ArteEast is pleased to present an interview with artist Mirna Bamieh as part of our Artist Spotlight series.
Mirna Bamieh is an artist from Jerusalem/Palestine. Her works attempt to understand the politics of disappearance in their relation to ever-
Palestine Hosting Society is a live art project that explores traditional food culture in Palestine especially those that are on the verge of disappearing. The project brings these dishes back to life over dinner tables, talks, walks, and various interventions.
Her work has been featured on several platforms, such as Aj+, Mold, Usta, Somethingcurated, Hypera
ArteEast: Can you tell us about your work in general and the main themes you return to in your practice?
Mirna Bamieh: For over a decade, my art practice has centered around notions of disappearance. It was only 3 years ago, when I realized that this was the direction in which my practice was moving. The reason for this seems evident when you look at me as a Palestinian artist belonging to a nation whose existence relies on resisting erasure. Yet, I know there is more to that “why” and I have to keep exploring that as I continue creating in my practice.
From 2009-2016, I created videos and installations, that relied on elimination and abstraction as a way to reflect on conditions of change, transformation, disappearance and withdrawal, as well as to assess how art can create a space to think through all those possibilities of presence/absence and what they both entail. I made map coordinates disappear, memory disappear, the land from actual events disappear, cities that withdraw certain parts of themselves, historical possibilities that disappeared–leaving people’s stories scattered, and finally, I made my collective body disappear.
All that elimination I guess, made me more aware of the space left behind, and it made me expand the scope of my work to include other people’s stories, and utilize the power of encounters.
This eventually led me to create Palestine Hosting Society in 2018, that took a more proactive stand into the culinary knowledge and practices that have suffered from time, colonialism and politics contributing to its withdrawal, making parts of our identities harder to grasp and reclaim.
AE: When did your practice shift from video and installation to a food-based art practice with the Palestine Hosting Society?
MB: The spark started over one summer night in 2016, when I deeply realized that if the world were to fall apart, and I was one of the survivors in a post-apocalyptic future, the role I would choose would be a cook. That exact moment of realization, in that summer during an art residency in Tokyo, began the snowball of my culinary journey and many decisions to come.
We come from a place where politics—and the future—are very hard to predict. Things keep changing but at the same time are very static. Only this year, we, as Palestinians, were able to envision a time where we can experience a Palestine with no military Israeli occupation, even if it doesn’t happen in our lifetime, we can at least build the roadmap to this possible future in our heads. There is an element of dreaming throughout all of our realities for many decades now. That is why I believe that Palestinians have a very rich imagination: in order to survive, we need to constantly find ways to reconfigure our identity. We keep reinventing ourselves, our non-rigid rooted imagination is what made us survive constant physical, mental uprooting, yet, we always reconfigure and survive, after-all, it is in the imaginations of the mind where resistance, resilience and revolutions begin.
And from that place, I want to create value through my art practice. I wanted to create roots for a stronger future for me as an artist, a human and as a Palestinian. I have always loved food, and realized its “soft” power. Everybody loves food and through this gateway you can make them listen again, to pay attention through a medium that has been less contaminated by the exhausting media discourse on Palestine.
History, for the longest time, has been written by the nations in power and most often by men, which tends to eliminate female power from the equation. I do believe that in the last decade, many more collective voices have had the possibility to resist these prevalent suppressive narratives and discourses. But for collectivity to work, each person needs to be aware of themselves as part of the group rather than dissolve into it. The moment we dissolve, it becomes enslavement, leading us to forget ourselves and what we can offer as individuals that is different and unique.
I believe that collectivity created by women is different than that created by men—the way we cook the food, sit and eat and talk together, the way we communicate and analyze things, the way we respect each other tends to be different than the ways of men. There is less ego in the process and the actions. That’s why for me the kitchen is a space of empowerment and change; its tonality and the way we move through it, process, listen, share, and respect.
All those points and more gave reason for me to create Palestine Hosting Society (PHS), which is what my practice revolves around since its creation. Midway through my culinary diploma studies in 2016-2017 ( which I pursued following my residency in Tokyo) , I realized how flattened out our kitchen had become over time, and how many stories and sources of richness from our Palestinian kitchen needed to be voiced out and shared. PHS became a platform for investigation and unearthing of traditional Palestinian cuisine. Some culinary traditions been forgotten, their names even rendered abstract to the current generation of Palestinians. Being denied a state of our own, Palestinians use food to express an identity that is constantly undermined. Life under occupation atrophied this connection to food, through imposing restrictive policies over food and water resources and inflicting control on wild plant foraging, as well as creating dissonance by showcasing Palestinian dishes as Israeli. Over the years, such measures created a kitchen that is dispossessed, making many traditional Palestinian dishes disappear, or be withdrawn; hiding in the memories of the people, and leaving a trace behind to be picked up and traced and dragged to the present moment to add to it, or change it.
