Lucia Hierro, Can I Borrow a Cup of Sugar?, 2020. Installation view, Primary Projects, Miami, Florida.

Food, Feminisms, and Visual Culture of the Global Caribbean

In celebration of Women’s History Month, Patricia Fidler, Executive Director of the A&AePortal, interviewed Hannah Ryan and Lesley A. Wolff, editors of the newly released born-digital book Nourish and Resist: Food and Feminisms in Contemporary Global Caribbean Art.

Available as an open-access title for the month of March, this fascinating volume harnesses the potential of food to create, negotiate, and analyze the visual languages emergent from a region grappling with political occupation, tourism, and ecological crises. Contributors lend a vital perspective into feminisms, the global Caribbean, tropical visuality, cookery, and consumption and feature discussions of such artists as María Magdalena Campos-Pons, Renluka Maharaj, Joiri Minaya, Victoria Ravelo, and Tania Bruguera.

PF: Please tell us about your goals for Nourish and Resist.

HR and LW: Since the beginning of our collaboration, our primary goal has been to facilitate a space for untethered explorations of the many ways in which female-identifying artists and art historians are drawing connections between foods and feminisms throughout the Caribbean and its diasporas. Why? Because we have seen such unique evocations of food throughout this genre that empower women and reveal histories and legacies of both oppression and resistance. For example, the beloved Cuban artist María Magdalena Campos-Pons has worked with sugar in its various states to comment on histories of labor, race, and heritage in the production of sugar, which ultimately centers an everyday good and imbues it with important meanings that have intentionally been obscured from most of humanity’s consciousness. It is critical to pay attention to these hidden histories, particularly the ways that these experiences are further shaped by gender as well as other markers of identity such as race, socio-economic status, proximity to coloniality, and beyond. We use the term “untethered” intentionally here because Nourish and Resist is not just a book, but an intellectual and creative space in which our contributors can push and cross boundaries. Thanks to our contributors, we can see the act of imbibing dirt as one of decolonial resistance; push conceptions of food to encompass the medicinal; see various types of fruit in entirely new ways; compare modes of extractive capitalism in various spaces; and much more.

Renluka Maharaj, Chandika, 2022. Pigmented ink print on canvas, cotton fabric, acrylic paint, acrylic rod, and 3-D printed finial (43 × 55 in.).

PF: How do you hope this publication will change the current discourse on global Caribbean art?

HR and LW: As scholars who have long been studying, writing about, and working with artists of the global Caribbean, it is thrilling to see the traction this field has garnered across academia, museums, and the art market in recent years. This is a moment of tremendous growth and exciting potential for the field; yet, as we underscore in Nourish and Resist, there nonetheless remain significant omissions, silences, and aporias in and of global Caribbean art, particularly at the intersections of female makers and food systems. We hope, therefore, that this publication will continue to amplify the discourse on global Caribbean art by centering female-identifying artists and the ways in which food–from seed to table–is a prevalent, though oft-dismissed, artistic subject and medium.

The term “global Caribbean” is deliberately foregrounded in our project as a way to signal how the Caribbean is not only a geographic locale, but also a conceptual thread that has been woven through our globalized fabric. If we can shift our sensibilities from thinking about the Caribbean, women, and food as given categories to connected notions–imaginaries–that have been dictated by the violence of imperial and colonial thought and action, then perhaps we can find ways to reshape how we see and study contemporary art and art history.

Moreover, the plurality of voices, approaches, and methodologies in this publication, including the book’s digital design and presentation, attempts to challenge the expectations of how art historical content should be delivered to audiences, particularly within academia. In other words, we are seeking to change how certain forms of knowledge have typically been valued more highly than others within art historical discourse. And we are very grateful to Yale University Press for providing us with the ability to embark on this unconventional project. As the art of the global Caribbean continues to grow in visibility, we hope that readers will come away feeling equally curious about recipes, marketplaces, botanical motifs, melting sugar, matrilineal knowledge, and the baking of loaves of bread as they do about works of art situated in a contemporary gallery; and we hope readers will see how all of these case studies are deeply intertwined.

The Crystal Efemmes, The Red Womb, 2019. Fabric installation, dimensions variable. New Orleans, Louisiana.

PF: You have assembled a fascinating group of contributors, including contemporary artists, for this project. How would you describe this collaborative process?

