Amidst the refugee crisis in Europe, the UK visit of the Dalai Lama, and the celebration in Trafalgar Square of UN World Peace Day, last night, a new Social Movement, Food of War, celebrated its launch event to raise awareness of the linkages between food and war.
Visitors to BSMT space in Dalston were greeted with a multi-media and multi-sensorial event. Music and films played in various alcoves, while paintings and photography challenged the viewer to interrogate the relationship between food and conflict while food and drinks piqued the taste buds as well as the collective unconsciousness. The aim was to make connections between the sensory experience and the intellectual understanding of the represented conflicts.
In the statement by the collective, we are reminded that:
“Above all, food is about power”
Visitors saw this power-play in the intersections of the various food and art to be experienced. Sugar cane juice enlivened the taste buds with the familiar but richer, more essential, flavour of South America as we gazed on Omar Castañeda’s painting “Raped Seeds: Farmers vs Government – Sugar Cane” which depicts farmers greeting police with the traditional Colombian drink. Peasants opposed the Colombian government in 2013 for offering no protection to small farmers under Free Trade Agreements or against big agri-businesses like Monsanto. This opposition, depicted as violent in the press, began as a peaceful but political protest through the universal act of hospitality – sharing of food.
Unlike the Colombian farmer who battles to compete and preserve their heritage seed, Food of War aims to metaphorically plant the seed in the minds of the public and other artists to begin to engage in thought and dialogue around both the current relationships and heritage of Food and War.
Other works evoked different conflicts. A short film by Omar Castaneda and Monica Rubio about the traditional Spanish food, Las Gachas, combined with the taste of the food itself, evoked, for visitors the hardships and resilience of the people during the Spanish Civil War. In another alcove, a documentary film by Quintina Valero accompanied by Italian salad represented the triumph of local communities despite long standing conflicts with the Mafia. Finally, an offering of hummus sat upon a cloth embroidered with a hummus recipe in several languages, representing the conflict in the middle east. All visitors were treated to a slice of cake which bore the edible inscription of the Food of War Manifesto
Photography from the ‘Maiden Women’ project by Omar Castaneda and Quintina Valero documents the role of women and food in the conflict in the eastern Ukraine.
In the final room, a short film by Omar Castaneda juxtaposes violent images of police assault and peasant protest with haunting and powerful music by Carolina Munoz. Work by the opera singer Hyalmar Mitrotti was also represented.
Upon entering the gallery, the visitor was confronted by the painting “Food Inc. Refugees” by Omar Castaneda, which challenges the viewer to make the connections between the way in which our humanity has been called into question over the refugee crisis in Europe. This is represented by the desperate refugees found dead in a lorry normally used to transport dead battery farmed chickens.
Before the launch, I had the opportunity to discuss the Food of War with three of the members of the collective, Omar Castaneda, Hernan Barros and Quintina Valero.
Tell us about your organisation, how it was founded and what are your aims?
Omar: In 2010 we travelled to Palestine and Israel and we saw this connection of food. It was really important in those areas.
For example, to go to a checkpoint you have to leave all your food, if you’re going from the Palestine to the Israeli territories but going the other way, it is no problem. So we thought okay, there are pretty interesting objects and subjects and ideas that we can develop.
We saw all these problems that they had with food and how they managed to appropriate Western brands and make their own in Palestine. There was this kind of ‘fight’ in a way. I want to be a part of it but the world doesn’t want to let us be a part. So we thought okay there’s something important happening around these foods. We – Monica Rubio and I – spent three weeks there. We started working with the project until Monica became busy with having a family and Hernan Barros came on board as part of the art collective. We started developing the whole idea, as a group, and we started writing The Manifesto.
Hernan: There was a lot of discussion with Monica in the beginning because she is a documentarian, Omar is a visual artist and I work with visual effects and I write. So, in the beginning we were thinking this could be a documentary or this could be a cookbook or an exhibition and then we started debating and we thought this could be a Movement so everyone would be welcome to contribute in different ways. And, now we have associated artists. At one point a singer approached us and I thought: “What?” and then Omar said “Of course she can, she can be a part of it!”
Omar and I collaborated and then Quintina joined the movement, once we decided this could be a movement. Quintina is a photojournalist which brings a completely different angle to the work. She is more “hands on” – like a street fighter. She is the type of professional that goes out, takes pictures and interacts with the community and so she brings that quality, which was a little lacking in us, until then.
When she came along, she really liked the idea and she said let’s go to the Ukraine – something is happening in the Ukraine – and so Omar and Quintina went there and worked for over a month. The way that she has really influenced the movement is to be more hands on and interacting with the community.
And so, we welcome everyone who can, in a creative way, explore the relationship between food and war through art, ideally under the principles of our Manifesto, and raise awareness of ongoing and past conflicts.
Omar: For us its really important to have the experience from the people; from the situation. Quintina has the press card so she can travel to places that I cannot, but I’d like to. So it was really interesting the way we collaborated because she is a photojournalist and I am an artist and so sometimes we clash because we have different approaches but I learned a lot from her and she learned a lot from me and we learned how to work together and how to do a project as a collective.