AE: Can you explain the process behind beginning new projects that are centered around a table?
MB: When I present a table in Palestine, I focus on one research topic and go deep into it. I create the menu to tell a story based on the research topic and I present it slowly to the people. My menus are made of disappearing recipes and the stories that are sometimes specific to certain regions in Palestine that are less known in other parts, or that are very old and have stopped being cooked, or that require certain practices and knowledge that are less known or practiced Each recipe and dish has its own story. I bring them from the past, present them to the table, and observe this encounter.
At the same time, I don’t limit myself to the space of the physical table: I am very active on social media and that is also part of the project: activating those recipe archives… creating a narrative of reappearing. For me, it is about reminding Palestinians about what we have lost due to the construction of geography. For example, each part of the West Bank is secluded from the other, and special permits are needed to move to the parts outside the West-Bank, and Gaza is another story, as no one can enter it, and it is so hard for Gazans to move around. There are physical borders that we can’t escape, and the result is people not knowing about each other’s practices. At the same time, the loss of land has made us lose many crops that were central in some recipes that then stopped being cooked. So I bring those stories, not just the recipes. It enables us to look at ourselves in a new way—one that has roots in the past but is also empowering to create change in the future.
So there are the tables in Palestine for Palestinians, and I also have tables outside of Palestine, with a focus on vanishing food practices. Having traveled and shown my work in many different places, I am able to create a narrative that retains its local essence though presented in another place. I find the challenge of addressing diverse audiences exciting.
This year, I have given more attention to developing interactive workshops so that I can share this knowledge. They have mostly focused on the tradition of fermentation, I am quite passionate about it, and I use it as a medium to create table settings for myself and the audience to explore the self and to engage in self-care. The microbiome world is perfect to reflect on time, the body, change, and transformation.
AE: Can you discuss the first dinner performance you organized in the U.S. with the Palestine Hosting Society that was part of the 2019 Live Arts Bard Biennial, titled “Where No Wall Remains” co-curated by Tania El Khoury and Gideon Lester?
MB: Menu of Dis/appearance (2019) was Palestine Hosting Society’s first event in the United States. I wanted to create a dinner experience that presented an approach to “Palestinianess” that trespassed borders and geographies through a menu that brought together dishes from Palestinian cities and villages, refugee camps outside Palestine, and others that narrated intergenerational food habits and memories of the Palestinian diaspora, especially those in the United States. In Menu of Dis/appearance I wanted to narrate stories about time, history, and parts of ourselves that we might have allowed slip away. I created a menu that took the audience on a journey through a selection of dishes that reflect the Palestine Hosting Society’s investigation and unearthing of traditional Palestinian cuisine.
Doing this performance over four nights in six days for 65 seated guests gave me such a boost in confidence in leading more international performances for Palestine Hosting Society. I, of course, had quite a dream team from the Theater LAB at Bard to realize those tables! We had a diversity of different people from various backgrounds attending the tables, and somehow the stories and the food spoke to them all. We created a space of active listening around those tables which was quite special. Menu of Dis/appearance was hosted in Brussels in 2020 as well, as part of Aesthetics of the Political Symposium curated by Samah Hijjawi. Performing a dinner and having people gather around food stories at a time when gathering and sharing was greatly missed due to COVID restrictions added more appreciation for me to the space of the table, and how it can really be an active environment that touches us personally and collectively as people.
AE: Can you discuss your experimentations and research around the process of fermentation?
MB: Mouneh: Pantry Work, is a compilation of art pieces that looks at fermentation and preservation cultures. It came together after 3 years of extensive research and experimentation at Ujazdowski Castle for Contemporary Art.
The piece encompasses the Fermentation Station kitchen lab which eventually ended in a pantry art installation, six booklets with unique recipes alongside autobiographical stories with narratives woven around fermentation recipes (that are shared at the end of each story), and To Jar, a 20-minute short video that looks at times of global distress, preservation, rituals of self-protection, and what we can learn from bacterial cultures for creating communities in times of uncertainty.
