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There was an unusual scene at the Nasher Sculpture Center Wednesday night. A small group of North Texans sat around a dining table, sipping aged Japanese whiskey and eating cornmeal dumplings while a record of soul-singer October London’s “Colorblind” played.
Wednesday marked the Dallas opening of Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates’ food pop-up Afro Mingei, melding influences from Japan and the African American South in the small dinner and drinks menu with the art throughout the space.
Nearly everything in the pop-up has been touched, literally and figuratively, by the artist. Haikus written by Gates hung on the wall, selections from the artist’s vinyl record were on display and a massive ceramic vase he made was tucked into the corner. Bartenders poured drinks on top of a table that Gates made from reclaimed wood while people ate from ceramic bowls made by the artist.
When visitors walk in, they’re greeted by host Mary Poole Driver. Unlike a traditional restaurant, Poole – who works for the Nasher – is there to do more than rave about the pork rinds or explain that the nuttiness of the tea cookies comes from sesame not peanuts. She acts as a kind of tour guide to explain the concept behind Afro Mingei and answer questions.
Afro Mingei was inspired by Gates’ travels to Japan. There he came across the philosophy of “mingei” which roughly translates to “craft of the everyday people.” That idea pervades the pop-up as a space where people can eat around and on art like the ceramic bowls and plates created by Gates.
Pool Driver said the concept is “if everyone can have a perfect teacup or noodle bowl or side table, that is what’s important. That’s how you know that your society values beauty because it’s around everybody all the time.”
Chela Humber, a 27-year-old construction manager, and Jeremiah Egbele, a 34-year-old tech worker, attended the pop-up Wednesday on a date. Egbele said he heard about it on Instagram.
Humber and Egbele ordered all of the hot plates from the menu: heirloom cornmeal dumplings, karaage chicken and a wagyu skewer dish. Egbele said he really enjoyed his Japanese whiskey and the cornmeal dumplings, which were served in a warm shiitake leek broth and topped with chili oil.
“I liked the dumplings because I haven’t had anything like this before,” he said. “It feels warm because it’s very cold outside. I like the blend of the ingredients.”
Humber described the pop-up as “very intimate” and a little surprising. She had anticipated a larger room that would seat 50 to 100 instead of the five stools at the bar and 10 spots around a single dining table.
“It feels to me like you’re at a friend’s house kind of having dinner, like a friendsgiving. It’s a cool experience,” she said.
Egbele said Afro Mingei’s atmosphere feels new for Dallas.
“With the space, I just like that every detail from the table to the chairs to the art on the wall to the music to the food, you can tell that it’s a really detailed curated space,” he said. “You can tell it’s a perfect blend of fusion between the cultures.”
A half hour later, friends Daisha Board and Milagro Baines grabbed seats at the bar for a girl’s night out. Board, who owns a local gallery, has long admired Gates’ work.
“He’s rooted in community and culture and having a space that bridges both of those gaps. I think his work, fundamentally to me, is genius,” she said.
With both hands, she cradled a bowl of what she described as “slamming” cornmeal dumplings.
“It stays warm in a beautiful handmade ceramic bowl that he created,” she said. “So you have a piece of the artist permeating your body through a home-cooked meal, a glass of whiskey and good conversation.”
The pop-up was Baines’ introduction to Gates and his work. She said the experience makes the art feel more accessible to her.
“It’s not often where you have artists with such notoriety where anyone coming off the street can try things using their objects,” she said. “It takes the artist and gives them back to the people because now everyone can experience that, not just those who can purchase these things and have them in their homes because they can afford them.”
Access and community are common themes in Gates’ work. Among a myriad of other projects, he’s the founder of the Rebuild Foundation, which works on the South Side of Chicago to provide free arts programming, new arts amenities and affordable housing for artists.
At Afro Mingei, community-building involves eating around a dinner table with strangers. Baines said it’s also an opportunity to learn more about Japanese and African American history and culture.
“Not only are you here experiencing it, but you can learn more about it,” she said. The food, art and drinks are “education all in one space.”
For Board, who is of Black and Japanese descent, the pop-up is “deeply personal.” She said there’s a tendency to overlook the nuance of racial identity and mixing of cultures.
“When you have this kind of fusion, but really teaching history behind it, hopefully it’ll build more community and more empathy around the diversity we truly have out here.”
Afro Mingei will be open to the public from Nov. 16, 2022 to April 29, 2023 from 4 p.m. – 9 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday. The cost of each tapa-sized plate ranges from $10-$16.
Arts Access is a partnership between The Dallas Morning News and KERA that expands local arts, music and culture coverage through the lens of access and equity.
This community-funded journalism initiative is funded by the Better Together Fund, Carol & Don Glendenning, City of Dallas OAC, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Eugene McDermott Foundation, James & Gayle Halperin Foundation, Jennifer & Peter Altabef and The Meadows Foundation. The News and KERA retain full editorial control of Arts Access’ journalism.
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