice led by Faizal and Sarasija Subramanian.

“(The show looks at) how food has historically been—and continues to be—inscribed through various conventional formats, as well as the channels and platforms by which it continues to circulate as material, trace, memory, and culture,” explains the curatorial note. Supported by the India Foundation for the Arts (IFA), At The Kitchen Table has been imagined as a travelling, multi-part exhibition which will respond to the context of the sites and venues of its iterations.

Roald Dahl's ‘Revolting Recipes’.
Roald Dahl's ‘Revolting Recipes’.

The exhibition started as an IFA-supported research project at the end of 2019. Faizal and Subramanian had attended residencies at 1Shanthiroad Studio/Gallery, founded by Suresh Jayaram to nurture contemporary art practice, and were inspired to create a portrait of the space and view it through the lens of food. For, as Menaka Rodriguez, head (resource mobilisation and outreach) at IFA, says, the arts space is also known for its food, especially its dips. “The artists-in-residence also cook in the kitchen and have contributed to the many recipes that have become a part of 1Shanthiroad,” she adds.

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More than art or history, the project became about the site of the kitchen. “The show is not about food itself but what food can do for us. The project started by way of looking at 1Shanthiroad, but eventually became a way of bringing together multiple voices that speak of gender, politics, society and culture through food,” says Subramanian.

One part of the project is The 1Shanthiroad Cookbook, which was published in January and has recipes from all the artists who have passed through the space over the years. Pop-up workshops form the second part of the project.

“In the pandemic, it was not possible to have physical workshops, so Sarasija and Nihaal hosted them over Zoom. Pushpamala N. talked about Gauri Lankesh’s famous recipe while Suresh Jayaram did a session about his famous dips. And now, the final part of the project is this exhibition,” says Rodriguez.

The works in the show range from the quirky to the political. Take, for instance, Candice Lin’s 2014 work, Subtleties And Warnings: Power And The Edible Grotesque, which offers a contemporary take on medieval edible sculptures known as “subtleties”—these range from mythical beasts fashioned by sewing animals together to pastries sculpted into ships and castles. At the exhibition, she is presenting a transcript of the text that she recites before serving each course in the banquet, alongside photographs, in a commemorative album.

Then there are images and documentation from The Real Taste Of India, a 2017 project by Chinar Shah and Faizal, which looks at how nearly every major city in the world has a restaurant called “Taste of India”. “Serving Indian food, these restaurants promise to deliver the essence of the country through select menu items, wall hangings and softly audible music. These restaurants extend themselves as souvenirs.... The Real Taste Of India is a commentary on homogenised identity and commercialisation of culture,” states the project note.

Pune, Maharashtra-based artist Rajyashri Goody presents a series of booklets, Writing Recipes, tracing the memories of food of Dalit writers in text. “Extracts that discuss food or lack of it in Dalit autobiographies are converted into second-person accounts, deconstructed and broken down to resemble something between recipe instructions and poetry,” says the note.

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The video work by Pushpamala, created in 2004, has not been screened much in Bengaluru of late. “Video works became a way of looking at how cooking shows have been appropriated and used to talk about something more,” explains Subramanian. “Her work features a pregnant mother, a retired colonel father, and their school-going son, using the site of the blackboard to inscribe details from the everyday. You have three characters having an internal dialogue, but because they happen to be on the same site, they are also talking to each other.”

The video looks at the modern Indian family just after independence and questions the ideals that society ascribes to a mother or a father, what their daily lives are, and what preoccupies them the most. Pushpamala took two recipes—Rashtriy Kheer and Desiy Salad—printed in magazines that became part of the cookbooks of her mother and mother-in-law. As Subramanian says, “Using those recipes, she looks at notions of national identity—a line of thought which is brought back in other works as well.”

At The Kitchen Table is on view at 1Shanthiroad, Bengaluru, till 5 October, 11am-7pm daily.

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