Interview: Amanny Ahmad

Amanny Ahmad wears a gold ring on her finger, forged in the West Bank and bearing the word yalla, a common Arabic term meaning “come on,” “hurry up,” “let’s get going.” It’s a sentiment she’s taken to heart: true to her itinerant upbringing (born in Utah to Palestinian immigrants, she was raised between the two countries), Amanny has spent the last six years in near-constant travel, having made the gradual shift from studio artist to nomadic chef-for-hire. In recent months alone, she’s passed through Brooklyn, Vermont, Mexico, the Cayman Islands, Southern California, rural Japan and upstate New York, her trekking subsidized by a continual stream of residencies and one-off events.

Growing up in the American Southwest and the Middle East, Amanny’s perspective is shaped in equal turn by inherited tradition and earned insight, the natural world and social awareness. It’s a balance she continues to explore in the meals she organizes around the world: communal, carefully curated dining experiences in which preparation and presentation evoke larger questions surrounding the methods we use to trace and reconcile our identities, positing cuisine as a function not only of particular geographies, but also of personal histories, both individual and shared. But while recent years have seen Amanny gain wide attention as a food activist (which she is, proudly), her true range of pursuits is far more extensive: she is also an avid forager, a floral arranger, a photographer, a researcher, a collector, a teacher. Above all, she considers herself an artist, her diverse activities comprising a single, ever-unfolding practice geared towards the ephemeral and the conceptual.

With that in mind, the following conversation explores some of these other enthusiasms. Through discussion, we come to understand her assorted output as variations on a theme—facets of an interwoven, interdependent and very personal life’s work.

Though today you’re probably best known as a chef, I was actually introduced to your work through your floral arrangements. How did that series come about?

As soon as I graduated from Cooper Union in 2013, I travelled: I went to Palestine and visited my family, and then I went to L.A., where I had a studio for a while. I was making and showing photographs and paintings there, but I was also still working through ideas I’d been exploring at school, where I’d developed this interest in immateriality. I was trying to figure out how to make things without making things—how to be a self-sustaining artist making ephemeral works in a world where capitalism and commercialization are so intertwined with producing and experiencing art. That’s actually what first led me to incorporate food into my practice, when I presented a table of Palestinian dishes as part of my senior thesis show. But it was during this post-graduate period of exploration that I started creating floral arrangements and personal “portraits." Working with plants seemed to cover all bases: making art with an impermanent medium that didn’t require big spaces or expenses, and which couldn’t be commodified in any long-term sense.

Had you studied floral arrangement previously?

No, not formally. I’d had a studio visit with a professor at Cooper, and he brought up Zen Buddhism in relation to my work. I didn’t know much about it at the time, but I studied and found I identified with a lot of the principles, as far as spirituality and consciousness goes—and with ikebana being an embodiment of those principles, I was definitely interested. It was a way of communing with plants that was at once aesthetic and spiritual. As an artist, it also met my conceptual needs in terms of materials. At the time, I was thinking a lot about Baudrillard and facsimile: being interested in objects, but not in representation. I’m not interested in creating simulacra. I want to work directly with individual things, rather than serial representations of things, which is where plants entered my thinking. The floral pieces were inherently ephemeral, but at the same time, they allowed me to incorporate other objects; I’d go thrifting and search for vases and containers, unique items that reflected the people who made them or a particular moment in time. The result was a piece someone could take and enjoy, but then ultimately just throw away. That was important: that the work would die, and you’d be left with this vessel to remind you of the experience—but not as some precious art object. It was still just a vessel.

Did your prior experience with foraging factor into the floral works?

Oh yeah, absolutely. It’s been interesting to approach foraging as an integral part of an artistic practice—not just in terms of searching for wild plant life, but thrifting as well. I see them both as extensions of the same impulse: going out into the world, being presented with many things and deciding what’s useful in the moment, almost in a hunter-gatherer sense. Foraging isn’t cultivation; it’s not agriculture, where you’re manipulating nature to your own ends. It’s more about discovery: noticing beauty, recognizing functionality, repurposing and combining elements, embracing things as they are. I find these ideas very attractive and useful.

In both function and concept, foraging seems like a logical bridge between the floral pieces and the culinary work you’re doing now.

