Seminar | Holly Shaffer and Sussan Babaie on Food and the Senses

Posted in lectures (to attend), online learning by Editor on January 7, 2023

Painting attributed to Muzaffar ‘Ali, from The Coronation of the Infant Shapur II, Folio 538r from the Shahnama (Book of Kings) of Shah Tahmasp by Abu’l Qasim Firdausi, ca. 1525–30, opaque watercolour, ink, silver, and gold on paper.

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From the PMC:

Holly Shaffer and Sussan Babaie on Food and the Senses
In-person and online, Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, London, 11 January 2023, 5pm

Part of the series In Conversation: New Directions in Art History, which will explore the changing modes and methodologies of approaching visual and material worlds. Running from January to March 2023.

Holly Shaffer | Plants, Gardens, Markets, Delicacies: Food and Art in 18th- and 19th-Century India

Food is ephemeral. Produce can last at most months, while cooked foods remain for a few hours or, with conservation, a few years. Yet artists, cooks, and writers have developed methods of preservation—from documenting the cultivation of plants to transcribing recipes—that acknowledge continuity through memory and repetition as well as change through colonial and environmental factors, artistic ingenuity and loss. In this paper, I will align botanical, ethnographic and narrative manuscript paintings, recipe books, and vessels produced by artists and chefs in north India in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with oral histories taken primarily in Lucknow in the twenty-first century. How does thinking through a framework of ephemerality allow multiple items to co-exist and perishable objects to survive? Does art history as a discipline offer a method to study ephemeral arts such as cultivation or cuisine? What might the intersection of food and art—and their different temporalities—offer us as art historians?

Holly Shaffer is Assistant Professor of History of Art and Architecture at Brown University with a specialisation in British and South Asian Art and their intersections. Her book, Grafted Arts: Art Making and Taking in the Struggle for Western India, 1760–1910, published by the Paul Mellon Centre with Yale University Press in 2022, won the AIIS Edward C. Dimock, Jr. Book Prize in the Indian Humanities. She has published essays in The Art Bulletin, Art History, Journal 18, Modern Philology, and Third Text, and has edited volume 51 of Ars Orientalis (2021) on the movement of graphic arts across Asia and Europe. Currently, she is co-curating an exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art on Artists and the British East India Company, and is developing a book project on food and art.

Sussan Babaie | ‘Adorning the Delicious Food Is To Say Grace for the Blessings’: Persian Art and Cookery in the 16th and 17th Centuries

This talk is about rice. The history of rice and its adaptation from a staple food in East Asia to a culinary canvas for innovative recipes, objects, and ceremonies is, I claim, an altogether Iranian story. Thanks largely to the Mongol rule in West Asia, rice was made a widespread agricultural product, just as Persian spread across West, Central, and South Asia as the language of literary high culture, and being a shah, and not a caliph, gained ascendency as the legitimate mode of rulership. Rice, however, does not command its central role as a marker of Iranian cuisine and a source of effect in food—a style nowadays called ‘fine dining’—until the early modern period and especially in Persianate Asia. From the late fifteenth century onwards cookbooks, written by chefs not chroniclers, indicate a form of professionalisation in the cookery crafts. Vessels, amongst which the large, wide, shallow platters are distinctive products of the ceramic arts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Safavid (1501–1722) Iran, indicate a specialised function, namely for serving rice dishes in a particularly ‘artistic’ manner. The cooks write on how to arrange food in a dish and the dishes carry epigraphic sayings about specific functions of the vessels and the food they were to serve. These—the recipes, the objects for food, and the visual representations of foodways—act as mediators marking the food and the dish as a multisensory experience of rice as art.

Sussan Babaie is Professor of Islamic and Iranian Art History at the Courtauld, University of London. She has curated exhibitions on Persian and Islamic arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, at Harvard, Smith College and Michigan University museums, and at the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon. She is the author of the award-winning Isfahan and Its Palaces and co-author of Persian Kingship and Architecture; Shirin Neshat, Honar: The Afkhami Collection of Modern and Contemporary Iranian Art; and Geometry and Art: In the Modern Middle East. Sussan is currently working on a co-curated exhibition about arts of the Great Mongol State for The Royal Academy, London, and on a book about Persian art and food.

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