We want to plant the seeds in the minds of people to think that every time we eat something, there is something behind that. Nowadays its so easy to go to the supermarket and we don’t think where food comes from so that’s something we want to do – to make people aware of what’s behind the produce that we eat.
Tell us about your name: Why Food of War and not Food of Peace?
Hernan: We were just discussing this yesterday and we were saying that it is in times of peace that we appreciate the consequences of war and we are grateful that we are not at war. But it is when we are at war that there is this power play, all the time, and that is what we like to explore because food, above all things, is about power. In war, there is a clash of power. We are not pro war, we just like to observe it and dissect it, through food.
Omar: Through our research for our projects we have realised that the things we have nowadays have come from the times of war. We don’t think these two things (food and war) belong together but actually they are really linked. Many of our ‘fast foods’ comes from war – tinned food which came from the Napoleonic war.
Hernan: Think about Spanish food! Where would we be without all the ingredients the Spanish took when they invaded Latin America? They took spices and even potatoes so there would be no patatas bravas without that conflict. It wasn’t a war initially, it was an invasion and then it was a war with the Latin American uprising. And before that, when the Muslims invaded Spain and continued to influence them for some 800 years, it really influenced the food. The Moors were powerful so they took what they wanted from the farms but they didn’t eat pork so the pigs were left for the farmers. So the peasants maximized what they could get from the animal. That’s why we have chorizo and all the pork based foods from Spain. They used everything – they even ate the ears. All the food that remains when we go on a gastronomic tour of Spain is a direct consequence of war. We eat these in times of peace but they come from times of war.
What wars are within scope of interrogation in reciprocal relation to food?
Omar: I’m obsessed with food. I’m really passionate about food. All my projects began because there was a fight between my father and my mother to get control of the kitchen. In order to show that they had power they decided to buy a fridge. My mother bought a fridge and then my father decided to buy a bigger fridge to show: “I’ve got money, I’ve got the power.” And then my mother did the same. In the end, we had 7 fridges. And we weren’t allowed to eat the food inside the fridge.
I know its weird. But that’s an example of how domestic violence can start it off.
Hernan: We haven’t explored that since we created the movement. We started working with wars between countries and religions but we are open to do a piece like that. So far we haven’t but that doesn’t mean we aren’t interested. We are open if an artist comes with an interesting proposal that isn’t about war between two countries or two religions, but maybe conflict between two communities or neighbourhoods.
Omar: So its not just war, its the relationship between food and conflict. For example I can have a problem with Hernan and probably I can sort it out over sharing food. In the gallery we have a film with a song about the conflict between the peasants and the government and Monsanto in Colombia so its not just about war between countries, in this case it was within my own country. We like to explore all of that.
Quintina: Yes, carrying on with the same theme, we are exploring a future project around conflicts around water. I have some experience from Spain and how the government and communities are dealing with shortage of supply of water. We can see that the same issues are going on in other countries. So, it is not just food, either. It is food and water and the interactions. And its great to get to work together because everyone brings ideas.
We get so many people sharing things we’d like to explore. At least it gets people starting to think about it.
Hernan: Yes, its like therapy. Last time I was here in this space at the gallery opening, I was talking to people and I say what I do and everyone says – “Oh well, in my country…”
Omar: It’s when you say the two words together that people make the connection. That’s why we aren’t called Food of Peace, because when you put the two together, people say their personal stories. “Food and War? Oh, my brother dah dah dah…”
Your manifesto refers to your group as a movement and that you don’t take sides in your works or have any party affiliation, the word movement implies evolution and change at the level of civil society. How does this manifest with your movement?
Quintina: What we try to do, where there is a conflict, and it is possible, we try to see both sides and document both sides of the story. For example in the Ukraine, there is a conflict in the East. We try to show both sides. At the moment there is only one part in the show but the other part is coming. Without being on one side or the other, we try to raise awareness of the issues. We want to show both sides so they see that the same problems are shared.
Omar: However, we document the wars and the issues but we want to go further and we are planning to do more about those issues. We see ourselves as helping those people that are in conflict, building bridges between the parties that are in conflict. We think we have a social agenda.
Quintina: But, we are also artists…
Hernan: We’re people! We’re always going to have a side, whether we want it or not, and maybe it leaks into the work. You try to be impartial but maybe they don’t even let you go there to the other side . If we tried to do something on North and South Korea, we probably couldn’t go to North Korea and then people will think hmmm…
Quintina: Yes, even in the Ukraine I had that problem. I was with the journalists and as soon as someone was publishing on social media, they would decide you were working with the rebels and wouldn’t let you go to that area. So its quite difficult sometimes. At least if we can only cover one side we try to have someone else cover the other. We try to be neutral.
We work in different ways and we are always learning. We are learning about the issues, we are learning about each other and we are learning from the food. We want to make others aware as well.
