Over 500 people showed up on Saturday for a unique and wonderful outdoor barbecue near Dallas Farmers Market. Organized by the Nasher Sculpture Center, this community event included 2020 Nasher Prize Laureate artist Michael Rakowitz. A truly extraordinary free event that brought communities together, it was hosted by Farmers Assisting Returning Military (F.A.R.M.), a nonprofit that provides therapeutic agricultural training to veterans. And most of the food was provided by Break Bread, Break Borders, a community organization empowering immigrants and refugees through food catering.
An Iraqi-American conceptual artist, Rakowitz has a new exhibit opening at the Nasher next month. But his art also comprises other facets, including community events focused on transmitting Iraqi culture through food and cooking. At Rakowitz’s suggestion, the Nasher quickly put this event together in about a month. The artist showed up in Dallas the day before to prep with members of Break Bread Break Borders, including Syrian refugees Nawarah Shaker and Rasha Sultan.
“Both times I’ve been to Dallas I’ve come through Iraq,” Rakowitz says to a captive audience standing in line for Middle Eastern cuisine including chicken drumsticks, fattoush salad, hummus, grilled kebab, spinach fatayer, and veggie kibbeh. “To be able to project that kind of lens on a city that seems to be American above all American cities is quite something.”
“I am an immigrant from Taiwan,” says Jin-Ya Huang, a social practice artist and founder of Break Bread, Break Borders. “I grew up making art about my immigrant diaspora experience. I grew up in a Chinese restaurant and my mom was the chef. She used to hire immigrants and refugees and train them with job skills for bigger and better opportunities. She was a bridge builder and the inspiration for making this happen.”
Hosted by F.A.R.M., the event took place in a former parking lot that is becoming a 3-acre community garden in downtown Dallas. Through farming, the nonprofit helps provide therapy for veterans returning to civilian life and strives to heal communities using food as medicine.
“We found our therapy in the dirt,” says Steve Smith, a veteran and F.A.R.M. co-founder. “So we figured, why not tear up a parking lot?”
“I am first-generation Lebanese,” says F.A.R.M. executive director Hyiat El-Jundi. “Both of my worlds came together during this event. This is truly a testament of how communities can come together and literally break bread.”
One of Rakowitz’s contributions to the menu was particularly simple and surprising. Served on fruit or pita, date syrup mixed with tahini tastes remarkably similar to Nutella.
“Iraqi date syrup became the trigger for so much of my work,” says Rakowitz, who grew up with handmade date syrup made by his grandfather. After his grandfather’s death, he later bought date syrup processed in Baghdad, but it was labeled in Lebanon to circumvent U.N. sanctions on Iraq. After those sanctions were lifted, the practice continued in order for importers to avoid prohibitive charges on Iraqi products in the U.S.
“I thought it could be good art,” Rakowitz says. “I started to build my entire practice on this can of date syrup that couldn’t tell me where it was from. It was almost as if the pressures of xenophobia had been exerted on this object.
“That can of date syrup did more for me as an artist than a can of Campbell’s soup from Andy Warhol ever could,” Rakowitz adds, and he has even mixed the date syrup with paint for his art.