Raw Material, season 2: Manifest. Episode 1. transcript

AH-SUE: The great writer - one of my heroes - Toni Morrison once said, “I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence.” This was in 2015, for an article in The Nation. She wrote that, in times of despair, “this is precisely the time when artists go to work.”


AH-SUE: This is Raw Material. An arts and culture podcast by SFMOMA. I’m Geraldine Ah-Sue, and I’ll be your host for a season about art, community and social justice. We’re on the move!


AMBI: Footsteps, walking on dirt, birds chirping, walking in grass, birds chirping, sky and wind, lapping waves in distance, gets closer and closer, walking stops, we’re standing on the shore.

AH-SUE: Art is a journey. A departure. An uprooting from ourselves, our thoughts, our homes. We take leave of the familiar. We are snatched, we embark, we are transported.


BHAUMIK: So, this is my -- even though I don’t like to cook with curry powder very often, I do have a soft spot for S&B, Japanese curry powder.


BHAUMIK: It always comes in this tin which I love.


BHAUMIK: Ah! I gotta say! It’s a pretty, it’s a pretty homey, homey smell to me. [laughter] It reminds me of my mom! [laughter]


AH-SUE: Sita Kuratomi Bhaumik is an artist working in Oakland, California. Her art is an encounter with both the materiality of migration and the ghosts of its history. Her instrument of investigation: the spice commonly known as ‘curry.’

BHAUMIK: So, in its more current form, I’ve been doing a lot of installations of curry powder into the walls of galleries, museums.

AH-SUE: The vibrant color of curry powder can be a shock to the institutional walls. Its aroma an oddity to the sterile air. It’s these collisions that interests Bhaumik.


BHAUMIK: We’re used to experiencing gallery spaces a certain way. That you’re supposed to keep your hands to yourself, and it’s ok to talk but not so that it’s overtaking the room. And so when people are presented with a piece that asks them to interact with it or maybe even shift down or crouch down really low, or taste something, it’s breaking those rules. And so, I see a lot of times, people tiptoeing towards the wall, and it’ll take a while but then finally someone will go up and smell it.



AH-SUE: We’re in Bhaumik’s kitchen, and she’s fixing us a snack It seemed appropriate since she uses food for her art!


BHAUMIK: My mother is Japanese, she was born and raised in Colombia. My father is from a tiny village outside of Calcutta in West Bengal. And, I remember being maybe 5 or 6 years old, and my mom would make the decicious, salty, um, Japanese curry that comes out of a box, usually S&B golden. So that was one kind of curry that we ate. And then my dad, you know, he didn’t really call it curry, but the really kind of funny thing about Indian food is that people in India don’t call the dishes ‘curry.’







AH-SUE: ‘Curry’ is not in fact, ‘authentically’ Indian at all. When the British first came to India in the 17th century, they were introduced to thousands of dishes they had never encountered before. The story goes that the word ‘curry’ comes from the British, who took it from the Portuguese, who themselves were adapting it from the South Indian word ‘kari.’ But while ‘kari’ referred to spices that season sauteed meat and vegetables, ‘curry’ came to describe rich sauces made with nuts and spices that were poured over rice. That’s very different. And, as we know, history is written by the victors, so when the catchall term ‘curry’ traveled back to Britain, it traveled to other places as well.

BHAUMIK: [laughter] So, you know. I really went down this huge multi-year rabbit hole, of, thinking about, oh my god, is this me, as a self portrait? You know? Is curry powder, because of its connection to so many -- to the spice trade, and to this moment of globalization, is this me in a can?  




BHAUMIK: And, along the way I realized also that curry is a way of identifying people as different. So, I was on yahoo answers one night, super late, and I found this question, and it said, ‘Help my neighbor smells like curry, what should I do?’ And the answer said, ‘Call the INS,’ which is now ICE. And, to me, I had been researching race and the construction of race as being something visual. That you see race. People as black, yellow, brown red. But this is the first time that I thought, oh my god, people are actually thinking about race as something that you experience, or that smell. Or deciding if someone’s legal status makes sense based on what they might be cooking. And that was really disgusting and horrifying to me.


BHAUMIK: So, I flung it on the ground, I dyed tablecloths and napkins with it, I made perfume out of it. I worked with Yosh Han, a local perfume artist, to make a curry scented perfume.

