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Taste of power: artist Taus Makhacheva puts geopolitics on the table

Food and the New East

Artist Taus Makhacheva shares her knowledge of Dagestani dishes, from caviar to Chanel cakes

Taus Makhacheva is an artist whose work often turns on questions of national identity. She works between Moscow, where she was born, and her family home in Makhachkala, Dagestan. During a recent residency at London’s Delfina Foundation, Makhacheva staged a special dinner, exploring questions of memory, history and politics between Russia and Dagestan through food. She spoke to the The Calvert Journal about the feast.

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I got into food about a year ago when I accidentally found a video in a film archive of Hitler being served a cake in the shape of the Caspian sea. The video was a piece of Soviet propaganda — experts say the footage is fake because there is not a single frame with the cake and Hitler together. I thought it had great parallels with the situation in Ukraine because in the flow of media it’s incredibly hard to distinguish what is going on. My second glimpse into food in the region happened through Instagram – which is booming in Dagestan. I found a bakery called Melody of Taste which made amazing cakes shaped like Chanel and Louis Vuitton bags, Louboutin shoes and pots of gold.

Recently, I hosted a dinner at the Delfina Foundation artists’ space. The dinner was titled Gazing at the Highlanders, Gazing from the Highlands. It’s the name of a book by Yury Karpov which is about double takes: how we are perceived and how we look at the outside world, as well as the relationship between Dagestan and Russia. Preparing the dinner I decided to examine my food memories and how they are connected to different times and different political events in the region.

The first course consisted of very simple dishes that used to be eaten in the mountains in the 19th century. The first one was mukh, a dish made from different types of grains usually prepared for the summer solstice, so it boils down to whatever you have left in your barn. The second was apricot porridge with apricot seed or almond paste, which is traditionally served to women who’ve just given birth because of its nutritional qualities. These dishes also used to have protective and ritualistic functions. Moreover, the food was served using moustache spoons — special cutlery used to protect facial hair from food spillage. We made copies from one we found in the Dagestan Museum of Fine Arts.

The dinner was a journey from basic food to luxury

The second course was from Dagestan’s Soviet past. The table was laden with two pots of mashed potato, Russian-style cutlets and a kilo of caviar in four tins. To accompany the food I read out an extract from a Soviet-era report about how accessible caviar was at the time: in 1937 it was 50 roubles per kilo, only double the price of ham and butter. This course was based on my childhood memories when caviar was very accessible, and every sandwich you had was bread, butter and caviar. As kids we started hating it at some point, and ended up having lots of mashed potato with caviar instead of salt. It’s also about the memory of a territory, the Soviet Union, which collapsed, and the destruction of natural resources, the scarcity of certain foods, people losing access to resources and various ecological disasters.

Dessert was a cake shaped like a Chanel bag. Then we had the last toast in shot glasses made of ice served with gold leaf vodka. The dinner was a journey from basic food to luxury. The Chanel cake was about how many people’s self-definition in Dagestan is based on money. Wealth has become the only thing people aspire to. Corruption is perceived as no big deal. It’s an ordinary thing.

The whole project is a bit subversive: I feed my guests and I smile but then what exactly are we doing? We wouldn’t be able to survive on Chanel cakes. I was trying to take things to an extreme to talk about historic wounds that are not healed and perhaps will never be healed.

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