“You learn something new every day…”
Well, maybe not EVERY day but, while researching for JerseyArts.com features, I regularly learn something new.
For example, I have known about Perkins Center for the Arts for a very long time. I’ve been to many exhibitions, participated in classes, and enjoyed several of the DeCafe Concerts over the years.
But, prior to talking with Perkins’ Associate Director Diane Felcyn and Folklife Center Director, Karen Abdul-Malik (better known to many as Queen Nur), I had no idea that Perkins has a Folklife Center.
The mission of the Perkins Folklife Center, established in 2010, is to identify authentic folk and traditional ethnic ways of being, creating, and living in South Jersey.
“We’re looking for what is unique to us, what no one else has,” Felcyn said, “and sometimes those things are directly associated with ethnic identity.”
“These people are the culture keepers,” Felcyn said.
To share these significant discoveries and connections more broadly, the Folklife Center has the opportunity every other year to curate the Perkins summer exhibition.
This summer’s show is “Tastefully South Jersey Exhibition and Workshop Series,” curated by Abdul-Malik and happening through August 25 at Perkins’ Collingswood Gallery.
Described on the art center web site as “An exploration of food traditions from Caribbean, Eastern European, West African, African-American Southern and Latino cultures and how they are sustained in our communities,” “Tastefully South Jersey” brings together eleven fine artists showing works inspired by food with a group of food artisans from Camden, Burlington, and Gloucester Counties who share their cultural traditions and experiences around food.
Abdul-Malik provided a bit of background on the Folklife Center and the beginnings of the “Tastefully South Jersey” project.
“Tom Carroll was the Director of the Folklife Center when it began, and he did extensive field work at that time to find the culture keepers in the area,” Abdul-Malik said. “So, when we conceived of the idea for this project, we followed up with many of those people.”
The objective of the project was clear – to identify and then highlight an element that is common across the region and its residents.
“We were looking at what brings people together,” Abdul-Malik said, “and how we could see and appreciate our similarities and our differences.”
And they discovered that a significant shared element is food.
“Food is the connector,” she said. “Each food culture has its treasures and traditions. It is a primary part of everyday life.”
This universality also comes through in the exhibition artworks.
“The fine arts also speak to the cross-cultural connections,” Abdul-Malik noted “As with food, each artist and culture can show how they use the ingredients.”
And, as Abdul-Malik pointed out, the pairing of cultural artisans with visual artists creates symmetry.
“The art is complemented by the other cultural forms,” she said. “And, by choosing food as a focus, the artists have elevated the subject matter and shown respect for the culture keepers.”
Reaction to the exhibition and the first two events – “Taste of West Africa and African-American Soul” (July 14) and “Taste of Poland and Turkey” (July 28) – has been enthusiastic.
“People are surprised by this level of richness and community,” she said, “and appreciate being able to see the work of cultural artisans and visual artists in the same place.”
Last Saturday, my son and I spent a couple of hours at the “Taste of Poland and Turkey” event. The artwork is wonderful, the food-tasting was a real treat, and the Polish folk-dance troupe put on a colorful and energetic performance and created an interactive experience by encouraging audience members to join in. And, as we were leaving, we had a fascinating conversation with one of the food artisans, Serife Ayakta from Turkey, who settled in South Jersey and, until recently, ran Star Manti, a small Turkish restaurant in Delran (which, surprisingly to me, has a strong Turkish community.) And, our first-hand experience reflected what Abdul-Malik had told me about.
At its heart, “Tastefully South Jersey” speaks most powerfully to what brings people together, not what divides them.
“You can hear the similarities,” Abdul-Malik said. “After all, everybody eats.”
“Tastefully South Jersey” is on view at Perkins Center for the Arts Collingswood Gallery through August 25.
Upcoming events include:
Taste of Mexico and Peru – August 18, 10:00 a.m.–2:00 p.m. Eco Del Sur: Music from the Andes and Latin America, Food Demonstrations, Heritage Preservation Day
Becoming American: It’s not a Melting Pot… It’s Pot Luck – August 23, 6:00–8:30 p.m. Take a seat at our community table to discuss and celebrate America’s immigrant fortune and delight in cultural food fare
Taste of the Caribbean – August 25, 10:00–2:00 p.m. Hosted by South Jersey Caribbean Cultural Organization featuring Steel Pan Performance and Workshop, Island Delights and Differences Panel Discussion, Food Tasting, SocaFitness
CULTURAL FOOD ARTISANS: Elizabet Aguilar – Mexican; Ylvia Anatolia Asal – Turkish; Serife Ayakta – Turkish; Loona Cadely-Jeanty – Haitian; Anna Felcyn – Polish; Esther Giple – Liberian; Katherine Inez Guadalupe – St. Lucian; Jonathan Jernigan – International; Sherma Joyce – Trinadadian; Nana Kittoe Manful – Ghananian; Corrine B. Powers – African American Soul; Travara Tilghman – African American Soul
FINE ARTISTS: Robert Bender, Phil Carroll, Michael Clay, Ruthanne Compton, Judy Karten, Rita Kieffer, Lisa Matera, Peter Meadowsong, Marie Natale, Mark Natale, Laura Renner