Some of the projects submitted to Across the Table, Across the Land involve performance, multiple sites, or employ complex layers of action and meaning. Amber Ginsburg and Aaron Hughes’ ongoing Tea project is a good example of how ceramics brings people together to share time, food, and challenging conversations.
Special thanks to Amber and Aaron for writing and contributing this blog post; photos courtesy of the artists.
Where is the project taking place?
Tea performances are currently at the Imaginists (check for dates and times) in Santa Rosa, California, on view in Art & Other Tactics at the Craft Folk and Art Museum Los Angeles (May 24, 2015 – September 4, 2015) and Museum of Craft and Design, San Francisco (September 26, 2015 – March 27, 2016). Future Tea performances are scheduled for Links Hall in Chicago the weekends of April 1, 8, and 15, 2015.
What ceramics objects are a part of this project?
Cast porcelain teacups act as props in performances, as vessels of information, as stories and as an archive of extralegal detention.
More specifically, the Tea project hosts 779 cast porcelain styrofoam cups each detailed with the name and citizenship of one of the 779 men that have been or still are detained at Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp. Each cup is inscribed with a flower design based on a native flower or the national flower from the detainee’s country of citizenship. The number of flowers in each design is based on the number of men detained from that specific country. For example, there have been a total of 220 Afghan men detained since 2001. Of the 779 cups there are 220 with the name of an Afghan citizen and each of those cups is decorated with 220 tulips, the national flower of Afghanistan. For Iraq, there are nine cups each with nine roses, the national flower, one for the nine Iraqi men who have been detained at Guantanamo.
Aaron Hughes and I wanted to make teacups that where a part of a larger story that documented our failed US foreign policy of extralegal detention and that you could fall in love with, just like Chris Arendt who fell in love with styrofoam cups he had to collect from the detainees in Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp. But before I talk to you about Chris’s story, let me tell you a bit more about the Tea project.
Tea is an ongoing project initiated by Aaron in 2009. He began hosting Tea performances as a way to encourage guests to discuss difficult subjects of war, detention, and racism and share stories from his experiences in the military and as an Iraq War veteran. During these performances tea is prepared and shared in the Iraqi tradition and stories from veterans, detainees, refugees, and civilians are woven together through narrative anecdotes, questions, and objects. One of the central stories comes from Aaron’s friend and fellow veteran Chris Arendt, who I mentioned earlier. Chis served in the Michigan Army National Guard and was deployed to Guantanamo Bay as a Prison Guard in 2002. Chris said the following about his experience in an interview with Lily Perce for Esquire Magazine,
One thing I miss is the cups. The detainees were only allowed to have Styrofoam cups, and they would write and draw all over them. I’m not totally familiar with Muslim culture, but I did learn that they don’t draw the human form, and I’m not positive if they draw any creatures, but they draw a lot of flowers. They would cover the things with flowers. Then we would have to take them. It was a ridiculous process. We would take the cups — as if they were writing some kind of secret message that they were somehow going to throw into the ocean, that would get back to somebody — and send them to our military intelligence. They would just look at these things and then throw them away. I used to love those little cups. (Perce, Lily. “What It Feels Like…to Be a Prison Guard at Guantánamo Bay.” Esquire Magazine, July 30, 2008.)
In 2013, I started collaborating on the project when Aaron approached me to help make porcelain cast Styrofoams cups inspired by Chris’s account and others’ stories of the detained men drawing on Styrofoam cups with flowers. Aaron and I decided to work on creating 779 porcelain cast Styrofoam cups, one for each individual detained.
In October 2014, with the generous support of a Project-based Residency at the Lawrence Arts Center, we opened a porcelain cup factory in Lawrence, Kansas. For the next six weeks, with community members, we cast cup after cup … and cast cup after cup …. and cast cup after cup. Each cup presented us and newcomers to the factory with a steep learning curve. Porcelain is an unforgiving material. There were many times a cup would end up in the reclaim bucket after it was squeezed too hard, watered too much, or otherwise permeated with a mark of the hand outside the parameters of acceptable craft practice. It is rare community art and production standards (or our somewhat moving target of production standards) come together. Initially, with the rigorous standards and detail oriented work I thought no one would come back. But, people actually did come back and found their place in the system, some as glazers, others as cup finishers, and others as timers and pourers during casting.
What roles do ceramics play in this project?
It was important that these cups be porcelain. Porcelain comes from what has been historically called the East. The majority of the men detained in Guantanamo are from the Middle East and Asia.
The material translation to porcelain speaks to care and value. While Styrofoam is archival (it never degrades) is does not hold the archival value of clay and the cultural value of porcelain. Clay is the most culturally enduring archival material we have but it also places this collection of cups in the hands of the audience as well as Aaron and my care. Each cup is fragile. And the group of cups forms a complex painful chapter of American history that needs attention and care.
Who are the participants?
This is a complicated question. This project has many lives. In a gallery, the cups accompanied by text and collages travel and the audience is anyone who sees the work. As a performance, the audience is a group of up to 25 people who are invited to Tea. We host tea, a conversation and an experience. It is intimate and it begins with stories from our lives and invites the audience to tell stories about their lives. Aaron has been developing Tea performances since 2009 and has performed them in Japan, Lebanon and all over the United States. He is a stunning facilitator and makes room for a dialog fundamentally missing from our collective conversation about our 12 year experience in the “Global War on Terror.” He also connects his experiences as a veteran with civilians. So rare. I am developing my own tea voice, based on my experiences as a mother raising children who only know life under the rhetoric of the “Global War on Terror”, my experiences traveling as a small child in the Middle East and through poems on war. Performances conclude with a shared cup of tea. Perhaps the best audience would be the detainees themselves or communities in each of the 49 countries of citizenship of the detainees.
We are currently working on finding art and community spaces that might host Tea in each of the 49 countries so we might collaborate with families of detainees, art spaces, share tea and stories and leave the cups as gifts.
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