Last week, on behalf of SAMA, I went to a dinner held around a sofreh for about twenty people who work in the arts in primarily Amsterdam to the greater Netherlands. The meal was hosted by the Amsterdam Museum, with the goal of connecting and building a community of leaders in the city about our role in responding to world crises, particularly with the lens of art in a city. It was the last of the series of events titled “Relevant Response.”
Here are my big takeaways of what I learned from the dinner.
First, what is sofreh?
In Persian cultures, the sofreh is a cloth spread across the floor that a meal is then placed on. We gathered around a white tablecloth, covered with Ethiopian dishes, and sat on beautifully patterned fabric. It was incredibly grounding, and reminded me of spiritual circles I have been a part of in which we sit on the ground. I talked with the woman beside me who was Iranian and enjoyed hearing about her own story of sitting this way for her family meals. Everyone seemed happier to be sitting this way. Either it was comforting for people who grew up eating around a sofreh, the newness for people unfamiliar to it, and overall the simplicity of feeling grounded by eating on the ground.
A “Key” Takeaway
Once everyone took their seat at their assigned spot, we were asked to turn to the person beside us and share with them our keys. For the moderator, Sahar Shirzad, she shared how the key of her bike lock reminds her she is home in motion.
For myself, I did not have a pair of keys on me when I sat down. With my dinner companion, we talked about what it means to have a place to go home to at the end of the day and feel some ownership. Or, for me, what it means to not feel "tied" to a place as I move between college, home, and living abroad.
This ice breaker was simple yet got deep quickly. I did not know a soul at this dinner, but this conversation quickly helped me feel I had a place. Bonus: it certainly helped skip the small talk!
Empathy + Images
The photographer and conceptual artist Tina Farifteh gave a short presentation on her work. Her work focuses on what people typically avoid looking at, and to push the idea further, challenges how these topics are typically presented visually. Such as, how does an image spark empathy? And how does that empathy relate to other emotions, and can empathy in action be belittling?
From her presentation, the argument for why art matters was so obvious and clear. It teaches us empathy, but needs to be careful with how it does so. Meaning, we can circulate images of crisis, but we need to still show humanity and treat the people in the images with dignity.
The evening was not only focused on the topic of how institutions can respond to current world issues. The evening was planned to have space to get to know one another. I think this was smart as it allowed for a more comfortable connection before diving into difficult conversations that may ask a person to be vulnerable. Before dinner, we had our keys activity which, while focused on a subject, offered flexibility in conversation. Then Shirzad read an essay on Persian identity in the Netherlands. During dinner, we could connect and talk freely. Then another speaker, a break to stretch our legs, then to close the evening a dance party with our colleagues and new acquaintances.
While eating, we listened to a playlist in which each song was from a person at the event and it represented home to them. People could share with the larger group why they feel represented by the song they chose to share. This is something I hope to go home and share with my community engagement projects/groups back at school in Massachusetts.
I left this meal feeling incredibly nourished, not just by the warming and delicious food, but by the people and energy of the whole event. While my conversations never led to, and overall the activities did not lead to a conversation on actions to take and responsibilities of cultural institutions, I now have new tools and vocabulary for space making and community. From a strong community, serious action can then be taken.
However, as important as community building is, radical action from cultural institutions needs to be taken. It was a privilege for us to sit together in a room and enjoy a wonderful meal, music and dancing. Talking about next steps and how to hold one another accountable must also be discussed. Since I do not live here in the Netherlands permanently, I did not have to engage in that dialogue and work. I did get to share the work of Street Art Museum Amsterdam, and be a “symbol” for the museum's presence in this ever changing city. Again, this was a dinner of grounding and from there, for change to be made. Everything I learned are things I want to bring for community building, and things I want to give people without access to dinners like this one. I hope you, whatever reader you may be, also learned some tools for creating connection.
For closing this blog, I want to share a quote from Shirzad, as it summarizes the event beautifully.
“Let's go back to our childhood, around the sofreh, where in the midst of chaos we still took the time to gather on common ground and break bread.”