“The Neighbour’s Plate” — Derya Akay, Amna Elnour, Dana Qaddah
by April Thompson
Stepping into the exhibition “The Neighbour’s Plate” feels like stepping into a sensory still-life painting of 2020. Masked and sanitized on entry, you are greeted by the scent of cured meat: cloves, allspice, black pepper, and paprika on duck. Alone in the space, you feel the presence of others in the central display—a low circular wooden table dressed with food, mementos, and the vessels of consumer packaging. Derya Akay, Amna Elnour, and Dana Qaddah have set their table with traces that are both personal and mass-produced— Akay’s hand-painted silk pillow and Qaddah’s wooden inlay box, with contents shut out of view, are accompanied by impersonal items like a yoga block and an industrial meat slicer. Even reading these objects can be misleading. The meat slicer and takeaway containers are not newly store-bought but come from a local restaurant owned by Qaddah’s cousin. In these ways, the table is richly layered with the artists’ roots and lived experience, indexing Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, Turkey, Sudan, and North America.
Circling the table, you take in the scent of the meat that hangs above in suspended brown twine. Elnour has encrusted two cuts of duck with hickory, rose petal, and smoked salt, spicing it to make a variation on basturma, before airing it in the gallery. When you observe the spread on the table, it is tempting to make sense of it by reaching for allegorical readings. A photograph of a slaughtered lamb. A copy of the Quran. These are placed alongside a flattened Persian chewing-gum box, a Purell wipe, and a pack of three-ply face masks. At the sight of a glass jar filled with weed and filters, a pre-rolled joint neatly on top, you realize that this spread does not slice a binary between religion and modernity, but situates inherited cultures in these artists’ present moment. You are asked to sit and as you do, legs crossed atop a prayer rug on the floor, you enter a new agreement: no longer an observer, you are now a participant.
There is something almost forbidden in this indulgence. The shallow dishes around you overflow with the clawed rinds of clementines, sunflower seeds, cast-off onion shells, and chestnut husks. You are reminded of why this feels so freeing: not long ago we wiped down groceries unsure of how the virus spread. Now, you sit among the remnants of others’ touch.
Akay, Elnour, and Qaddah have collaborated to provide a full-bodied menu: tahini molasses, ma’amoul, baskot wa raha, duck carbonara, candied chestnut. The words are written in a loose scrawl on a sheet tacked above a rectangular window in the gallery. Over the course of the exhibition’s run, the menu shifts to include daily specials, with food prepared by the artists beforehand and the option for visitors to sit and consume in the gallery space or take the food to go. Your meal will be passed through a window that peeps back into the studio space and kitchen.
Waiting for my complimentary meal—a zesty onion salad special of the day—I take in the walls around me. On one side of the gallery, a shelf runs the entire length of the wall. Like the exposed spine of a pantry, it holds the vertebrae of a meal: dried hibiscus, a jar of white sugar cubes, an untouched pomegranate, a Pepsi can. Shelved high, these are the bookends to culinary rituals that have passed, or are yet to be. The arrangement feels familiar and primes your appetite, lending the same intimacy as looking around someone’s kitchen. This works to close the gap of being alone in the gallery, of being “socially distanced” in public places.
The other side of the gallery displays Itinerant Sentiments (2020) by Qaddah—a series of 11 small works, each hung delicately by two nails. The square arrangements hold together collage-like excerpts: dried-flower tea, crushed pistachio shells, Damascene fabric cuttings, flattened tissue boxes with floral patterns. Here, Qaddah plays with the vernacular of packaged goods, as well as the painterly ghosts of still life, giving us a new visual language that summons both, yet definitively resembles neither.
In Land of Olive Trees (Itinerant Sentiments series) (2020) a crocheted Palestinian-style embroidered coaster is peppered with olive leaves. Next to it is a cardboard cutting from an olive-oil box which, when translated from the original Arabic, reads, “from the tree to the stone, always retaining the flavour of nature.” In Qaddah’s flattening of these objects she effectively reduces material hierarchy; the handmade sits with the mass-produced, dotted with the organic—and all of it sandwiched between non-biodegradable plastic, preserved and out of reach.
Qaddah’s work speaks to the broader achievement of the exhibition: a reordering of the usual transactions and hierarchies sanctioned by commercialization. In the context of a commercial gallery, this is refreshing. Not only have the artists collaborated in increasingly fluid ways—it is difficult to discern where one hand ends and another begins—but the exhibition itself reorders consumption. These granulated settings and personal traces are not consumable in a market sense. It’s hard to imagine a collector walking in to purchase the pre-rolled joint with provenance. Instead, here is a space where the viewer alone can consume, through presence and literal eating, the conditions rather than the conclusions of the art. This conjures community on a cellular level.
When you eat the desert dish Atomic Salad, ripe persimmon, walnut, and honey hum on your tongue, bitter and sweet. As you split the flatbread, you think about the hands that made it. And not in a pandemic hygiene “did they wash them for twenty seconds” kind of way, but with a deep sense of connection and gratitude. Gratitude for the recipe, for the knowledge passed through other hands and skin, and the memory enfolded in touch and taste.
Leaving the spiced warm air of the gallery, you step back onto West Fourth Avenue. Walking up the street, you pass an old friend who is headed to their timed visit. You fight the urge to bury them in a tight hug, and instead stand awkwardly at a distance, exchanging words muffled by your mask. And then you walk away, briskly, taking comfort in the thought that soon their belly will be full too.