HR and LW: Our contributors are the bedrock of our project and have responded with much enthusiasm throughout the process, which speaks to our shared vision of a safe and welcoming space of creativity and intellectual curiosity. The collective is unique in that it is almost entirely comprised of women, and the collaboration has been entirely supportive and inclusive. This has led to a sense of purpose, as well as a sense of joy. In fact, during the dark days of the pandemic, it was the work we turned to for inspiration and connection. When feeling hopeless and dismayed during what was also a time of unprecedented social upheaval and civic injustices targeting women, immigrants, and people of color, we could work on this book as one act of resistance.

The digital format of the book allowed the artists involved to include many rich images and videos, encouraging them to showcase their work expansively. We have enjoyed seeing how this digital platform could, again, push the boundaries of what we and our contributors could include in the text.

PF: How did you become interested in food studies?

LW: Growing up the daughter of a Mexican immigrant in a Jewish-American household, I have looked to food since my youth as a kind of bridge between worlds. Food became (and remains) a way to activate the sense memory of my Mexican and Jewish heritage, helping me feel rooted in a social vernacular, even when at a physical remove from those communities. After receiving my B.A. in art history, I began cooking professionally in restaurants, often in institutions that privileged sustainable and socially conscious cookery. I found the work incredibly satisfying, but it was also a shocking contrast to the work that I continued to pursue in art museums. While the kitchen was steeped in the senses, the museums where I worked largely sought to eliminate or diminish those kinds of sensory encounters. My curiosity about this dissonance pushed me to pursue a PhD in art history where I explored contrasts between the makings and perceptions of food and art as cultural heritage. I’m happy to say that today, as attested by Nourish and Resist, there is a new subfield emerging at the intersections of art history and food studies—I’m proud to be part of that community and look forward to supporting its continued growth.     

HR: While I have always been interested in food, particularly as a means to connect with culture and family, I entered the realm of food studies intellectually through my doctoral work on human milk, as a substance of unique value and unexpected movement in the Transatlantic that reveals histories that have been quite obscured. It is aligned with Nourish and Resist in its emphases on labor and consumption and in centering women’s lived experiences.

When I was in my twenties I managed an after-school art program with sites throughout Palm Beach County, a place characterized by mind-boggling wealth disparity, and my students were disenfranchised in many ways. Those years were also marked by several strong hurricanes, including Katrina and Wilma, seriously disrupting our communities. During that time, I got to know kids whose families migrated from the Caribbean to work in the inland sugar cane fields, many of whom lived in FEMA trailers for quite a long time after the storms, as well as kids in the city who relied on small meals provided by FEMA. So, during what was ultimately a very influential time for me, I absorbed the expansiveness of the Caribbean in the culture of South Florida through the people I met and the food I enjoyed. I also witnessed how food–and issues of access to food–could convey the vastly different ways people lived in one community.

PF: Why did you choose to publish a born-digital book on the A&AePortal?

HR and LW: Nourish and Resist is an ideal project to be born digitally with its plethora of colorful images and the inclusion of several videos. It simply could not exist in the same way as a printed book. In fact, we are quite excited to relinquish the need for a physical copy. In considering the possibilities of the future of academic publishing, digital platforms make sense from so many perspectives: ecological, economic, and many modes of accessibility. And, acknowledging that our project engages with world-making, we are thrilled to publish this book in such a forward-looking way with Yale University Press on the A&AePortal, which is such an expansive and excellent resource for texts in our field.

PF: How has the process been similar and/or different to previous publications on which you have worked?

HR: Thanks to the nimbleness of the platform and the excellent communication and productivity of the incredible editorial team at Yale, this process has been unique for me in its speed and efficiency. Additionally, it has simply been a pleasure to work on. From my steadfast collaborator, Lesley Wolff, to our constellation of contributors, to YUP, we have manifested a remarkably cohesive team working toward a shared vision.

LW: I echo Hannah’s sentiments; working on this book has been one of the most satisfying experiences that I’ve had not only in publishing, but also in academia broadly speaking. The publication is testament to the tireless work of our warm, brilliant and ambitious contributors, and to Hannah’s persistent leadership. It was important to me and Hannah to find a home for this project that would honor the artists and artwork; working with YUP to publish with the A&AePortal opened ways for us to carry forward the feminist ethos of our project by pushing back against the limitations of print publishing. The image quality, the option to magnify each image to levels of astonishing detail, and the integration of video are but three ways that digital publishing has allowed us to center our subjects that wouldn’t be possible in print. The flexibility and speed of the process was also a welcome change of pace from print publishing. I hope more academic presses and universities will continue to adopt and support this innovative model. 

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