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Rice-Inspired Art Show Ditches the Term 'Middle Eastern'

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Overhead view of several containers of rice pudding that's artfully adorned with pistachios and cinnamon.
Sholeh zard, an artfully composed Iranian rice pudding, will be one of the specialties of the pop-up Bademjoonam. The Iranian food business is one of several pop-ups celebrating South, Southwest Asia and North Africa (SSWANA) culture at the Jeweled Rice art show in North Oakland. (Courtesy of Bademjoonam)

Biryani, pilaf and polo are a few of the many iterations of intricately seasoned and adorned rice dishes found across the South, Southwest Asia and North Africa (SSWANA) region. They’re also the inspiration for Jeweled Rice, a temporary gallery and food pop-up series in Oakland. 

“Everyone in the region has their own version of it,” curator Jasmine Djavahery explains. “We all have some beautiful, colorful rice dish that’s a melange of sweet, savory, sour flavors that seem, perhaps from afar, that they wouldn’t work. But they blend perfectly together.” 

Djavahery began identifying as SSWANA—rather than “Middle Eastern”—while studying art and ethnic studies at UC Santa Cruz. “It’s so specific to the West,” they say about the term “Middle East.” “It does not encompass the actual region.” Whereas “Middle East” serves the political and economic interests of colonial powers, “SSWANA” reprioritizes the peoples of the region.

Djavahery moved to the East Bay after graduation to take part in the region’s thriving arts and cultural scenes. Through the Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies at San Francisco State University, they hosted Del beh Del, a podcast spotlighting progressive conversations in the global Iranian community. “It solidified my desire and need to create spaces that I wasn’t finding in the Persian community,” Djavahery reflects. “I also felt like I needed to build my own community and knowledge of the SSWANA community.”

Framed art displayed on a white wall in a gallery.
Each piece of art offers a glimpse into the kaleidoscope that makes up the SSWANA diaspora. (Jasmine Djavahery)

The relationships Djavahery built with other SSWANA creatives and community organizers culminated in Jeweled Rice, a show housed at North Oakland’s Crisis Club Gallery through September. The show features a multi-medium art gallery and food pop-ups, offering a glimpse into the kaleidoscope that makes up the SSWANA diaspora.

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Traditional museums and academia often rely on the myth of objective third parties when documenting the experiences of people and their cultures. Jeweled Rice subverts the Western gaze by offering a space for individuals to speak for themselves through paintings, prints, zines and sculptures, as well as food.

In one piece, delicate glasswork triangulates onlookers between the Midwest, Oakland and Syria. A nearby lithograph etches its subject into a cathartic embrace with an onion, surrounded by a halo of suspended knives. Another print integrates dirt and nigella seeds—typically a garnish for breads like pide and borek—to depict delicate buttercup figurations.

Sculpture of a seated woman with her eyes closed.
The show subverts the Western gaze by offering a space for individuals to speak for themselves. (Jacquelyn Tran)

“You don’t need Persian motifs to be Persian art,” Djavahery asserts. “I wanted to make sure that you felt like you didn’t have to have a typical pomegranate. Everyone’s interpretation of culture is specific to them.” 

Bay Area SSWANA artists featured in the show include Amal Amer, Deena Hasheem, Degne Beyce, Donna Arkee, Jasmine Djavahery, Lina Celik, Mila Moldenhawer, Najah Alboushi, Rami KD, Sanaa Scherezade Khan, Yasmeen Abedifard and Zahra Hooshyar.

Apart from the art, the gallery is complemented by a rotating orbit of food offerings. “Art galleries can be very exclusive and uninviting because of how they’re painted, or because of the people we think go to these spaces,” Djavahery says. “Food is an easy way to invite people in.”

The chefs that Djavahery gathered for these pop-ups come from a new generation of food bloggers focused on embodying their identities. Many of these cooks noted that food is art. Through their writing and cooking, they materialize homeland heartaches, meditate on culture and cultivate community.  

A spread of bread, olives, raw vegetable, and dips.
A spread of vegan snacks from the Palestinian pop-up Mishmish includes zaatar-topped manoushe and cashew-based labneh. (Dana Plucinski)

“I had never seen Persian cuisine in this way,” Djavahery gushes, “I’ve been fascinated by this new generation of younger chefs taking control and agency of the foods they grew up with and presenting it to the social media sphere.”

