Nezaket Ekici has taken one of the most simple and rewarding of cultural encounters – being invited into another’s home to share a meal – and turned it into a performance through which a Berlin audience of eighty are taken on a sensual journey to sample the culture and cuisine of Istanbul.
Nezaket Ekici was born in southern Turkey and came with her family to live in Germany when she was three years old. Through her project ‘Five Senses in Turkish’, she acts as guide to Istanbul, a city she feels a strong cultural connection with, while at the same time identifying as an outsider, sampling new flavours for the first time. She visited the homes of three Istanbul families and interviewed them on camera as they prepared traditional recipes, and then passed these recipes on in the form of a multimedia performance art piece.
From the moment we entered the Ballhaus Naunynstraße’s high-ceilinged theatre space, the audience were treated as guests. Nezaket personally greeted each of us with a warm hug. We were offered sweets and orange flower water to cleanse our hands, and invited to sit down at one of twelve tables laid out with glistening fillets of lamb, fragrant mint and dill, darkly glossy aubergines, yoghurt, grains, and aromatic dried spices. We soon followed Nezaket’s example, and the room buzzed with introductions as we filled each other’s gasses with fruit juice.
The idea of eighty people cooperating to cook a meal sounds like a recipe for chaos if not complete disaster. But somehow it worked. Nezaket flitted from table to table in a bright magenta gown, adjusting quantities (“in Turkey we cook with the eye, we never have recipes or exact measurements”), coordinating timings and encouraging us to enjoy the physicality of the food – kneading minced lamb into little rounds with our bare hands and smelling the mint on our fingertips.
But this was more than a cookery class. Throughout the evening we all took part in ritual movements taking us beyond the practical business of preparing a meal. Before we began cooking, everyone stood, knives raised in the air above our heads, and locked gazes with whoever we were seated opposite. It was a long moment in which discomfort was eventually dispelled as we were bound together for the work ahead. Later, all the women in the room were suddenly asked to stand on their chairs and join Nezaket in a joyful, hip-swaying dance.
Finally, we sat back to enjoy the rich, delicious flavours of a hearty three-course meal, while watching the interviews projected onto a large screen above. With the subject matter ranging from views on the local art scene to amusing family anecdotes, it was if we had been invited directly into Istanbul’s private homes. One of the striking things that came across is Istanbul’s multicultural identity: one cook describes how her Jewish ancestors arrived from Spain in the fifteenth century, another traces her ancestry back to Georgian, Crimean and Laz roots. Nezaket herself rejoices in being both Turkish and German: “it makes it interesting if you have many cultures in your body.”
The film is punctuated by scenes in which Nezaket underlines the sensuality of food with expressive performances: making tango steps through a field of scattered onions, creating an outline of her body in raisins, exploring the glossy surface of an aubergine with her bare skin.
As a performance artist, Nezaket has studied with one of the most important figures in the field, the Serbian artist Marina Abramović. She describes the Five Senses evening as “a total installation, an intense situation.” The intensity comes in part from the many levels it worked on, engaging all five senses and encompassing the arts of cooking, film, theatre and dance. But it was the intensity also came from the engaged participation of everyone who attended. “Everybody is a part of the installation,” she explains, “you are not watching from outside, you are a part of the process. We, all together, make the art piece.”
There is something unique in sharing a home-cooked meal that brings people together and dispels barriers and inhibitions. The concept of “breaking bread” implies not just the sharing of food, but also the spirit of communion that comes with it. For Nezaket, turning this process into art is the perfect tool for cross-cultural understanding. “If you share, you make a communication. With food, you physically take something into your body, you taste, you smell it, and in the same moment you share ideas. Is that not the best communication ever?”