In most artist-in-residence studios at McColl Center for Art + Innovation, you'll find artists working with materials like paints, fabrics and other objects to be formulated into a visual installation or body of work. But that's not the case for interdisciplinary artist and food activist Robert Karimi. His medium is performance-based and, if you had to put a label on it, digestible might be the best description.
Karimi, aka The People's Cook (also the name of his global project with a mission to "encourage participants to take an active role in an exchange of food, stories and recipes, reconnecting culture and art") is mixing up the dynamic at McColl, and in Charlotte at large, by using his powers of persuasion, humor, nutritional knowledge and culinary expertise for a series of interactive events.
"A big part of what we do here is connect artists with the community. We knew [Karimi] would engage the Charlotte community in ways that are fun, experimental and interactive," says Brad Thomas, director of residencies and exhibitions at McColl. "His unique approach to participatory art-making encourages cross-cultural story-sharing and collaborative meal preparation. There is so much that participants learn about themselves and each other in the process. He is developing relationships with cultural leaders and supporters of the arts both here at the Center and in the greater community."
Karimi's latest event, coming up on March 7 at 7th Street Market, is Viva la Cook Triple Crown Grill Off + Food Wisdom Day, an interactive experience that merges theatrical and culinary elements with community engagement. At the event, Karimi will be posing as "Mero Cocinero," a made-up character playing the part of a world-renowned chef. Folks attending will be divided into teams for a barbecue competition and encouraged to share food-related stories and family recipes.
"Interactivity to me makes people a part of it, especially when talking about food and nutrition. Cooking is now the new spectator sport and that's cool, but unlike baseball and football and basketball, cooking shouldn't be only about the elite," Karimi says. "Cooking and food should be about everybody because we all eat."
For Karimi, the social aspect of cooking and eating goes hand-in-hand with nutritional value. On any given day when he's in his studio space he is pondering over new ways to get people interacting with one another, in addition to making posters, hats and visual components to spread the word about his work.
Karimi also mixes up a variety of no-bake items in the studio. Some of the latest include a radish salsa dip and a chocolate avocado mousse.
Having attended Karimi's recent Chops and Chopped, a cooking and spoken word installment, I can attest to the real team-building nature of these events. Folks were divided into teams and given materials and food to cook three dishes — an appetizer, entrée and dessert, which were then sampled by some brave judges. Time constrictions and a hodgepodge of ingredients didn't allow for the most impressive of concoctions, but it did force thinking, resourcefulness and teamwork. Strangers bounced ideas off one another, exchanged dialogue, laughed and ... chopped a variety of foods.
During his residency at McColl, Karimi's main purpose is to get Charlotteans cooking in creative ways. "With this project, I wanted to give Charlotte a taste of what I do and then also I wanted to see if I could get people creating, doing, working together with one another and in that to learn a little bit about the plate method and some of the health work I do. And then, finally, I'm literally trying to understand how — as an artist — to broaden my reach with visual and performance work. I want to see how far an artist can create an echo through performance."
From 2010-2012, Karimi worked as an artist-in-residence at Intermedia Arts in Minneapolis. There he created an interactive project that touched on Type 2 Diabetes in at-risk communities. Type 2 Diabetes also hits home for Karimi — his father, of Iranian descent, was diagnosed with the condition.
"A lot of where the Type 2 Diabetes project came from was from the idea that if we look back at our cultural stories and rituals, that we can use them as a basis of healing. When people share and converse with one another, we can see each other as ways of knowledge. As a community, when we value each of our contributions, and when we cook together especially, all of a sudden we start valuing each other for the role we can play in nourishing ourselves. I think that's super powerful when we're talking about community building and art as a spark in that community building."