A thought provoking exhibit curated by Maria Karametou is at the Joan Hisaoka Healing Arts Gallery on U Street, NW. Its title, “To Eat or Not to Eat” has more to do with Karametou’s vision for the show than what is actually exhibited. Nevertheless, what is included is not only interesting from a political, environmental and theoretical point of view, but also from an aesthetic one.
The three artists represented here are Karametou, Elsabé Dixon and Fabiola Alvarez-Yurcisin. All three are immigrants to this country and to this metro region. All three, therefore, have experienced a radical change not only of location, but of many other cultural experiences, including food. The stress that such a change produces in immigrants is not one that is often talked about, there being so many others that seem of greater import. We are not speaking here only of different recipes, or different flavors. More fundamentally, it is our entire cultural relationship to nutrition and to our attitudes to what we eat and how we eat it. This is the underlying theme that ties most of the works in this quite modestly-sized show together.
In an intriguing parallel to the questions raised by this exhibit, soon after its opening, the February 10th Washington Post Magazine featured a rather long article by Jason Wilson titled “Titans of Taste”.  The article talks about how there are “sommeliers” for many things now besides wine. It emphasizes how the need for “taste experts” has generated a huge business of training these experts in tasting and cataloguing foods, condiments, tobacco and whatever else you might imagine by levels of expertise. Why, one has to ask, is this happening? People are spending literally thousands of dollars to become a “honey sommelier”. How is it that we have disconnected so thoroughly from tasting our food that we need to turn to experts to tell us what is good?
Karametou, who heads the Division of Drawing at George Mason University, has said that her inspiration for the exhibit came from an experience with a student who bought a fast-food hamburger. Bringing said hamburger into her studio, she proceeded to draw and then paint it over a week’s time. The hamburger remained intact over this period. In fact, the bread of the bun was unaffected for some days after that. This made Karametou think about the fact that although many of us strive to eat more naturally and even organically, all too often we will eat a hamburger like this one out of convenience. Generally speaking, for the sake of convenience (think young working people, and families with school aged children) there is an explosion of prepared foods available in stores, and a parallel drop in cooking done from basic ingredients. This is especially marked among millennials, but it is notable in every part of the population.
Karametou laments these trends. She recalls going out into the mountains with her mother near Athens to collect herbs for tea. Her collage called T in this show is made from used tea bags of the kind of tea we commonly drink that is quite the opposite of the herbal and medicinal teas of her youth. She laments the fact that food isn’t consumed as freshly as it used to be: her mother wouldn’t buy eggs if they weren’t still warm from the laying. All these things are true. But the question remains: how do we help young people to re-connect with the underlying meaning of food, and the way that it has always been consumed? What has happened to the “family evening meal” where people not only ate together after a day of work, but they also prayed. It was a gathering, a way of bringing the disparate members of the family group together. This also is something that we are losing, and which affects our views of both family and food.
To stress the “superfood” qualities of garlic, a staple of Greek cooking, Karametou created a wall installation using garlic peels (Skordofyla) to make flower forms that are arranged in a triangular pattern. When asked whether the fact that she has turned garlic peels into flowers had any significance, she replied that there “were no secret meanings” involved. She only wanted to stress that garlic is “a beautiful thing,” like flowers. My idea of garlic is rather different. To me, the irresistible smell of sizzling garlic means dinner; a scent much stronger than daisies. Yet, the installation is beautiful, and rather amazing, given the difficulties of peeling garlic with which many readers are probably familiar.
The issue of “superfoods” presenting equivocal outcomes is represented by Karametou’s Peeling Back, an installation of chains of dried banana peels. Bananas are a wonderful food, eaten all over the world. However, their cultivation to supply this enormous quantity of banana consumption—even in places like Iceland—has had a serious effect on the ecology of places where they grow. With regard to the art exhibit then, here we have a work that is interesting from an aesthetic point of view: a series of these blackened chains forming a sort of pyramidal form against the white gallery wall. Yet, its intended significance, which is necessarily explained in the gallery checklist, “relates to the complex relationship between banana cultivation and consumption.” The work exists independently of the interpretative text that supports it. Its delicate forms don’t convey that meaning, only its materials, and these require definition.
