an interview with Sita Bhaumik, head chef at building legacies:45 years of art and reisistance
Sita Bhaumik is co-founder of People’s Kitchen Collective, which works at the intersection of art and activism as a food-centered political education project. For the past three years, she has generously shared her talent with Kearny Street Workshop and hosted an annual food-based fundraiser. This year, she’s taking it up a level as head chef for Building Legacies: 45 Years of Art and Resistance on April 19th at the Chinese Culture Center. Donate $45 for each of KSW's 45 years!
What have your different roles been with KSW?
All of them except on staff! When I moved to the Bay Area after college, my mentor told me to look up Kearny Street Workshop. I went to an event and immediately started taking workshops in everything I was too afraid to take in school: performance, writing, and poetry. I submitted a workshop piece to APAture, became a program committee advisor and eventually, a board member. Now I consider myself a KSW cheerleader and on-call cook.
Describe your most memorable KSW event?
So...I started dating the person who is now my husband after a KSW event so I think that's got to be the most memorable! Sam Chanse had asked me to participate in an exhibition at SOMArts called POST I.D. I had two large-scale installations using materials that were "flesh" toned. It was part of a series of work I had made about identifying the skin tones that American society considered "normal" or "desirable." I remember I was standing next to this giant piece I had made of shredded pantyhose and this guy walked in who caught my attention. We started dating within weeks.
You have a photography practice, but your creative work has veered from that medium. How have you integrated food and art?
I'd say it has expanded from photography, which is still very important to my practice. Western culture and digital culture are hyper-focused on the visual. We believe we can do or own nearly everything by just looking. When I was in grad school in CCA's Visual and Critical Studies program, I began to question this. What about all of the other senses?! This is what brought me to food, oral history, scent, media that challenge me to engage the whole body instead of just a part of it.
With People's Kitchen Collective, you offer political education through art, activism, and food. How can a dish embody those elements?
For our recent meal in remembrance of EO9066, Chizu Omori talked to us about how Japanese American Internment was a project of cultural genocide. It was a very clear effort to separate Japanese Americans from our land, food, language, music, and art. As JA's, many of us don't speak the language and no longer farm, but food is one of the ways that we keep culture alive. In our meal we like to weave together memory, land, and labor right into the dishes. For the EO9066 meal our guest speaker was 83-year-old activist Flora Ninomiya whose family has cultivated flowers for over 100 years in Richmond. We visited Flora's home and textile artist Misha Abbas used blossoms from her garden to dye furoshiki that we used to wrap the dessert. Furoshiki are squares of cloth used to bundle and transport everything, especially food. Shortly after the meal, Flora moved away from this land and this cloth took on a whole new meaning for me. It's another way of remembering her family's remarkable story of resilience.
PKC has been blowing up with recognition from the funders (Kenneth Rainin Foundation), arts organizations (CAAMFeast, YBCA 100), and the larger community (PKC events sell out in days!). Why do you think this connection between food, art, and social justice is resonates so strongly?
For me, a meal is a way to tell stories that connect past, present, and future. And in a world that feels fractured, coming together at the table is a way to be whole. While we want our meals to imagine possibility, it's important to us that we don't produce a fantasy. If you want an escape, there's no shortage of new restaurants that render history and labor invisible.
You're in the menu planning stages for Building Legacies: 45 Years of Art and Resistance, but give us a teaser? What are you turning to for inspiration for the meal?
You may not think of food when you think of KSW, but I think it's one of the most potent organizing tools we have. From takeout at meetings to holiday potlucks and fundraisers, food has been a sort of social glue, sticking Asian Americans together. So I actually have a question for people reading this. I would LOVE to hear a food memory that you have about KSW! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org You never know, it might end up on the menu.