Banana with money and ring on offering plate, prepared during the Hindu wedding of Lokesh and Karma Rai (2012)
Here’s a game: guess the location of the art reviewer. I’m looking at a lamb-shaped cake with coconut frosting—but I’m not at the Broadway Market during Easter season. There’s also a five-tier fondant-iced layer cake, elegantly emblazoned with scrollwork icing and topped with real ribbon and pearls—but this isn’t a chic wedding. Finally, I’m viewing a colorfully arranged Todos Santos Ofrenda (a temporary altar created to celebrate All Saints Day) laden with fruit, flowers, bread, chocolate, peppers, and spices, and, of course, a bottle of José Cuervo Tequila—but I’m thousands of miles north of Mexico.
The answer: these delicacies and more can be seen in the folk art galleries of the Castellani Art Museum of Niagara University, just twenty minutes north of Buffalo. The title of the exhibition is (Almost) Too Good to Eat: Making Life Transitions with Food. So why is an art museum displaying foods and food customs from a variety of cultures including Mexican, Polish, Ukrainian, European, Japanese, Ethiopian, Jewish, and Indian? In fact, why would a contemporary art museum exhibit folk art at all?
“Part of the reason the folk arts program was introduced into the contemporary fine arts space,” says curator of folk arts Carrie Hertz, “is to connect what’s in the gallery to our geographic region.” For many viewers, it might come as a revelation that all these diverse cultures exist in our area. But while the larger portion of the museum exhibits modern and contemporary art from all around the world, dating back to at least the 1800s, “the folk art portion,” explains Hertz, “is restricted to things happening right now in Western New York.”
Hertz recently discussed the role that folk art, especially food-related folk art, plays in the museum. “The folklorist perspective is that any human endeavor can be raised to an art form,” she states, pointing out that in the Middle Ages, anything involving fine workmanship and some innovation was viewed as art [or craft; the concepts were interchangeable]. “I think we can still operate by that definition. In the history of the world, limiting art to painting, sculpture, and architecture is very new.”
Today, folk art is generally distinguished from fine art largely through the maker’s training and intent. It’s an outgrowth of the recreational, celebratory, entertainment, and ritualistic needs of communities and cultures. Folk artists do not learn their craft in schools; these traditions are passed down through generations. Many haven’t changed in hundreds of years, and they function outside movements or trends in fine art.
Food is a big part of folk art tradition. “We all have to eat as human beings, but we don’t just eat to live,” says Hertz. “Food gets a lot of creative attention. It’s one of the big areas in folklore studies, because everybody eats.”
The aforementioned Ofrenda, for instance, created by the Rosario family, formerly of Oaxaca, Mexico, is a colorful stepped display of specially crafted foods along with commercial products, framed by an arch of colorful pansies and assorted fruit, and laid out on a series of delightfully embroidered mats. It’s vibrant and intriguing, like a socialstudies lesson brought vividly to life.
Seeing this Ofrenda brings to mind an important point: fine artists often emulate folk art traditions and styles. Noted artists such as Betye Saar and Amalia Mesa-Bains, for instance, have used the structure and cultural significance of Mexican altars as the basis for their own work, as have such regionally based artists as Lillian Mendez and Cheryl Jackson.
In (Almost) Too Good to Eat, the unadulterated traditions are celebrated. Earka Luzecky provides a visually complex display of Korovai, orangepeal- flavored Ukrainian wedding bread elaborately ornamented with wheat, flowers, and many little bread-birds. It’s rich with symbols of love, fertility, and the Ukrainian landscape.
The aforementioned wedding cakes (actually replicated “dummies,” like much of the food on display) by David Muscoreil represent European traditions that will seem familiar to visitors, but have their own less widely known symbolic significance.
There is a display of elaborate Japanese tea-making equipment and other items related to tea ceremonies. In most of the exhibition, objects are augmented by documentary photographs. Some subjects, like the Ethiopian coffee ceremony presented by Abba and Niama Tesfu, depend entirely on photographic representation. A Hindu rice flour drawing, customarily laid out on temporary wedding altars was, however, created right in the gallery.
There is much more on display. People who make art as part of their everyday existence are not often acknowledged as artists. Melanie Kryglier-Lamastra, who made the lamb-cakes in the show—one traditional, one a funky long-haired pink mutation—was overcome by emotion at the recognition she received during the exhibition’s opening reception. “I can’t imagine anything better to be doing with my time,” says Hertz, “than telling people their daily efforts are worthy of respect and acknowledgment.”