Cooking up portrait art, Chetti food style


A visitor snaps a photograph at the 'Chetti Food Portrait Art Exhibition' at GMBB in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: The Star/Daryl Goh

In a pop-up corner at the arts mall GMBB in Kuala Lumpur, visitors can learn more about the food, culture, and heritage of the Chetti community in Melaka through food portrait art.

This exhibition, organised by The Rojak Projek, is aptly titled Chetti Food Portrait Art Exhibition, featuring works inspired by Chetti cuisine and food ingredients, video documentation and on-site research.

Founded and led by Lim Sheng Feiyan (known as Faye Lim) in 2015, The Rojak Projek is an initiative by TRP Creatives, a social enterprise out to broaden conversations surrounding unity and diversity. It started with a team of 10 people, and they did what was called "Rojak Parties", which was to get to know people and collect information, while enjoying eating together before capturing all their food portraits.

Chetti Melaka elder Rajah Jan (middle), better known as Uncle Rajah, poses with The Rojak Projek team and participants who attended a food workshop at the exhibition in GMBB KL recently. Photo: The Rojak Projek  Chetti Melaka elder Rajah Jan (middle), better known as Uncle Rajah, poses with The Rojak Projek team and participants who attended a food workshop at the exhibition in GMBB KL recently. Photo: The Rojak Projek

"Food is symbolic of love when words are inadequate. But Malaysian food takes it to the next level and we Malaysians know it! Our food has always been the gesture of peace which allows us to sit, eat and enjoy each other's company despite our differences. It is our differences that makes us unique," says Lim.

That led to a series of pop-up art exhibitions, working with the Riuh festival series, and various workshops through years.

This year, The Rojak Projek had the opportunity to work with two minority groups in Malaysia - the Ukit/Bhuket community (rattan weavers) from Sarawak, and the Chetti from Melaka.

'The portrait foods are a beautiful way to showcase Melaka Chetti food. To have the younger generation participate with us to create these artworks was really good,' says Rajah Jan, a Melaka Chetti community elder, who held a recent workshop at the exhibition in KL. Photo: The Rojak Projek'The portrait foods are a beautiful way to showcase Melaka Chetti food. To have the younger generation participate with us to create these artworks was really good,' says Rajah Jan, a Melaka Chetti community elder, who held a recent workshop at the exhibition in KL. Photo: The Rojak Projek

Before this KL exhibition, Lim and team visited Wen’s Kitchen in Melaka where she conducted a cultural workshop that introduced participants from Kuala Lumpur and the United States to the Chetti community. Some 30 food portraits were created – and photographed – from the sharing session.

"The most important thing was to get the blessing from the community. I'm thankful that this project is supported by Yayasan Hasanah which enabled us to engage and work with the community to make this documentation or the opportunity to share their stories in KL and online and promote their food culture and stories out there," says Lim.

“We bonded together through food and art to experience and understand all three senses; touch, smell and taste. All the (Chetti) food was eaten, packed, and documented,” she adds.

Prior to the KL exhibition, there was a food art workshop in September at Wen's Kitchen, which serves Chetti cuisine, in Melaka. Photo: The Rojak ProjekPrior to the KL exhibition, there was a food art workshop in September at Wen's Kitchen, which serves Chetti cuisine, in Melaka. Photo: The Rojak Projek

The Melaka Chetti is a small community of Straits-born Indians who came from Panai Koromandel in India and they are the descendants of Indian traders who married local women.

In Melaka, the Chetti community has preserved its religion, culture, customs, cuisine and traditions for 600 years.

“We really enjoyed the workshop session in Melaka and we really got excited to finally see the (KL) exhibition which is full of colours! The portrait foods are a beautiful way to showcase Melaka Chetti food. To have the younger generation participate with us to create these artworks was really good and is one of the ways people can get to know other cultures better,” said Rajah Jan (better known as Uncle Rajah), 70, a Chetti Melaka representative who visited the exhibition recently.

Chetti Food Portrait Art Exhibition is showing at Level 1, GMBB in KL until Dec 10. Open: 11am-8pm. Free admission. It is part of Arts For All Seasons (ArtsFAS), a grant programme supported by Yayasan Hasanah and the Ministry of Finance.

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