Minneapolis, Minnesota. It’s not the first city that pops into one’s head when one thinks “diversity”. The Midwest, especially for a Californian like me, has always been representative of a more “traditional” idea of the United States; that is, suburbs with perfect lawns and processed food. And at least in terms of its economy, the Midwest was the heartland of America, home to the industries of flour-milling and corn-growing. But what exactly is that “essence” of the United States, and what has it come to mean as our traditional industries “leave” for cheaper shores and new people come into spaces traditionally defined as American? It is this interesting nexus that the exhibit, Foodways, housed within Minneapolis’ College of Art and Design, attempts to address. Through a series of thoughtful art pieces, in various mediums ranging from video art to sculpture and oil paintings, the power and ability of food to represent both our past, present and future selves (i.e. our heritage, our every day lives, and our legacy) is tangibly felt in all the pieces.
Kazua Melissa Vang’s piece is a striking metaphor between our insides and the insides of refrigerators. Using a triptych of photographs showing the inside of a family’s refrigerators, the artist metaphorically demonstrates the ability of refrigerators to fit all; stuffed full of both “traditional Asian” cuisine ingredients (Chinese broccoli, bok choy, red chili paste) and “traditional American” ingredients (mayonnaise, ranch dressing, strawberry jam). Indeed, the ability of the family to cram ingredients into a very available space cannot help but bring to mind our own ability as humans to do exactly the same with our often “contradictory” experiences.
Another video shows the preparation of “typical” Midwestern food: syrupy cheese mixed with potato mix from a box, while a gravy with meat chunks simmers. The videos are hypnotic; there is no voice, only the sounds of various-sized ingredients mixed into piping-hot pots. The displays remind one of Kitty’s kitchen from “That 70s Show”, the somehow soothing idealization of Midwestern America.
Yet another video installation tells the story of another continent: a woman’s Somalian sounds accompany the rhythmic sounds of a large grinder, held by a woman dressed in traditional Somalian wear, pounds a food stuff in a wooden bowl. “The work song,” the artist’s statement says, “that with its connected narrative, is meant to encourage the performers of the task while reinforcing a life lesson.” In that darkened room, one feels tradition of another country being carried on and communicated to the next generation. A part of the past coming into loving contact with the present, and future.
This exhibit represented more than a simple exhibit of food cultures from around the world. It was the representation of America’s culture in its truest form. For what is culture if not “the people who live in it and the lives they lead in it, not the possessions they have inherited from those who came before,”? In each piece, the lives of each artist, each with their own cultural heritage, each with their own struggles with adaptation, assimilation, or remembrance, was carved out, cherished, exhibited. If art is to continue to be representative of a culture, it is our stories and experiences art must strive to tell. It is exhibits like this that remind us of what we are, especially in times when we as a country and as individuals ask ourselves, “Who Are We?”