Pakistani migration through food and cooking

With the exhibition Cooking, Time?, artist Sarah Kazmi explores the early history of Pakistani migration to Norway and its food and cooking through archival photographs and more . We have talked to Sarah about the show and how she works with food as an artistic medium.
Installation view from the show Cooking, Time? at Interkulturelt Museum 2024.

You are behind the exhibition «Cooking, Time?» at Interkulturelt Museum. Could you please give a brief description of the show and the themes it explores?

The migration of Pakistanis to Norway began in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with most of the population coming from Kharian, a collection of towns in the Gujrat District. In the early decades of this migration, most Pakistanis that arrived in Oslo secured work in hospitality, working as dishwashers, prep assistants and cooks in restaurants, while laying the foundations for running their own kiosks, mithai shops, and restaurants. The archive of their arrivals, their labours, and their desires is deep and the task of the artist-cum-historian arduous. Cooking, Time? enters the early history of Pakistani migration to Norway to summon and critically intervene in the archive and its practices.

Cooking, Time? is at once a celebration of all the historizing labours that have gone into the formation of Pakistani migration archives and an attempt to reckon with its gaps, erasures, and exclusions. It enters the early history of Pakistani migration to Norway through food, labor, and time; to summon and critically intervene in the archive and its practices. The project aims to counter the coloniality of official history and archives in language, texts and poetics through various formats including digital, print, spoken word and sound.

Presenting artworks and public programming to open existing collections and build future archives for generations to come, this exhibition is part of my long-term research project initiated in 2022 through the exhibition, Sweet Dreams, curated by Malika Abbas at AAN Art Space & Museum in Karachi, which explored the relationship between migration and dreams. Building on the migratory architecture of dreams, Cooking, Time? now turns to the question of archives to consider the tangled nature of migration and food. I will also produce a third and final exhibition for this research project, displacing my investment in Pakistani immigration to the history of Norwegian migration to North America. The date and location for this third instalment will be announced at a later date.

The central themes we have explored through the project include collaboration, diversity, and

decolonial knowledge production. It is also rooted in discourse around migration, race, and diaspora, and has developed necessary encounters between diverse publics in Norway and Pakistan.

"With sticks and paper, To voice those words of rights and concerns, of freed time in free time", collage with color pencil, digital photo print on archival hahnemühle satin rag paper, mounted on aluminum sheet, Interkulturelt Museum, 2024.

Material from public archives plays a crucial role in the show. To what extent is the period of Pakistani migration to Norway in the 60s and 70s documented? Are there a lot of photographs in the public collections?

Personally, I have only delved into two archive collections, one submitted by Aud Kørbol at Oslo City Collection, which is one of the largest archives I know of and consists of newspaper clips, posters, letters to the ministers and community, video and very few photographs. The other archive collection I have worked with is titled Norsk i går, i dag, i morgen” (2001-2005) at Norsk Folk Museum. There are quite many photographs documented within this archive collection but I am not very certain if this is all.

Sarah Kazmi - Semiotics of Food (detail), 2019. Mixed media, text, audio, drawings, photographs, 190x200 cm. Oslo National Academy of the Arts (KHiO).

Food plays a crucial role in your artistic practice. How did you end up working with food as both a theme and a working method and why is food of interest for you as an artist?

My curiosity about food as an artistic medium started back in 2014, when I wrote a dissertation titled; “Considering that food has emerged as an artistic medium for contemporary art in Pakistan, how does it reduce the gap between viewer and the artwork and consequently how does it blur the distinction between the artist and the participant? After finishing my dissertation, I started practising relational art together with food as tools for socio-political change; creating a space of consumption that facilitates interactions.

In the summer of 2019, I completed my thesis titled “Semiotics of Food: Can food be looked upon as a language? And if so, can we visualize this language beyond just taste and consumption? When it comes to food, language plays a variety of roles. It begins with cooking food in the kitchen, ingredients on wrinkled grocery receipts, conversations with people at the bar I work at, and the labels on international food products in supermarkets. This investigation of textual data resulted in a research- and process-driven approach, through which I decoded food as a language in our everyday life, as an extension of the cultures and identities that shape us individually and collectively.

This project culminated into a three-volume publication and is still an ongoing research. The first two volumes looked into the production and consumption of bananas and coffee visualizing through concrete poetry, drawings, text, photographs, video stills and spoken word; that focused on the food process sustainability, harvesting, and labor, to preparing a meal; while the third one shaped into a more in-depth research volume. These poems have been recited at different happenings like Through the Tandoor at Flat bread Society (2017) and Food Art Film Festival at the Van Eyck Academie (2018).  