Hernan: Yes, it’s like people can go – “Oh, I didn’t know there was something happening there. I didn’t know there was an issue with food in Western Sahara”
Omar: We are working on something now for the 30th anniversary of Chernobyl. We did an exhibition with photographs and propaganda but we are also doing a documentary from different countries. That is coming.
How and why have you selected the dishes and pieces in the show, today?
Omar: We are showing 7 works here tonight and we decided to take the works from artists that have been working with us for a long time and that have most relevance to our message. We chose the food that is familiar to the audience coming today so that they can understand what we’re talking about.
Hernan: Like for instance we took the Las Gachas, Hummus and Italian salad, we have a cake with our manifesto and we have a sugar cane drink to represent the Colombian conflict. And I will ask people to write on edible paper with edible ink. So we cover the Spanish civil war, the middle east conflict, the mafia control in Italy, Colombia peasant opposition and also the Ukraine conflict and the European refugee crisis.
What would you like visitors to take away from this event?
Omar: This is a multidisciplinary art collective so there are multidisciplinary things going on. There are no borders. Food is part of the art, food is part of the cooking, food is something to help you think about the works while you’re eating.
Something is going to happen to them like: “Oh really, I didn’t know about this conflict…wow, hummus…is that going there? Oh the immigrants…” And this idea of carrying away the dead immigrants the way they carry away dead chickens.
I think people are going to start making links through all of these connections.
Hernan: We’re aiming at that connections that normally you don’t make when you are tasting something. I call it the forgotten sense – tasting. The other senses you use for basic survival but you also use them for aesthetic pleasure. But with food, there is very little sense of intellectual connections of something happening behind this or the consequences that brought this dish here. A dish is like a biopsy of what has happened. It’s like cutting a slice of time and space and anything – financially, culturally or socially – can be reflected through a dish.
We are aiming for that to happen if not in this exhibition then it will be the seed for it to start.
Omar: This is our seed and we want to plant the seed for the movement in every person that comes today and make them think.
Quintina: We are open, we are looking for people to come into the group or even some ideas for future projects. It’s just the beginning.
What is the role of community in the themes you address?
Quintina: The way we work is we do research on the problem or conflict, the food related to it, and then when we go there, we interview people from all aspects of the community and then, when we can, we offer a workshop to give back to the community and to include food and drawing and art.
We try to bring a seed to open a door to come back and also to work with local artists. It’s very interactive way we work with the community.
Omar: Also, we contact NGOs or people working in the countries to be able to go to places we need to go, or to give us ideas of where and how to work in the area. Thanks to one of the NGOs we got to go to one of the refugees camps in the Ukraine and that was really powerful. We want to be part of the that to understand the whole situation.
What is the greatest hope for this collective movement? What would be a dream-come-true?
Hernan: To work with as many artists as we can, to increase our knowledge and to raise awareness of as many conflicts as possible. To reach as many people as possible.
Omar: Yes, that’s exactly it.
Quintina: Yes and there are many ways of collaborating. When we went to the Ukraine, they arranged a translator for us, sometimes they give us accommodation, we also hope to be connected to other artist collectives, and people from galleries who want to exhibit our work. There are many ways we can work with people together.
Omar: Yes but at the moment it is just ourselves funding the project…
Quintina: …and we’ve had to delay our second part of the Ukraine project because there isn’t enough funding.
Hernan: We are looking for applying for funding for our projects. We are just at the beginning and we are proving ourselves, still.
Omar: Today we are making our statement and people can talk about us for better or worse and we are putting ourselves on the map.
And finally, because it is the nature of this particular magazine to ask: For what are you most grateful in relation to this work?
Quintina: I am very grateful to be invited to be part of Food of War and the first time they spoke to me about the collective 2 years ago I was very interested and excited and I was pleased when they invited me to be part of the collective. Since then, I have learned a lot from the way they work and the way we work together and the possibilities I’ve had to work on very interesting projects so its very exciting to be part of the group and doing what we do.
Hernan: For me, it is the opportunity to rescue the forgotten sense – taste – and to take it to another level. Every time that I meet someone and I see the way they eat and their cultural background, I am seeing the world through a different lens. I am very grateful because I had that in me but I didn’t know how to channel it. Food of War has given me the excuse to channel it and to pursue it. I don’t just have Vietnamese food because it tastes so good. There is a whole story about how Vietnamese food has evolved through all different wars, through the French invasion, through the Chinese invasion and through the war with the Americans. When you find a eureka moment, when you make all these connections, it makes you happy and you want to share it with everyone. And it’s not just past conflicts; when it’s about current conflicts its even more powerful.
Omar: I’m grateful to understand that food is a very powerful tool to communicate with people and communities. It’s something we take for granted. I don’t know how to explain it. I’m so pleased that working on these projects has given me the ‘salt’ to be happier and to learn more about war as well. Food has that other meaning.
And I would like to thank two of the artists in the show who are not with us today, Carolina Munoz and Hyalmar Mitrotti.
Food of War exhibition is on until 30 September at BSMT Space, 5 Stoke Newington Road, N16 8BH, London.
“Tantrum” courtesy of Food of War