Last week in Chicago, an Iraqi food truck opened as part of an ongoing creative work by artist Michael Rakowitz. The project, Enemy Kitchen, uses the cultural lens of Iraqi food and recipes to initiate conversation about Iraq and the war in Iraq and its aftermaths with communities. Each day the food truck invites different Iraqi cooks to prepare dishes from different regions of the country. American veterans of the Iraq War help out as servers or sous-chefs.
Rakowitz has been known for raising social awareness of the Iraq War. A version of Enemy Kitchen is now on display at the Smart Museum in Chicago, where Iraqi dishes are served on replications of Saddam Hussein’s china. Since 2004, the project has collaborated on cuisines with middle school and high school students in New York City and veterans of the Iraq and Vietnam Wars to remind Americans of the war.
Political art tends to protest, critique, or revolutionize. Banksy’s graffiti, Orwell’s allegories, and even Uncle Tom’s Cabin intended to motivate political action with clear confrontation. Modern art is often too elite and esoteric for the public.
But Enemy Kitchen is modern political art at its most accessible, open, and delicious.
What’s more welcoming than food? Food is a uniquely extensive as an expression of a culture, since it plays a role in everything from everyday nourishment to religious celebrations. More than any other art form, food may be the most inclusive, since you literally ingest another’s creation. It involves all the senses — Enemy Kitchen features Chicago’s flag in the colors of the Iraqi flag and provides rose water to recreate the aromatic experience of Iraqi cuisine — and embraces the visitor with an entire culture. As a symbol of hospitality across all cultures, food invites conversation.
And Rakowitz has no political agenda except discussion. He parks in neighborhoods with art institutions and heavy military recruitment, where he expects to find the most interesting conversations.
The food truck wanders through the city, making Enemy Kitchen is a modern-day caravan of Iraqi culture for a metropolis far from the original Middle Eastern country. For the past 150 years, mobile kitchens have served cheap food for workers. Chuckwagons fed cattle herders who expanded west after the Civil War, mobile canteens served stateside army bases, and “roach coaches” fed construction sites in the 1950’s. Since construction businesses have suffered since the onset of the 2008 recession, food trucks have again moved to cities. Today they serve a range of ethnic specialties or creative specialized foods for hip urban consumers. But Rakowitz keeps the food affordable and on-the go, making his art accessible for a mass audience.
As the ninth anniversary of the start of the Iraq War has just passed, Enemy Kitchen balances art’s purposes of cultural description and social commentary on the importance of inclusive political conversation.