Helia Sadeghi of Big Dill Kitchen came to the U.S. as a refugee at 17. Cooking became a way for them to process trauma, loneliness and homesickness for their hometown of Isfahan, Iran. They began Big Dill Kitchen as a cooking blog, which blossomed into a platform—and a pop-up concept—where they could use food as an expression of their identity as a queer Iranian refugee living in diaspora.

The indie, DIY setting of these pop-ups gave Sadeghi the freedom to depart from the limited American understandings of  “Middle Eastern” foods—there is so much more than kabobs, falafel, shawarma and saffron rice.

At their Jeweled Rice pop-up last weekend, Sadeghi offered panir sabzi focaccia, carrot jam, rose chocolate chip cookies and a rose chia refresher. Sadeghi’s iteration of the focaccia art trend adorned the leavened bread with ingredients usually found in a Persian panir sabzi platter. The carrot jam—Sadeghi’s favorite—starred beautifully candied carrots finished with romantic flavors of orange peels and rose. 

“I am a queer person from the SSWANA community. Just being a SSWANA person living in diaspora is an ongoing existential crisis,” Sadeghi adds with a laugh. “I feel so disconnected—and I know this is a mutual feeling from other folks living in the diaspora—from parts of yourself, parts of your identity. It’s hard to express that or talk about it. It’s amazing to see it come together, and see a community being built around art and food.”

Squares of tomato and herb-topped focaccia on a cooling rack.
Big Dill Kitchen’s beautifully adorned focaccia is inspired by a traditional Iranian dish. (Courtesy of Big Dill Kitchen)

Michelle Nazzal began her pop-up Mishmish (“apricot” in Arabic) to preserve her grandmother’s Palestininan recipes and practice of community care through food. “The way I view the food I make is that I want people to feel comfort and community. I want them to feel nourished and cared for,” she explains. 

At her upcoming Jeweled Rice appearance, Nazzal will serve a menu of vegan Palestinian snacks as a way to replicate these comforting sentiments. Nazzal sources hard-to-acquire Palestinian zaatar for her manoushe, yielding a tangy flatbread. She’ll sell vegan labneh, made with cashew in place of yogurt. “I went vegan seven years ago, and labneh was the hardest thing for me to give up. It was important to me to figure out how to make it vegan,” explains Nazzal of her most popular dish. A traditional cardamom mint tea will also be available. (Update:  Originally slated for Fri., Aug. 26, Mishmish’s pop-up will be rescheduled for a September date.)

On Sunday, Aug. 28, Bademjoonam (a pun on bademjan, Farsi for “eggplant,” and joonam, a term of endearment) will serve Iranian-inspired sweets and refreshing sharbat, a drink that combines rooibos tea with basil seeds and floral accents. Sweets will include sholeh zard, a rice pudding infused with saffron, rose water and cardamom, as well as matcha cardamom cookies. For the cook, Sheila, the sholeh zard is a labor of love, requiring time spent carefully cooking rice while preparing the spices by hand. The pudding is adorned with a unique “one-of-one” design composed of cinnamon and pistachios that Sheila has prepared with her mother since childhood.

Earlier food businesses featured at the Jeweled Rice show include Tanoor, a chai-focused Yemeni pop-up, and Shikamu, an Iranian pop-up.

Museums and art galleries continue to diversify their programming after the 2020 protests, frantically attempting to correct archaic practices. But who gets to curate these spaces? Who determines which voices are worthy of satisfying haphazard institutional diversity quotas? And should we only look at these spaces?

“I saw the limitations of the art world and of representation,” reflects Djavahery of their experience practicing and studying art. “I rarely see SSWANA art in museums. And if there is art, it’s usually not contemporary, or it’s limited to Islamic art. It’s usually just a couple people. In bigger gallery spaces, I don’t see representation of SSWANA art. And in the East Bay, I think some of these galleries are inaccessible to those who don’t know the right people or those who are less familiar with the ‘higher arts scene.’” 

Jeweled Rice offers an alternative with its community-centered approach to arts curation. For the cooks and artists in the show, Jeweled Rice is one more step toward expressing the full constellation of the Bay Area’s SSWANA diaspora.

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Jeweled Rice is displayed at Crisis Club Gallery (5887 San Pablo Ave., Oakland) through Sept. 25. The gallery is open Friday to Sunday from 2–7pm. Bademjoonam will pop up on Sunday, Aug. 28, 3–7pm. Mishmish’s rescheduled pop-up will occur in September. Additional pop-ups will be announced on @KabobKidCrafts. Entry is free.

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