Definitely. In both cases, foraging has been a great way of keeping things experimental, while also retaining a sense of seasonality that’s unique and a sense of locality that’s very specific. In practice, it’s similar to meditation: an exploration, a connection to nature that’s very direct, very healing. That’s how it functions for me personally, although obviously, in terms of Palestinian food, there are also political implications. That’s a big part of it for me, too, which is why foraging is such a pronounced part of my food-making. I’ve always loved biology and the natural world. I’m interested in learning about the infinite manifestations of mushrooms, or how herbs can heal. My mom’s deeply interested in natural medicine—plant-based healing—which is where a lot of this probably comes from.

In retrospect, the floral work was really the in-between point in my transition from art-making to food-making. I was in L.A., doing these floral arrangements, but also cooking a lot; I was taking care of my friends’ son at the time, so I was making meals every day. Over time, that became my main focus. I began organising dinners as public events, eventually leaving California to travel for different events and residencies.

That’s one of the things I find so interesting about this practice you’ve built: it seems like you’ve discovered a sustainable way of working—of living—that thrives on movement and varied circumstances. How did that come to be? Was it by chance or by design?

A little of both. I’ve used New York as my home base on and off for nearly a decade, but I’m on the move pretty much year-round. To be honest, part of this nomadic behavior comes from being unwilling to settle for a lifestyle I don’t want. I’m very stubborn in that regard. I love New York—it offers a unique access to resources, and I’ve built strong relationships within various communities—but there are other aspects to it that feel unhealthy. So I haven’t wanted to settle there, but then I also don’t know where I would want to be. So I keep taking these opportunities that come my way to explore the world, to see and do new things, with the hope that I’ll eventually find a situation I’d want to stay in long-term.

How long has it been since you kept a full-time residence?

I haven’t had an apartment in seven years, which is great in some ways, not so great in others. I’ve definitely learned a lot about non-attachment and flexibility—although, to be fair, my whole life’s been relatively unstable, so I’ve always been quick to adjust to new people and places. But these past few years, I’ve also started to recognize how constant moving can affect you in ways that are perhaps detrimental. I get stimulated by new, unfamiliar places, but that kind of stimulation can be like a drug. You need to have rest periods where you’re processing, absorbing things—then you can externalize them before diving into something new. You need to learn from the things you’re exposed to, and do something with them. Otherwise, it just washes over you and fades into the ether of your subconscious.

In a way, this all goes back to the foraging discussion: it’s about adaptability. Living, working, creating—I’m just attuning myself to different circumstances, being open to what’s around me, detached from outcome. You first knew me as a floral arranger; others may have known me as a photographer, or know me now as a chef—but those are each just iterations of an underlying approach. I could just as easily not be making food two years from now. By that time, maybe I’ll be an architect. Who knows?

Framing your meals within a broader artistic practice is interesting—and potentially vexing—given their political content. From earlier conversations, I know we share a certain aversion to a lot of “political art," as the two elements so often seem like a mutual hindrance. How have you navigated that terrain?

In everything I do, I’m interested in presentation, offering context, even providing means for education—but I find it very difficult to make artworks, especially within conventional formats, that are overtly political without being pedantic. In presenting Palestinian meals, or even just in presenting myself as a Palestinian-American woman, there’s always a political edge anyway, but I’m a socially conscious person, and it’s important that my work embodies my principles. Take something like sourcing: I want people to be thoughtful about where their food comes from, how it’s made, who they buy it from. But at the same time, it’s not like I’m staging each of my dinners as a kind of protest—or, for that matter, trying to reframe things in some contrived way in order to make them “artistic.” I’m not going to put a label on the wall listing all of the ingredients as “materials”; I’m not going to present meals in a gallery like a performance piece. This isn’t Relational Aesthetics—it’s about facilitating a unique experience in the present moment.

Is there any overtly political art you’ve seen that has resonated with you?

A single piece comes to mind: En el aire (2003), a work by Teresa Margolles. People would walk into the gallery, and there’d just be all these bubbles in the air; then you come to find out that the bubbles were made from water that was used to clean the bodies of victims of the Mexican drug wars. To me, that is an extremely successful work. It doesn’t necessarily echo my own goals or sensibility, but I think it’s so poignant, so efficient—a great example of using non-mediums to deliver a very direct message. It definitely informed my approach to food-making, in that it offered an alternative template for what political artworks can look like. But particularly in the current landscape, as traditional models of resistance lose their effectiveness, what does it even mean to be political? To me, it’s about using available resources to subvert nefarious conditions. When we talk about foraging and food-making, especially in circumstances like those facing Palestine, we’re talking about resilience as a political gesture, a refusal to be erased. Even when I present my food in more casual settings, these ideas are always at play.

