Hand to mouth

November 13, 2022

An exhibition in Abu Dhabi presents multiple backgrounds, approaches, systems, and methods of consuming food

Hand to mouth


istory, according to the bible, started with eating: Adam tasting fruit of the forbidden tree. The entire human past could therefore be a chronology of food, its sources, exchange, exploitation, transportation and transformation.

A character in a short story by Zakia Mashhadi laments that due to cold storages, fruits and vegetables from all seasons are now available 365 days and produce of faraway regions can be purchased everywhere. Likewise, arriving at a distant country, one comes across restaurants offering homeland dishes, along with Chinese varieties, Italian cuisine, Indian delights, Japanese courses and Thai, Lebanese, French and Mexican, even Ethiopian, cookery on the menu.

In this scenario, an exhibition around the idea of food at an art space in the UAE makes sense. Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah and other Gulf states are multi-cultural in nature, essence and structure. Their dineries represent this diversity, carefully conveyed in the exhibition, On Foraging, being held from October 9 to December 25 at Warehouse 421 in Abu Dhabi.

The show presents multiple backgrounds, approaches, systems and methods of foraging; from growing diverse crops to planting vegetable in backyard gardens; to gathering honey from trees; to preserving, packaging and sending food items. Consumption, expansion, power, demands and values around food are visible in the exhibition curated by Dima Srouji, Faysal Tabbarah, and Meitha Al Mazrooei. The three curators, originally commissioned by the Warehouse 421 for the UAE Pavilion at Expo 2020Dubai, “worked with artists, designers and researchers to show the ways in which people in the UAE have grown food and used the land”.

There are installations, sculptures, mixed media works, videos, research based displays and photographs that explore the link between edible stuff and a territory, as well as its migration from one society to others around the globe. Like tomatoes, potatoes and chilies, staple components of contemporary diet, were widely spread from their homeland in America after the conquest began in October 1492.

Now food items, like the works of art, are available outside of their soil. Once associated with the identity of a region, these are planted, sorted, selected and exported from varying locations. Commenting on this phenomenon, Paola Sakr, a Dubai-based multidisciplinary designer from Lebanon, has “explored the paradoxes of non-seasonal food consumption” by segregating organic veggies in four different (almost neutral and subdued) hues to denote their original periods of harvest. The work, if on the one hand reminds one of an altered eco system, it also addresses the way human existence is modified for the market. Hence, there is no identity for fruits of the earth other than their production, packaging and purchase at alien destinations. Like vegetations, humans are also de-situated, dislocated and disoriented. Yet they are content and comfortable.

The idea and importance of location is observed in some works from the exhibition. Awaiting Fruition (2021) by Ammar Al Attar, consists of photographs of seasonal trees as well as domestic spaces that each become fields for cultivating small quantities of essential vegetation: a contrast to multi-national commerce of food – as goods, genetically tempered, putin low temperatures, and sold at incompatible environments.

Hand to mouth

The idea and importance of location is observed in some works from the exhibition. Awaiting Fruition (2021) by Ammar Al Attar consists of photographs of seasonal trees as well as domestic spaces that become fields for cultivating small quantities of essential vegetation. 

One feels that some artists have approached items of food as metaphors for human beings. Not surprisingly, because we are also displaced, labelled and consumed. Tarek Al Ghoussein, in a set of photographs addresses the transportation of labour, like cartons of vegetation. Wide screens of Emirati buses, used by ordinary workers are photographed with a clinical precision, depicting precious belongings of passengers and drivers - prayer beads hanging on the back view mirror, tissue paper boxes balanced next to neatly tucked prayer mat. Occasionally, a religious text, or an empty plastic bottle of mineral water can also be seen. These bus fronts, in Al Ghoussein’s art become portraits of unnamed people uprooted to be settled at a foreign address. Marvellous snapshots, Windows on Work, 2016, disrupt the notion of photo being a flat surface, since certain details, like wipers, a small booklet, give the illusion of three-dimensional physical items attached to large window-glasses.

This trespass between real and representational is evident in the works by other artists, like Nahla Tabbaa in her I Sit Under Your Shade, 2022, charcoal and graphite on canvas. Treating her surface as a sundial, Tabbaa has placed her large canvas in the garden of a house, documenting the trail of sun in charcoal and graphite, adjusting shadows of branches and leaves. So the spread out coarse fabric ends up being a document of ‘one day in the life of sun,’ a celestial body crucial for the growth of all greenery. Looking at her drawing, one is trapped between the presence of material and the distribution of light and shade.

The passage between immediate and imagined realities is visited in the video installation of Vikram Divecha. Titled Dohrana (to repeat), this 2021 video documents a man (Shabbir) wandering amid green fields and reciting verses about “longing, betrayal and migration”. The work “developed over months of discussions amongst Muhammad Shabbir Ahmad Din, a municipal gardener, Zafar Amar, a poet, and Divecha”. In the video installation, the man in the white attire strolls and couches on lush green fields and narrates lines about displacement (a common motif in the traditional Urdu poetry that acquires a contemporary and socio-political meaning in the context of the UAE and the Indian subcontinent). Watching this, one feels that the poet is packed in a closet of his time, heritage, language and literary forms; not unlike vegetations packaged and preserved for export.

Reminding viewers of this practice, Sweet Potatoes by Abdullah Al Saadi, comprises numerous tin boxes containing charcoal drawings of the vegetable in all imaginable shapes and forms. These drawings, executed between 2016-19, during the artist’s “many camping journeys in the Al Hajar Mountains, on the eastern shores of the UAE”, and stored in vintage containers of different regions andproducts, allude to something more than mere vegetation. On another level, these can be read as depiction of internal organs of a living body. A meaning, perhaps not intended by the maker, but if beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder, content of an artwork is also unearthed by its viewer.

What is gathered in front of Al Saadi’s installation can be gleamed from all works included in On Foraging, since all 15 exhibits deal with ideas beyond food or its collection/ cultivation. Not unlike this a dish consisting of various ingredients - spices, oils etc - is also a (consumable) record of histories, beliefs, trade, customs, climate, colonialism and displacement – that we observe in our super markets, grocery stores and corner shops while buying avocado, jackfruit, kiwi, star fruit and cranberry.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore.

Hand to mouth