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Inside the Chaupal: Commissioned Performance at Art Dubai 2023

That food is universal is a truism; yes, everyone must eat to survive and yet, it hides deeper and more complex social, political and economic nuances. A series of ten commission at the heart of Art Dubai, Chaupal explores this interplay between the intuitive understanding we all have of the connections created over sharing food, and with individual lived experience.

Each of the artists chosen hails from South Asia; from Delhi, Mumbai, Punjab, and Kolkata in India; Colombo in Sri Lanka; Jhalakati and Dhaka in Bangladesh; Shillong, Meghalaya and Karachi in Pakistan. These histories and stories may be yours, they may reverberate around your own past and family narrative; or, they may feel distant and otherly to you. Several of the projects in Chaupal point towards loss of place, family, famine and grief. You may be lucky enough not to have a history of exile, war, migration or persecution that pervade works such as of Rathin Barman’s ‘Mete-Begun’ (Chicken liver with Eggplant), a recipe innovated out of necessity to feed a family displaced from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), or the ‘Péz’ – a form gruel first served in Colonial era prisons and later the only source of nourishment for farmers working on the fields in Maharashtra and the Konkan region of India – of Amol Patil and Parul Sinha.

A bitter-sweet grain by Prajakata Potnis examines the idea of labour, the preoccupation with purity within the space of a domestic kitchen, while other recipes such as the ‘Chhatu’ of Mahbubur Rahman show us the abilities of communities to support one another in the hardest of times. such as the Langar-Khana a community kitchen that serves free meals to the needy regardless of religion or ethnicity, and was especially important during famines like the devastating Bengal famine of 1943. The Pak Tea House by Faraz Ali offers inside into am important cultural landmark in Lahore, a historic tea cafe for artists, writers, thinkers, intellectuals; birthplace of the influential Progressive Writers Movement in South Asia. Tea is served as conduit to share this history. 

Elsewhere, the food of celebration, sweets and dessert as well as games offers a more lighthearted entry into the aesthetics, dreams and play of others. ‘The Milk Rice’ (Kiri Bath) of Anoli Perer, is served as part of Sinhala and Tamil new year celebrations each April; and Tayeba Lipi offers us the famed ‘Rasamanjuri’ sweet, made with pure cow milk and small, juicy, sweet balls floating in thick milk which from their beginnings in 1940s Gaibandha in Northern Bangladesh quickly became staple at family events throughout the country.

 Global politics, histories of migration and regional connectedness, as well as notions of community, family, celebration and love, displacement and bereavement and are all infused into the commissions, allowing the food on offer to act both as metaphor and a literal site of exchange. Such encounters activate the stories behind each project as both highly situated and personal and, interconnected, unifying. Situated within Art Dubai, a highly connected fair of the Global South, you are invited not only to hear these stories, but to ingest and experience them.

 Live art is an increasingly important part of contemporary art practice, and yet it has little commercial appeal. It is entirely possible to buy and collect performance art as such, but with an underdeveloped market for such works, few galleries can place emphasise on them within the fair context. The contemporary art ecosystem is a complex beast – full of tensions and what can feel like mutually exclusive spaces of artworks as objects against artworks as experiences, public and private, critical and commercial aims. Art Dubai’s Commissions create a platform for such practices and, devised in collaboration both with commercial galleries and not-for-profit art centres, highlight how such artworks can cross these divides.

Without such interventions, a fair risks suggesting that that the primary medium of contemporary art remains painting. Centring them, on the other hand, and connecting them to works in the commercial spaces of the fair creates a link between these disparate sites of production, display and circulation. 

Words: Rose Lejeune, independent curator and founder of Performance Exchange, platform for performance art in galleries.

For daily schedule of performances check the Art Dubai app.

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