Returning to the issue of foods that recall our growing up years, Yurcisin’s focus on her Mexican-American identity is best expressed in this show in her print montage over aluminum titled We Are What We Eat. In this case, the phrase isn’t a biological one, in the sense that what we eat is going to define our physiognomy. It’s about identity, especially ethnicity, and how what we eat is related to that identity. The work represents a series of sixteen images of corn tortillas on which the artist has written words in Spanish and English that together connote her identity. Beginning with “Mexican” and ending with “American,” they include “Immigrant,” “Artist,” “Hispanic,” and “Mujer.” Yurcisin is here underscoring the fundamental importance of corn for Mexicans; a universally recognized basic foodstuff all over Latin America, and her personal relationship to it. In her gallery talk she mentioned its special place in her memories of childhood as women in her family taught her to make “tortillitas” as part of growing up.
Probably the most interesting works from both an aesthetic and polemical point of view are Dixon’s. The artist raises silkworms and is also a beekeeper. She is fascinated by these and other living systems. She is also interested in the “cross-species affinity” we have with honeybees in particular. Her Hive Formulas Installation focuses “on the systems we mimic for food production, storage, transportation, cultivation and consumption.” Made from reclaimed rubber and latex, beeswax and essential oils, the work looks like small hive forms inside of rubber cylinders. Once again, the wall installation is interesting formally and aesthetically attractive. However, it was in Dixon’s gallery talk that we discovered that one of her central intentions here, and in another work titled LIVING HIVE Prototype II, is to call attention to the fact that bees, like humans, are challenged by migration, become disoriented, and abscond from their hives. The analogy to the experience of immigrants mentioned above is rather compelling. The LIVING HIVE work, in twelve modular parts, is part of a project to help bees find a way to re-establish themselves along the 29th corridor of Virginia, “an art program for social change”. In the case of bees, their plight is a matter of life and death, and not only for them. The importance of pollinators, especially bees, in maintaining our food supply cannot be overstated. Dixon’s deep commitment to this problem, and her relevant works featured in this exhibit, raise consciousness about the urgent need for action in the present moment.
Dixon’s Hive Wall Installation is a bit of departure from strictly focusing on bees and our close dependency on them and they on us. Once again, this is a broad, open, modular structure made with fiber-wrapped wire. However, inside the hive-shaped compartments are loaves of bread—save for one, made of beeswax. In a collaboration between the artist’s apiary and the Great Harvest Bread Company, Dixon is exploring the living ingredients in bread (enzymes, yeast) and the manner in which bread is an “ancient form for nutritional storage…[drawing] visual links representing its affinity to the pollen paddies bees insert into their honeycombs during the Pollen Flow Season in early spring.” It’s a time based sculpture—the loaves of bread being ephemeral, of course, leaving the “hive” empty except for the one made of wax. In this way, it also recalls the absconding bees that are such a great current problem. In another, it speaks about the loss of such a fundamental foodstuff that is bread. Of course, bread from the Great Harvest Bread Company is quite different from the bread of that fast-food hamburger.
This exhibit raises many important questions about issues that are current and some even urgent. At the same time, it exhibits work that is interesting and worthwhile from a formal and aesthetic aspect. As we enter a period where much art is responding to political and especially environmental emergencies, and often rather pedantically, it is refreshing to see an exhibit that addresses these issues from various angles, and is worth looking at in any case.
“To Eat or Not to Eat: Elsabe Dixon, Maria Karametou, Fabiola Alvarez Yurcisin,” January 18 – March 30, 2019, Joan Hisaoka Healing Arts Gallery, 1632 U Street, NW. Gallery hours: Thurs – Fri 11 AM – 5 PM; Sat., 11 AM-5 PM, and by appointment.
 Quoting the artist from the exhibition checklist.
 Quoting the artist on the exhibition checklist.
 The artist says the dried bread will be given either to a brewery or to the birds.