Artists | Michael Rakowitz
Over nine weeks, with Hudson Guild Community Center students, we cooked Iraqi meals based on my mother's recipes, while engaging in discussions about the war. What came forward was the seldom-heard voice of US youth, speaking about living in a war culture since 2001. When one considers that many of these students were only 12-years-old, that time frame comprised more than one-third of their lives.Michael Rakowitz
2006 – 2007 : Enemy Kitchen
The artist cooked with a group of middle school and high school students who live in Chelsea and participate in after-school and summer programs at the HudsonGuild Community Center. Some had relatives in the US Army stationed in Iraq. In preparing and then consuming the food, it opened up another topic through which the word ‘Iraq’ could be discussed—in this case, attached to food, as a representative of culture and not as a stream of green-tinted images shown on CNN of a war-torn place. The project functioned as a social sculpture: while cooking and eating, the students engaged each other on the topic of the war and drew parallels with their own lives, at times making comparisons with bullies in relation to how they perceive the conflict.
Some of the discussions were great. Even the problems were important. One day, a girl who had attended a few classes came in frustrated and said, “Why do we have to cook this nasty food? They blow up our soldiers every day and they knocked down the Twin Towers!” Another student spoke up and said, “The Iraqis didn’t knock down the Twin Towers, it was Bin Laden.” Then, it went further. From the stove, another kid said, “It wasn’t Bin Laden, it was our government.”
It was incredible to see all this unfold week after week. The students were not really discussing it in school because many teachers regarded it as too touchy an issue. But in this space of cooking and eating I really started to see how an important segment of the US population that I do not often have the opportunity to interact with feels about the world since 2001. And when you think about someone of middle school or high school age, at least half of their living years have been during wartime.
For the artist, his most gratifying moment with that project was when, after eight weekly sessions learning how to cook Iraqi food, the students at the Community Center proposed to teach Michael Rakowitz something about their families’ recipes since they now knew so much about Iraqi recipes. Most of them were of African American and Latino heritage. One of the students, Hyasheem, asked, “Do Iraqis make Southern fried chicken?” The artist answered that no, to his knowledge there was nothing like it in Iraqi cuisine. “Well, then let’s invent it,” the student said. It was awesome! He taught Michael how to do a shake-n-bake batter, and they used all the spices and herbs they’d learned about: cumin, sumac, a little tumeric, etc. And so, Iraqi fried chicken was born!
Enemy Kitchen was exhibited at the Miami Art Space in the Wynwood Art District (Miami) for Art Basel Miami Beach in 2007. For this exhibition, Michael Rakowitz presented the history and documentation of the project; Iraqi food was served at opening night. The project also included the publication of a group of Iraqi recipe cards telling the story of the project, which are still available upon request.Funding for this project has been provided in part by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with The NYC Council, and the Milton and Sally Avery Foundation.