So, in short, yes! Food has been at the forefront of my artistic practice and the semiotics that one undergoes in understanding the role it plays in our daily lives. It’s always intertwined with/around texts, sound, installations and image-based works to explore circulation processes of food as a strategy for communication and knowledge production, and its significance in our everyday life, beyond a consumption culture.

As language and food are closely linked, if for nothing else, the fact that the mouth is instrumental in both. For language, the oral cavity is the means of expression, for food it is the means of reception and tasting. It is like an intersection where language and food meet. Looking at language for its poetic impact and literary resonances, I am also exploring the formal qualities of language through its visual arrangement on the page, creating sculptural works (concrete poetry) with embedded text. Writing poems has given room for errors, sometimes losing its meaning into a newfound meaning; for example the idea of gender, grammar, pronunciation, and different types of texts such as recipes, receipts, concrete poetry, etc. Working with the medium of writing, I have been expanding it with readings, sound recordings and installations, where ‘voice’ becomes my main medium; questioning the form of engagement and collective experiences “live" events can create.

In my current project Cooking, Time?, food has entered ‘literally and materially” into my practice, as well, using serving and cooking food for the audience. This can be seen on the opening day of our exhibition where an audience of up to 170 people was fed Pakistani food, chai and sweets.

Last but not least, I was part of a residency last year titled “Climata: Ecological Change at the time of Crisis”, which led to an audio-visual installation titled “The Sea We See is not Blue” at Teknisk Museum. The 3 channel video installation was accompanied by a spoken word performance and a zine titled Waves - a speculative yet poetic study of the Sea, presenting waves as sine waves, looking at the geographical importance of waves not only within the Sea but also within economics and statistics.

If we closely analyse the power of food as a language, and a method of storytelling, it mediates on many levels. It is a strategy that involves making words stand for the world, changing one’s experience of the surrounding events. It is here that the food we eat and the words we speak, go hand-in-hand almost aiding as a language on its own in constructing, relating and sharing stories with others, in the face of disparate circumstances. It is not that food is replacing speech; rather it is supplementing when the words are not speaking. Concluding the notion that food may embody the form of an event or situation.

"No spoons or whisks, fingers extending", Photo collage with Aud Korbøl viewing the work at Interkulturelt Museum 2024.

There are several events planned throughout the exhibition period. What will take place at these events?

Throughout the exhibition, the space at IKM will become a site for counter-archival performances, food gatherings, and collaborative translations – a point of departure to look again at the archives and histories we have inherited and those we get to recreate.

The public program includes a panel discussion, translation workshops, performances and community-oriented dialogues and a picnic.

On 2nd May, the panel featured Shazia Majid, Thomas Walle, and Arnfinn Midtbøen. Each panellist shared their own work related to historizing and archiving Pakistani migrations, and touched on broader concerns around the writing and re-writing of history.

Horizontal Workshop/picnic is scheduled to take place on 26th May.

This workshop is planned in conversation with the exhibition, Cooking, Time?, and invites the public to share their responses to questions about history writing and archival practice. While the conversation will be moderated by curator Noor Bhangu, participants will be invited to co-create the dynamics and directions of the workshop. Instead of relying on top-down models of doing research, this workshop will be an effort to flatten embedded hierarchies and authorities in the field of history.

This workshop will take place outside and include a community barbeque as well as the presentation of a commissioned cake by artist Javon Bennett.

On 1st June, there is an artist walk and talk where I will invite the audience to listen to my performance titled Sound text followed by unpacking key artworks in the exhibition; discussing my research on Norwegian archives about Pakistani migrants and sharing insights from my processes of art making.

It will then be followed by a performance by artist Sanjey Suresh Kumar who has been invited into the project. SASUSU Radio pulls the handbrake at Motzfeldtsgate in Grønland to hold an event filled with blended taste, stories of coexistence and togetherness through sonic vibrations and film. In the 90s and early 2000s, Motzfeldtsgate had a cultural significance for the Tamil community in Norway. As one of many streets in Grønland that facilitated different lifestyles of the people connected to the place, this particular street consisted of a food store dedicated to Tamil spices, tea and international call cards, as well as a video store that used to rent out the latest Kollywood films. By highlighting the Norwegian-Tamil history at Motzfeldtsgate, and its social and multicultural infrastructures, SASUSU Radio seeks to expand ideas of migratory meeting places and how they change or take another form over time.


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