Artists tackle the serious side of bananas and other food-related issues – The Denver Post

The Center for Visual Art is showing two ambitious exhibitions — each diving deep into the topic of food — that together take visitors across the hemisphere and back home again.

The showstopper is titled “Banana Craze” and it features nine international artists exploring the broad impacts of banana cultivation in the Caribbean and Latin America. It’s as big and complicated a discussion as it sounds. But it is also eye-opening, especially for consumers who don’t think about bananas beyond what they see in grocery stores.

The exhibition relies heavily on video and photos and every piece is provocative in its own way, as the show examines the environmental and social costs of growing one of the world’s most important crops — a practice dominated by large, multinational corporations with a history of failing both the landscape and the communities that surround it.

Artists take the industry to task in a multitude of ways, and the concepts they use to make their points are rich in both detail and color. Many of the pieces were created in the field, where the fruit is grown and shipped, and are represented in the exhibit via digital techniques.

Ecuadorian artist María José Argenzio, for example, presents photos of a large banana tree in the middle of a remote plantation that she has covered — trunk to branches — in gold plate, bringing together elements of the two main industries that have defined the region over time. Both, as her images remind us, have ravaged the flora and fauna around them.

Another video captures Panamanian artist Milko Delgado’s performance piece where he symbolically recreates the high price of banana-growing on both humans and the fruit itself. The video monitors are accompanied by actual bunches of bananas that sit on the gallery floor.

The exhibit, curated by Juanita Solano and Blanca Serrano, has its visceral elements, including Honduran artist Leonardo González’s text-based piece that uses actual banana plant materials to spell out, in urgently rendered letters, “NEMAGON,” which is the name of a pesticide blamed for causing injuries in workers.

But the show is most effective when it goes high-tech, as it does with the video titled “Coquitos,” in which the artists use digital imaging to re-create patches of earth that were destroyed and obliterated as a result of lax farming practices. The virtual images of the now-gone terrain appear on screen alongside local residents who tell the story of the catastrophic events. The piece is a collaboration between Great Britain’s Forensic Architecture agency and Colombia’s Truth Commission, the panel established by the government to redress atrocities that happened during that country’s recently ended civil war.

The other CVA exhibition, titled “Cultivate,” brings food issues back to Colorado, tapping seven local artists to consider the very real problem of food insecurity in the region. It is curated by CVA director Cecily Cullen.

The exhibition makes a bold attempt at shining light on a serious subject while trying to inspire solutions — small, personal actions — that visitors can take. Many of the pieces address waste or inefficiencies in a food distribution system, which — combined with economic inequities and a lack of access to groceries with healthy offerings — leave people vulnerable to hunger and malnutrition.

The show’s jump-off point is Sammy Lee’s large, wall-mounted mural called “Bolt Down,” which uses delicate paper skin and colored bolts to illustrate statistics gathered by the Colorado Health Institute about food access. Like a lot of Lee’s work, the piece is both precious and handsome, subversively bringing attention to deeper issues — in this case, racial inequities when it comes to acquiring food.

The mural sets the tone for the pieces that follow, such as Eileen Rosina’s “Uneaten,” which strings together food refuse — old and dried oranges, onions, artichokes and mushrooms — into a graceful and attractive macrame-like wall hanging. It is beautiful, no doubt, but also an alert to the fact that 35 percent of our food supply is thrown into the garbage at the same time that many humans go hungry.

Similarly, ceramicist Tsehai Johnson creates a complete set of dinnerware — plates, cups, bowls — adorned with images of weeds and wild plants that are overlooked as food sources. The flora includes dandelion, purslane, mallow and other plants all found on one block in Denver. Why ship perishable goods across the world when sources of food and medicine go unused in our backyards?

Johnson makes things personal by setting up a recipe box next to her pieces instructing folks on how to make actual edibles with the plants. The recipes are free for the taking.

Viviane Le Courtois also offers recipes, all written out by hand, to accompany her installation titled “Food Forest,” which has actual plants growing in the front window of the CVA. The piece, featuring 18 porcelain planters, is meant to show how much food local residents could produce on their own, and share with others, through some conscientious gardening.

Le Courtois lives in downtown Denver, in an area considered a food desert because of its lack of decent grocery stores, but she manages to grow so much food that the experience of being in her backyard is “like walking through a forest and suddenly finding something ready to eat,” as she writes in the exhibition text.

The artist has made a career of combing food cultivation with her art, and the two are adroitly integrated here. For example, next to her plants are 60 separate ink drawings of the things she grew, including chocolate mint, sage, basil and eggplant. There are also seeds for sale and instructions for making dishes like Thai Basil Curry Paste and Tandoori Turnips.

While “Banana Craze” and “Cultivate” are set in places far apart, they come together to address common concerns about food, and how the things we eat can sustain us while at the same time damage the planet we live on and magnify inequities both locally and globally.

In many ways, they are somber outings — the problems they highlight seem desperate and unsolvable — but the shows also inspire some hope that through awareness and deliberate, communal action, small advances are possible. Yes, it can all seem overly earnest, but it’s also artful and human and, in its way, optimistic.

If you go

“Banana Craze” and “Cultivate” continue through Oct. 22 at the Center for Visual Arts, 965 Santa Fe Drive. Free. Info: 303-615-0282 or msudenver.edu/cva/

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