Fatima Uzdenova, All About My Mother (detail), 2021, mixed-media installation, dimensions variable. From “Staple: What’s on Your Plate?.”

Fatima Uzdenova, All About My Mother (detail), 2021, mixed-media installation, dimensions variable. From “Staple: What’s on Your Plate?.”

“Staple: What’s on Your Plate?”

“Staple: What’s on Your Plate?” the inaugural offering at Jeddah’s new Hayy Jameel art center, was a rigorous, generous show; spending time with it felt like taking a spoon to an avocado to scoop at the richer green layer next to the skin. The show went beyond the question in its subtitle, asking not just what’s there but how it got there. Curated by Rahul Gudipudi of Jameel and Dani Burrows of Delfina Foundation, the exhibition explored foodways from Saudi Arabia and beyond, with an emphasis on the port city of Jeddah’s rich cosmopolitanism resulting from centuries of pilgrimage to nearby Mecca. The first of two galleries was dominated by Bricklab and Misht Studio’s installation Absent Dinner, 2021. Sail-like swaths of muslin, screen-printed with natural vegetable dyes, hung over a curving pedestal that held colorful resin casts of a Jawi (Indonesian) meal to chart the culinary legacies of trade and migration between Indonesia and the Hejaz region dating back to the tenth century.

Nearby, Fatima Uzdenova presented five sumptuous sculptural and audio works that featured material traces of pilgrims from the former Russian empire. A royal-blue textile piece, ruched like an oyster mushroom and studded with a single pearl pin, intimated the special hajj passport that until 2009 granted entry into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. A pair of small filigree and mother-of-pearl earrings painted with scenes of the Kaaba and the Al-Aqsa mosque hung in a little velveteen box set into the wall. On a beautifully carved wooden table, a bowl of the salty yogurt drink ayran sat in front of an oversize samovar felted with Karachai wool, as eminently huggable as a giant stuffed bear or someone’s grandmother, and indeed these works are dedicated to the matriarchs of Uzdenova’s family.

The extractive colonial and labor politics that undergird modern agriculture were also a focus of the show. Especially compelling was a collection of burnished chocolate sculptures, mostly heads, from the Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise, in Lusanga, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Founded by plantation workers together with artists, the collective reinvests the profits generated by selling works into buying back land to create worker-owned, ecologically sound postplantations. The work’s title, Africa Empty Europe Full Up, 2021, gestures to the connection between plantation capitalism and the wealth of the Global North.

This link was made explicit in Annalee Davis’s “Wild Plant Series,” 2014, consisting of lovely lithe latex paintings of plants rendered in watery maroons on sugar-plantation receipts that have yellowed with age, a number of which sport burn marks in the same spot. Displayed in a handsome wooden vitrine, they charted the biodiversity of Barbados’s postplantation landscape even as they remind us of the various horrors, human and botanical, wrought by monocultures. In Sancintya Mohini Simpson’s spare miniatures of indentured women workers on South African sugar plantations, the landscape was stripped away to leave just women, sowing and harvesting in empty space. Her approach highlights the gendered dimensions of agricultural labor, as well as the asymmetric access to financing and support that women face. Between these two series lay the rusting corrugated iron shed housing Mohini Simpson’s elegiac video installation_ Kūlī nām dharāyā_ / They’ve Given You the Name ‘Coolie’, 2020, with its soundtrack—a Bhojpuri folk song featuring South African Tamil lyrics—bleeding out into the room.

A rotating short film program included Jonathas de Andrade’s achingly tender portrait of Brazilian fishermen O peixe (The Fish), 2016, and an excerpt from Zina Saro-Wiwa’s film Table Manners: Season 2, 2019, which shows people from the Southern Nigerian area of Oguniland eating. Here, a woman methodically works her way through a skewer of roasted snails, their charred outsides evocative of the burnt crops and tar-suffocated land. She breaks eye contact only to take sips of Maltina. We are what we eat, sure, but what we eat says even more about who—and why—we are.