Food as Art

Food is something we all have in common. For some, it’s pure sustenance. For others, it’s associated with Thanksgiving and family gatherings. And for some chefs, it’s the ultimate space for creative expression, such as at Alinea or Eleven Madison Park.

Food has been used in art for ages, from Arcimboldo’s portraits in the 1500s made up of different seasonal vegetables, to Cezanne’s still lifes of pears, to Darren Bader’s recent fruit and vegetable salad at the Whitney.

Cooking also can certainly be called art. Food plays with all of your senses – taste, smell, touch and sight. Something that a canvas is unlikely to do. “If anything, food is a more intimate form of art, as it incorporates all the senses,” says chef Dominique Ansel.

One artist, in particular, is blending the line between food and art even further. Michael Rakowitz is an Iraqi-American, Jewish artist. He is perhaps most known for his series The invisible enemy should not exist, recreating ancient Mesopotamian artworks using food packaging. His 2019 artwork on the Fourth Plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square was a lamassu – an ancient guardian creature from Mesopotamia – recreated out of old date cans, an important export of the region.

Rakowitz lamassu

An earlier experiment of food and art…In the midst of the Iraq War, Rakowitz held a workshop, later turned food truck, called Enemy Kitchen. The workshop taught American schoolchildren how to cook Iraqi food. Yes, Iraqi food. At a time when Iraq was mostly thought of as a place getting bombed on the nightly news. Then, as a food truck, Iraqi refugees cooked kebabs alongside American war veterans. It’s the first time Americans were taking orders from Iraqis, Rakowitz likes to say.

In February, I drove to Dallas to attend a community BBQ Rakowitz was holding in partnership with the Nasher Sculpture Center (another one of my favorite things!), F.A.R.M. and Break Bread Break Borders. In a corner of downtown Dallas…combining Iraqi food and music, Syrian refugee women, the art establishment, and white American war veterans…something was created.

Food brings us together in a way that many other things do not. Through food, artists like Rakowitz are trying to have a conversation. Bringing groups of people together who do not always interact. Showing a different side of a war-torn country. And shedding light on immigrant chefs and communities. The dolma and kibbeh are just vehicles.

“Food, like art, is universal. It has the power to connect people across geography, language and culture – something that Michael [Rakowitz] has always recognized and made integral to his work. Like a beautiful meal, significant art places us all around the same ‘table:’ it nourishes us, stirs our memories and brings us together.” – Justine Simons

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