BHAUMIK: I figured, why just South Asian people smell like curry, why not make everybody smell like curry? [laughter]

AH-SUE: Bhaumik’s work with spices includes installations titled To Curry Favor, Dear Future, and Acquired Taste.


BHAUMIK: My dad had given me in India, this, this little replica of the Taj Mahal. And it was wrapped in this kind of crumbly, beautiful paper on the outside that kind of vaguely looked like the evil eye. And I was looking at it one day, and I was like wow, you know, this little replica of the Taj Mahal speaks to this idea of our fantasy of what we think India is. Not what it actually is. And that’s in a way what curry is. It’s like this fantasy of what we think India is. It’s not actually what India is.  




AH-SUE: I once read this passage from Jamaica Kincaid’s novel A Small Place. In it, she describes the ocean. Imagine. It’s your vacation, you’re on an island in the Caribbean. Antigua. You’re looking out onto the water. It’s calm, it’s glittering, it’s beautiful. It’s yours. And in the stillness of this moment, as you imagine yourself on the beach, soaking up the sun, Kincaid folds into the scene the lingerings of what we’ve erase for the image of ourselves. “The Caribbean Sea is very big and the Atlantic Ocean is even bigger; it would amaze even you to know the number of black slaves this ocean has swallowed up.” That glittering water you look out to. How many untold stories have been sunk in these oceans? And how will they resurface?


AKOMFRAH: Part of the political project of annihilation of these people is a disappearance of them. Is… an erasure.

AH-SUE: That’s Black British artist John Akomfrah.

AKOMFRAH: Throw them out to sea, they disappear, they didn’t exist.


AH-SUE: Akomfrah is based in London, and is a founder of the Black Audio Film Collective. His work is often described as an investigation into collective memory, shedding light on the living legacies of the forgotten.

AKOMFRAH: So this act of using the images is part of an act of exhumation, for people who will never be exhumed, practically, literally again. They are gone.

AH-SUE: Between 1525 and 1866, more than 12.5 million Africans were enslaved and brought to the quote, “New World.” Loaded onto ships as human cargo, they crossed the Atlantic Ocean. Not everyone survived the journey. Approximately 2 million people perished on the Middle Passage, en route to North America, the Caribbean and South America.  

AKOMFRAH: And so one way in which one does this project is you say, something has gone. And I want to have now, a language of mourning and elegy. Which is not just a poetic language. But has a certain political efficacy. And part of that political efficacy is to say to power, you thought they’d disappeared, well think again, cause they’re back! [laughter]


AH-SUE: In 2015, Akomfrah released Vertigo Sea, a film installation that fuses archival material, readings from classical sources, and newly shot footage as a meditation on what Ralph Waldo Emerson called “the sublime sea.”

AKOMFRAH: At some point, whether you’re an enslaved african in the 18th century, or someone trying to escape vietnam after the fall of Saigon, or an Algerian political prisoner who’s been caught by the French secret service in the ‘50s - all of them at some point would have to face this question of an encounter with the sea which could prove fatal.




AH-SUE: As a three-screen installation, you might see sweeping swells of water curling over in a sun-streaked ocean, side by side with a scene of enslaved Africans on a boat, stumbling and shackled, getting pushed, one by one, into a sea of the discarded, next to a screen showing a Black man dressed in period clothing looking out to the sea. Accompanying the visuals are spoken word references to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and Heathcote Williams’ poem Whale Nation.


AKOMFRAH: Part of what I, my project has been about is trying ot in some ways erase certain kinds of borders. The blurring of boundaries and borders is in fact an ethical and an aesthetic strategy. Um, borders that delimit and prescribe the correct ways in which identities or events can be brought together in something.

AH-SUE: This is evident in Akomfrah’s commitment to the philosophy of the montage. That is, the idea that when two images collide, when they meet, they start to talk to each other. A dialogue is created. And through that relationship, a new meaning emerges - what he describes as a “third meaning.”