At the same time, that Margolles work does suffer from the inaccessibility of context and institution: you have to be in that gallery to access the piece, or else read about it in some book written by a museum or art publisher. So I immediately think, “Okay, who is this work really speaking to? Who is this narrowly defined audience?” That’s not necessarily what I’m after. With art, especially political art, there’s always the question of your audience. If something’s going to be truly provocative, you can’t just be singing to the choir, which is something I’ve thought about a lot with my dinners. I love cooking for a receptive audience, but I do sometimes wish the meals were functioning in spaces where the people aren’t already onboard before they arrive. It’s a gift to be supported by like-minded people, obviously, but part of having these experiences unfold in the public realm is the hope that they trigger something in people—open up new ways of thinking about things.

Being perceived as a “political artist” can become an all-encompassing label, which I’d imagine is restrictive. Your work is both a vehicle for personal expression and a platform for education and discussion; I wonder, though, if there are any drawbacks to its being almost preemptively viewed through the lens of activism? For instance, in using Palestinian cuisine to promote discussions of sovereignty, identity and social policy, is there a risk of the food becoming essentialized—a talking point, more symbolic than sensual?

This is something I think about a lot: first, because I’m more than just a “Palestinian chef”—I’m a Palestinian-American woman, an artist, a forager, a traveller; and second, because not everything I do is so serious. It’s very important to me that the meals are a sensual, communal experience. The educational element is important, too, but first and foremost, it’s about the food, the people, this particular place and moment. At the same time, the political element is something I’ve always struggled with, because I feel like I can’t separate myself from my identity. Even growing up between the States and Palestine, it was always impressed upon me how important my identity is, and it’s important for me now to stay connected to that. As an individual, I’ve always had a strong sense of responsibility, as well as an awareness of privilege, since I’m able to come and go while most of my family isn’t. I’ve had access to tools and knowledge and freedom that they will never have, and with that comes this burden, this onus to do something—and what that something is, or could be, is what I’m continually trying to figure out. This had a lot to do with my moving away from conventional art-making. In that context, making minimal sculptures, taking an academic approach to “materiality” or whatever, just felt so trite. It actually gave me a sense of guilt, where I might make a pretty painting, but then look at it and ask, “What is this? What is this doing for anyone?” That’s really what it’s been about for me: how do I satisfy all these different parts of myself and feel good about my contributions to society, in ways that are also aesthetically interesting and ethically sustainable?

That’s a lot to navigate. Although as you said, at a certain point, the political implications are unavoidable. Context is always content.

Exactly. Even speaking casually about these foods and traditions is difficult, because so much of Palestinian culture and identity is inextricable from the occupation. Take an ingredient like akoub, which is a wild kind of thistle. There’s a long tradition of eating that in the springtime, and it’s really desirable—but how deeply can we talk about it without acknowledging that it’s illegal for Palestinians to harvest it? So many aspects of Palestinian food are a direct result of colonization; even before the current occupation, it was the British, who brought over their own traditions and ingredients, which ended up being reflected in the way Palestinian food is prepared. We weren’t using canola oil before they showed up, you know? [laughs] But I think that’s an important part of telling stories through food: the idea that you can prepare these traditional dishes, but it’s always going to be expressed through particular lenses. That’s especially true today: there isn’t a “pure” version of anything now; it’s all multi-faceted, encompassing these different experiences and influences. Even with the occupation, modernity is happening in Palestine as much as anywhere else. The last time I visited, it was crazy, because my family was getting Chinese food delivery. We live in this small, remote village, and yet there’s a Chinese food delivery place now. My mind was blown, just hearing my grandmother try to pronounce “spring rolls," having no clue what she was talking about! But that’s the thing about quote-unquote “authenticity”: being exposed to outside influences is really how traditions survive. I’m a Palestinian, but I grew up in Utah; I ended up in New York, and I’ve been privileged to travel. I’ve experienced so many things, and it all ends up reflected in how I prepare foods. It’s really just about being true to yourself—all aspects of yourself. I feel like that’s a way of honoring your heritage, but not limiting yourself to a singularity of experience. It’s just the way traditions evolve: they reflect the people who carry them on.

Interview originally published in Issue No. 4 of Lindsay Magazine, Autumn 2019