“For the last couple of decades, I’ve been very interested in personal archives. How do we deal with the past as a way to imagine the present, but also to influence the future? I would say that’s been a major thrust of my work, in various manifestations, over the last several years.”
—Lyle Ashton Harris
I think about this conversation with Lyle Ashton Harris almost every day. Something about his demeanor embodies everything he is—an artist, an educator, and, as I discovered, a proficient cook.
Everything he said was thought provoking, profound, like a beautiful labyrinth that weaved its way through my mind. As I walk through it, I keep discovering more and more, finding my way to the other side, only to start the journey again.
Before talking about his family’s extensive culinary history, we spoke about having the time to reflect, to have perspective, to put the pieces together, and to process during this time of isolation. He said that going through these archives of letters, postcards, photographs of his mentors, friends, and family has been “a way to recontextualize and ground myself. Also, to somehow give to the future, to give to this generation.”
He mentions his interest in food as a form of warfare—from one extreme to the next. On one hand, food is a healing modality for the body, but it also reflects the strength and commitment of community. He referenced the free breakfast programs of the Black Panthers, as well as his father’s homeland of South Africa, as examples. Lyle’s father was deeply involved with the African National Congress and also worked as translator for the United Nations. “Anyone in the movement has passed through our house in the Bronx,” he said, and there always had to be food.
Lyle speaks of the table as a space to gather, support one another, and process trauma, to discuss and learn through the power and healing of a shared meal.
On the other end of the extreme, he mentioned food deserts, where people lack access to affordable fresh produce and whole grains and therefore have little to no avenue for proper nutrition. Food affects all aspects of our lives.
As an artist whose mediums include photography, video, collage, and installation, Lyle transitions easily into applying themes from his art practice to his cooking. For him, cooking is like a montage, and he works to amplify elements within a basic ingredient—layering flavors to create subtlety.
We can find that same layering in our personal archive, the labyrinth of memories in our mind. May we piece together all the connections, nostalgia, identity, and contradictions that food is. May it make us stronger, weave us together, and allow us to contribute to the next generation.