AKOMFRAH: You know, it’s about how one describes the world and what you think is of value in the world. Um, you see, no one asks this question about capital. No one asks this question about money. Or goods. Can goods move across.. “Well of course!” That’s just accepted as natural. [laughter] People? “Oh... well...” You know. So, it’s OK for Vietnamese pineapples to be in London, it’s OK for Malaysian mangoes to be here, Nigerian yams. But not Malaysians, Vietnamese or Nigerians. And there’s something wrong with that neoliberal logic. Where, people make goods, services, commodities more important than human beings. I’m about trying to reverse that logic [laughter].



WONG: I just saw on the news yesterday, all the states where ICE is going in and deporting illegal immigrants. If that kind of mentality existed in America in the time that my mother came, my mom would have been deported back to China.

AH-SUE: Flo Oy Wong is a Chinese American multimedia artist whose work primarily explores the history of Asian immigration in America.

WONG: I really also was very aware that people of color, and especially Chinese Americans were not present at the contemporary Art and Culture table of America. So, I had a need to do away with the stereotypes of Charlie Chan and Suzie Wong, because those were very insulting. They weren’t us.



AH-SUE: Wong, now in her late 70s, was born here. Her mother, however, came to States after the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which essentially barred Chinese laborers and their families from coming to America. Sound familiar?

WONG: And so when that happened, my father, like many chinese immigrants, they had to come up with ways to bring their family in.

AH-SUE: With the Exclusion Act, only blood relatives of US citizens would be allowed to enter the country. But, with the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, many public birth documents were destroyed, and this created an opportunity. A black market opened up for the sale of fraudulent documents. “Paper identities.”


WONG: When I was young and curious, I would ask them questions. And they would say “[Chinese + English translations] why are you talking about that? Shh! Shh! We don’t want to talk about that” My mother was a paper sister. And so we had reasons to keep secrets, and secrecy was our currency.


AH-SUE: We’re at Wong’s house, and I’ve come here to ask her about the story behind “made in usa: Angel Island shhh.” It’s a 25 piece installation that exhibited at Angel Island in the year 2000. Angel Island was the immigration station where many Chinese migrants were detained and interrogated, sometimes for weeks, sometimes for months.

WONG: So, the “made in usa” rice sack flags are composed of an embellished rice sack, sewn onto a flag of the United States.

AH-SUE: Each rice sack flag tells the story of a Chinese migrant who came to the United States under a paper identity.

WONG: On the interior of the rice sack, I have hand painted the definition of “Interrogate: To ask a question, especially to seek answers which the person questioned considers personal or secret.”

AH-SUE: Following that text, Wong then exposes the paper secret of that person, shedding light onto years of silence and shame.

WONG: “She claimed her husband as her brother.” This is my mother’s immigration secret.

AH-SUE: One of the most stirring features of the rice sack flags for me is the printed name of the person whose story is represented on each flag. Of the 25 flags, only 1 person agreed to have both their paper name AND their birth name printed for display. A kind of nod to their dual identities, an outing of themselves and the stories of so many.

WONG: I wanted to honor people like my parents and the other immigrants who worked so hard to help to build this country. To remove the stigma of shame that they had. You know? It was like they were always going to be second class citizens. They would always be invisible. They would always be under the radar. They worked so hard.  I wanted people who deserve the credit to get the credit. And to remove the stigma of ‘hey, you don’t belong.’


AH-SUE: Art is a journey, in search of something, to belong, to escape, oftentimes both. Our journeys are not always by choice, and our arrivals are not always welcome. But we go. Because we’ve been taken, because we’ve been exiled, because we have little choice. Because we must survive. But we are never alone. We travel together, and in that, we create, something new.


AH-SUE: Next time, on Raw Material


ANTONI: We don’t usually lick sculptures [laughter], or take it in the tub.

IBARRA: When I abandoned La Chica Boom, in some ways I also felt like I was abandoning this idea, or this fiction, about Latinidad.  

CASSILS: How could I grow and manipulate the meat of my body to have a sort of expression of gender?

AH-SUE: We’re talking about art, and ‘the body.’ Join us!


AH-SUE: Season 2 of Raw Material is produced by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and me, Geraldine Ah-Sue. The music you heard in this episode was from Revolution Void, Podington Bear, and Second Hand Rose. The drumming was performed by Zak Diouf and the Diamano Coura West African Dance Company. And a big thank you to Maurice Stierl and the Tate for the audio of John Akomfrah. To learn more about what you just heard today, visit sfmoma.org/raw-material. We’ll see you then.