Yotam Ottolenghi, Asim Rehman, and Lowery Stokes Sims l Breaking down barriers l Met Stories

Yotam Ottolenghi, Asim Rehman, and Lowery Stokes Sims l Breaking down barriers l Met Stories

I’ve always loved museums. But I never thought I’d make that
connection between, you know, my daily job as someone who serves food
for a living and my love of art and history. The Met contacted me in 2015. They had the exhibition ‘Jerusalem, 1000 to 1400,’ and they wanted me to do
an event creating this kind of authentic medieval feast that features
the food of the region. The Christian and Muslim
and Jewish cultures met together in medieval Jerusalem and that
became the origin of Middle Eastern food culture today. Most of what I cook comes from my childhood in the Middle East, in Jerusalem, but I didn’t know so much
about the medieval period. When I was preparing for the event, I discovered that some of the first
cookbooks in the world were published in Baghdad in the 10th and 13th centuries
and what struck me is actually how very similar the food of the region
then was to what it is now. Technologically food was so advanced. The Muslims were refining
sugar and refining flour, so you can create things that were
really light and fluffy and delicious. Dishes like lamb with fruit and nuts, chickpeas and lentils and all those
things that are so part of the Middle Eastern food culture today were actually
already very much available back then, and I discovered exactly the same
happens when I go into a museum. When you look into a piece of art deeply,
you see how cultures come together. In the gallery, people have that kind of shared
communal experience of the artworks. It’s an incredible tool to bridge gaps
and divides between cultures and people. Things don’t stand in isolation. And
exactly the same happens with food. Food is a great facilitator
for fusing tension, and for someone who grew up in the
Middle East in Jerusalem with all the tensions and all the conflict, I guess it’s a personal crusade to allow
food to do its job, to do its work. When people sit next to each other,
they might not know each other, but what’s on the plate is a
great way to start a conversation. I grew up in Staten Island, New York.
We lived on a very suburban street, so it was a very all-American upbringing
in some respects. In other respects, we were the only immigrant family
of color in our entire neighborhood. But my parents became friends with the
other Pakistanis who lived on Staten Island and we opened doors to
a mosque that’s still standing. That mosque was the foundation for what
became my understanding of my faith. 1n 1987, my parents rented a yellow school bus
that showed up to the mosque and we all piled in with our snacks and took this
field trip to The Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was even featured
in our mosque newsletter. That field trip is my first memory
of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. It put in my heart this memory of The
Met as a place that makes community, because it’s celebrating our heritage. That’s one reason why I like
this Moroccan courtyard so much. Not long ago, when the Museum was getting ready
to renovate the Islamic Art wing, artisans from Morocco were able to take
those traditions that have been passed down for centuries and make
this courtyard from scratch. The Met is not just about these objects, it’s about the community we create with
other people when we interact with those objects. As I was growing up, I don’t think I had this formed
sense of this idea of Islamic art. You don’t talk enough about how
important beauty is and the importance of learning about different cultures and different faith traditions within the broader notion of Islam, and that helps break down barriers. What we have here in the United States, and
particularly in cities like New York, is this real amazing growth of an
American-Muslim identity where notions of difference are falling
away. Now that I am older, I introduce other people in the Muslim
community to this crown jewel that we have in New York City, because what a pleasure it would be if that was some other child’s first memory of The Met. I was at The Met for 27 years. I started as a member of the staff of
what was then called “community programs.” We were kind of like a
motley, multiracial crew, and our job was mainly to make The Met
accessible outside of the building. In 1975, I joined the curatorial staff as an
Assistant Curator in 20th Century Art. At the time, The Met’s view of contemporary
art was very conservative. My interest was in having a much more
diverse representation by bringing in works from artists of color
to disrupt that narrative. Every time I introduced a work by, you know, a woman or a person of color, somebody always asked the dimensions.
And no matter what dimensions I gave, he’d go, “I’m afraid that’s
a little too big.” So I’d go, “Hmmm.” In the mid-nineties, the
art world itself was changing, so the Museum decided to sort of
deal with issues of diversity. We were trying to represent
the totality of human endeavor. From my point of view, it’s a
sea change from when I started. Museums now are really more cognizant of
the need for interactivity and engaging the public. More and more, the onus is on us to have more dialogues, to come down off our
podium rather than just reacting. Institutions are so used to
being a unilateral authority, but if institutions
are inviting people in, then they have to sort of be
ready for that kind of dialogue. My work in community programs really
set a model and trajectory for my curatorial work. I was constantly having dialogues with
community members about how they felt about The Met. Sometimes, it’s just really asking a question, so I always ask and listen and go on from there.

3 Replies to “Yotam Ottolenghi, Asim Rehman, and Lowery Stokes Sims l Breaking down barriers l Met Stories”

  1. Diversity is what can make life brilliant and beautiful for all of us. Yet worldwide collaboration in all disciplines is a must. If we are to continue. Thank you. 🙂

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