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Yotam Ottolenghi, Asim Rehman, and Lowery Stokes Sims l Breaking down barriers l Met Stories

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I've always loved museums But I never thought I'd make that connection between, you know, my daily job as someone who serves food for a living and my love of art and history

The Met contacted me in 2015 They had the exhibition 'Jerusalem, 1000 to 1400,' and they wanted me to do an event creating this kind of authentic medieval feast that features the food of the region The Christian and Muslim and Jewish cultures met together in medieval Jerusalem and that became the origin of Middle Eastern food culture today Most of what I cook comes from my childhood in the Middle East, in Jerusalem, but I didn't know so much about the medieval period When I was preparing for the event, I discovered that some of the first cookbooks in the world were published in Baghdad in the 10th and 13th centuries and what struck me is actually how very similar the food of the region then was to what it is now

Technologically food was so advanced The Muslims were refining sugar and refining flour, so you can create things that were really light and fluffy and delicious Dishes like lamb with fruit and nuts, chickpeas and lentils and all those things that are so part of the Middle Eastern food culture today were actually already very much available back then, and I discovered exactly the same happens when I go into a museum When you look into a piece of art deeply, you see how cultures come together In the gallery, people have that kind of shared communal experience of the artworks

It's an incredible tool to bridge gaps and divides between cultures and people Things don't stand in isolation And exactly the same happens with food Food is a great facilitator for fusing tension, and for someone who grew up in the Middle East in Jerusalem with all the tensions and all the conflict, I guess it's a personal crusade to allow food to do its job, to do its work When people sit next to each other, they might not know each other, but what's on the plate is a great way to start a conversation

I grew up in Staten Island, New York We lived on a very suburban street, so it was a very all-American upbringing in some respects In other respects, we were the only immigrant family of color in our entire neighborhood But my parents became friends with the other Pakistanis who lived on Staten Island and we opened doors to a mosque that's still standing That mosque was the foundation for what became my understanding of my faith

1n 1987, my parents rented a yellow school bus that showed up to the mosque and we all piled in with our snacks and took this field trip to The Metropolitan Museum of Art It was even featured in our mosque newsletter That field trip is my first memory of The Metropolitan Museum of Art It put in my heart this memory of The Met as a place that makes community, because it's celebrating our heritage That's one reason why I like this Moroccan courtyard so much

Not long ago, when the Museum was getting ready to renovate the Islamic Art wing, artisans from Morocco were able to take those traditions that have been passed down for centuries and make this courtyard from scratch The Met is not just about these objects, it's about the community we create with other people when we interact with those objects As I was growing up, I don't think I had this formed sense of this idea of Islamic art You don't talk enough about how important beauty is and the importance of learning about different cultures and different faith traditions within the broader notion of Islam, and that helps break down barriers What we have here in the United States, and particularly in cities like New York, is this real amazing growth of an American-Muslim identity where notions of difference are falling away

Now that I am older, I introduce other people in the Muslim community to this crown jewel that we have in New York City, because what a pleasure it would be if that was some other child's first memory of The Met I was at The Met for 27 years I started as a member of the staff of what was then called "community programs" We were kind of like a motley, multiracial crew, and our job was mainly to make The Met accessible outside of the building In 1975, I joined the curatorial staff as an Assistant Curator in 20th Century Art

At the time, The Met's view of contemporary art was very conservative My interest was in having a much more diverse representation by bringing in works from artists of color to disrupt that narrative Every time I introduced a work by, you know, a woman or a person of color, somebody always asked the dimensions And no matter what dimensions I gave, he'd go, "I'm afraid that's a little too big" So I'd go, "Hmmm

" In the mid-nineties, the art world itself was changing, so the Museum decided to sort of deal with issues of diversity We were trying to represent the totality of human endeavor From my point of view, it's a sea change from when I started Museums now are really more cognizant of the need for interactivity and engaging the public More and more, the onus is on us to have more dialogues, to come down off our podium rather than just reacting

Institutions are so used to being a unilateral authority, but if institutions are inviting people in, then they have to sort of be ready for that kind of dialogue My work in community programs really set a model and trajectory for my curatorial work I was constantly having dialogues with community members about how they felt about The Met Sometimes, it's just really asking a question, so I always ask and listen and go on from there

Source: Youtube

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