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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

The exhibition highlighting the power of migrant cooks

We meet an artist and academic celebrating the women silently working with their hands

Clara, a Siddi woman farmer from Karnataka. Sarah Khurshid Khan
Clara, a Siddi woman farmer from Karnataka. Sarah Khurshid Khan

Women, or the primary carriers of food culture, as Sarah Khurshid Khan refers to them, are grossly undervalued for their informal labour and farm-to-table knowledge.

The Pakistani-American multimedia artist and scholar who lives in New York is challenging the inequity she believes exists by documenting the gestural vocabulary of five female cooks and farmers from Fez, Morocco’s cultural and spiritual capital.

Her No Fruit for her Labor: A Multimedia Cookbook of Gestures is a representation of the hand motions of these women as they respond automatically, while delicately cooking dishes they have grown up with.

Displayed on three large screens, holding 50 film clips each, are the hands of Najia – a woman cook from of the walled city of Old Fez – that make the almond paste, mix the dough and craft the horns. Sarah Khurshid Khan
Displayed on three large screens, holding 50 film clips each, are the hands of Najia – a woman cook from of the walled city of Old Fez – that make the almond paste, mix the dough and craft the horns. Sarah Khurshid Khan

The first in the series is the recipe of ka’ab ghazal or gazelle horns – marzipan-stuffed Moroccan pastries – unveiled in September at the Asian Arts Initiative’s exhibition in Philadelphia, which runs until December 15. Entitled Working Conditions, the show explores ­labour in its many forms and how it has shaped Asia and the experience of the Asian diaspora.

Displayed on three large screens, featuring 50 film clips each, are the hands of Najia – a female cook from of the walled city of Old Fez – that make the almond paste, mix the dough and craft the horns. The accompanying audio, which integrates the sound of the dough sticking to the vessel, the pouring of the almond paste and even the birds chirping in the background, “creates a very immersive and visceral multisensory experience that immediately forges a connection with viewers”, says Melissa Chen, programme and communications assistant at the Asian Arts Initiative. “Sarah’s piece was one of our top choices to celebrate the homage to the often overlooked and undervalued domestic labour traditionally undertaken by women,” Chen adds.

Displayed on three large screens, holding 50 film clips each, are the hands of Najia – a woman cook from of the walled city of Old Fez – that make the almond paste, mix the dough and craft the horns. Sarah Khurshid Khan
Courtesy Sarah Khurshid Khan

“As someone who has studied Middle Eastern history and Arabic as an undergraduate I felt it was my political responsibility to focus on that part of the world on my own terms,” says Khan, a two-time Fulbright Scholar who has a double master’s, one doctoral degree and numerous fellowships to her credit.

In the early part of last year she was in Fez, one of Africa’s oldest cities, for 10 weeks, building relationships with women cooks and farmers she befriended. “As the cost of living rises in the country, more and more middle-class women are stepping out of their homes in Morocco to support their families,” Khan says. She met Najia first, who was cooking for an acquaintance. “I liked her instantly and hired her to cook for me and take me around,” she adds.

Every day, the duo would saunter on city streets for a few hours, looking for local produce, meat and groceries. “She would take me far to get a better produce or lower price,” Khan says, which led her into places that aren’t the usual tourist haunts. Najia helped Khan understand and translate the Arabic dialect and engage with the local community, through which she eventually met the rest of the women who became a part of her project. “I think it is my art of hanging out with people that helps me make connections,” Khan says with a laugh.

Displayed on three large screens, holding 50 film clips each, are the hands of Najia – a woman cook from of the walled city of Old Fez – that make the almond paste, mix the dough and craft the horns. Sarah Khurshid Khan
Najia's hands. Courtesy Sarah Khurshid Khan

Her deep interest in food, nutrition and migrant culture has taken her across the world, and her contribution to migrant food culture is significant. “I have been partitioned once and migrated twice,” she says, referring to her father’s move from India to Pakistan during the 1947 partition and later her parents’ migration to the United States. In response, Khan’s ongoing multimedia project, “Migrant Kitchens,” celebrates the diversity and richness of Queens in New York.

One of the films from the project was recently screened at the Tasveer South Asian Film Festival in Seattle. “Migrant Kitchens shows the faces of people who come with skills, knowledge systems and abilities to make it big in a country that is not their own,” she says. Like all her work, it is focused on people on the margins, providing them a platform to tell their stories. “Rural to urban, and transnational migrants, have fed Americans since we’ve had historical records,” says Krishnendu Ray, chair of the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at NYU Steinhardt. “Migrant Kitchens is an homage to generations of those cooks, drawing particular attention to the work of Latinos and Asians in the contemporary world,” Ray adds.

Amar Singh, a porter at Gadodia Market Building, Khari Baoli, Spice Market of Old Delhi. Sarah Khurshid Khan
Amar Singh, a porter at Gadodia Market Building, Khari Baoli, Spice Market of Old Delhi. Courtesy Sarah Khurshid Khan

In 2001, a Fulbright Scholarship took Khan to India to study Ayurveda. That’s when she decided to explore her cultural ties to Old Delhi, where her father had lived in his youth. She photographed the “spice porters” of Gadodia Market – Asia’s largest spice market, every time she went to Delhi. Khan calls them “porters of taste”, as they often haul spices from the trucks that come loaded from all over the country into the market building. Once sold, they deliver them to the smaller retail spice establishments. “The taste they carry anchors my first multisensory experiences of the world. I wanted to honour their invisible labour, they are my celebrities.”

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Instead of shooting the porters doing their work, she insisted on knowing how they wanted to be portrayed. “They asked me to come on Sundays, because that’s their day off and would be relaxed and could interact more freely.” What came from 17 years of photography were spectacular images of 60 to 80 porters. “The stunning individual portraitures stand as a record of the porters’ joy in life and as an accusation of our mendacity in making their labour invisible,” Ray says.

In 2014, Khan was in India again as a Fulbright Scholar to document the work of women farmers – India has more than 98 million. She met and took portraits of more than 150, whom she calls “encyclopaedias of information about their surroundings”. Satyavati, an Adivasi farmer told her, “If we buy anything, it is just salt, kerosene and clothing.”

“I wonder why we aren’t studying Satyavati for sustainability? Why do we have to look towards the West for expertise?” asks Khan.

“Sarah’s work reveals the hidden corners of the food system,” concludes Ray, “where people of modest means work to feed themselves and their families without fanfare but with great care and skill.”

The Asian Arts Initiative’s exhibition in Philadelphia runs until December 15. For more on Khan's work visit www.sarahkkhan.com