Being the backbone of the house, whether a simple shelf or an entire cupboard, the pantry perseveres through time. From keeping grains to legumes to spices, and jars of ferments to dried fruits and vegetables, mothers held their families together for centuries, nurtured through seasons and scarcity. During the first intifada where Palestinians were using self-sufficiency as a tool to fight oppression, the pantry space was the first to be targeted by the destructive forces of the Israeli military, piling up and mixing all the dry ingredients from rice to salt to grains in a gesture that aims to debilitate the core of the family strength.
I took the disappearing space of the pantry from our houses, and constructed it at the museum as part of the Everyday Forms of Resistance show with ferments dating from 2019 to 2021, encapsulating vegetal lives and microbiomes that draw us strongly to look inside the walls of those glass jars. Turning the pantry space into a cabinet of curiosities that takes the audience into a visual and sensual experience through 70 playful jars of ferments, I wanted to give presence to the absentees by plaster hands that are reaching out and gripping different kinds of salt. The audience can also hold onto and explore objects of porcelain and ceramic that are created from the negative space of the kitchen such as hand movements squeezing, kneading, forming, cutting, etc.
AE: What and who are some of your major creative influences, and why?
MB: I would like to answer this question in a different way. In early 2016 – a very important year in my professional life in seems!- I created Potato Talks, which consisted of encounters with accidental audiences: the expereinces consisted of sharing a story and an object that is familiar to them (the potato) in the street, and witnessing the magic that comes out of such a choreographed encounter. This was exactly what I needed to create for the shift in my art practice; I needed to rely less on my somewhat solitary studio practice, its long hours of filming and editing, and find ways to create a practice that offers something more fulfilling for me as a person.
I seriously asked myself then, “what are the artworks that deeply touch me, as a person and as an artist?” I know there are many, but the I will share with you one of the two that came to my mind at that moment. The first one is Tino Segal’s piece These associations that I experienced in 2012 Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. Tino Sehgal is known for his works which consist purely of live encounters between people. The piece consisted of a group of participants whose choreographed actions used spontaneous movement, sound, and conversation by navigating the public sphere alongside the audience; they were walking, sitting, and laying down for example. I remember when I first went there, I didn’t know there was an artwork in the hall, and I was just sitting and relaxing as the energy of the place was vibrating. All of a sudden there was a person sitting next to me who was sharing a story; we had a deep presence moment through that encounter and I kept returning to the Turbine Hall several times a week, waiting to hear another story, and to give meaning to it that expanded beyond the duration of that encounter. It was magical, and I wanted to create such magic as part of my practice. Potato Talks started that and my practice around food will keep pushing for that, as well as a deeply rooted approach and continued quest for forgotten knowledge.
AE: What are some upcoming projects that you are working on in New York in the fall of 2021?
MB: Since early this year, I have been researching and designing the new phase of Palestine Hosting Society tables. I am shifting my attention slightly, from producing large scale dinner performances with disappearing recipes and food practices (which has been the focus of my project since its establishment in 2018), to currently working on developing smaller dinner experiences that incorporate stories of pottery and ceramic pieces from the region with recipes, food practices and stories that I have collected.
The pottery and ceramic pieces that I will be creating, are built on prototypes that I am developing by delving into the history of pottery in the region and more indigenous pottery practices. Those pieces will become part of the eating/interaction/sharing/storytelling experience. I will guide the audience to notice and interact with the tableware and its sculptural qualities as they listen to stories about them. The experiential setting will be sensorial on multiple levels, from auditory to textural to gastronomic.
The first series of performances for this new form I am developing in my practice, will happen in November in New York, as I will be in a residency at The Invisible Dog Art Center, la Salle A Manger (SAM), through CEC ArtsLink fellowship program. In September, I will be spending a month in Decorah/ Iowa at Lowe Pottery Studio with George Lowe. He is the ceramist who taught me how to work with ceramics in 2018 in Bethlehem. During that month, he will guide and give me the techniques to realize my designs and ideas into ceramic pieces for the dinner performance and he will help me learn new ceramic practices. I am traveling there with a bag full of spices and ingredients to exchange the ceramic knowledge I will be gaining with cooking classes from our kitchen in Palestine.
Creating this new form of dinner performances came from a need for a more in-depth experience with the guests on my tables. I think 2020 made us realize how precious the human experience is, gathering, sharing, or even grief-sitting next to each other. The celebration tables with a larger number of people seated along two long tables is less feasible at such times. And on a personal level, I needed to expand my studio and have the ceramic studio added to the kitchen studio, two mediums that rely on practices that are registered in the body; ultimately a very personal creation that transforms when shared.
MIRNA BAMIEH ONLINE: