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e-flux conversations

Adam Burthom /The Only Refugees Here Are Serving The Food


Following on from Clelia C. Rodriguez’ De-fanged De-Colonialisation post, here is an article reflecting on the unconscious performance of troubling normalities and contradictions within the provincial Institutional Artworld.

“It was unfortunate that whilst in some way the women could be construed as participating in some kind of Art-validated and personally rewarding relational activity, to all intents and purposes they actually appeared in the guise of service staff.”


We read your recent article about the Turbulence symposium with interest, and while a number of important issues are raised that are pertinent to the wider art world, many of the points made in relation to the event itself are mis-representative of the discussions that took place, and the involvement of asylum seekers and refugees living locally.

To clarify the background of Sligo Global Kitchen (SGK), it is an art and food project, initiated by artist Anna Spearman in collaboration with residents of the Direct Provision system, former refugees, and The Model in 2015. Based on the art of hospitality and sharing, this socially–engaged art project is entirely now self-directed by SGK. The Model’s role in this project always has been one of solidarity and support. The institution doesn’t dictate any aspect of how the collective operates. SGK chooses what to cook and how to represent itself; and the collective defines its own unique cultural repertoire where friends and strangers come together to eat meals from Africa, Asia, the Middle-East, Europe and South America.

The group run regular events both at The Model and off-site. Cooking and sharing their food with other communities is a strategy of action they have chosen to work within. Contrary to this article, SGK, which is made up of current and former refugees and asylum-seekers, was invited to participate at both the opening of the exhibition on 2 December, as well as at the symposium on 8 March. SGK did so in their own unique manner with no imposed agenda from The Model. However, it is not for The Model to speak for SGK and therefore they are also exercising their right to reply to your article in a separate statement.

As a cultural centre, through our work on Turbulence (which comprised a major exhibition, a specially commissioned performance by Donal O’Kelly and Mabel Chah, three separate, month-long, plug-in shows, as well as a symposium) and with Sligo Global Kitchen, we endeavour to open up a space to all local communities. In a time of massive action around refugee issues within art and humanitarianism, spaces for reflection on practice and the theory behind it are extremely important. At the symposium much discussion was given over to the ethics of representation and the problems of representing refugees. This absolutely goes to the heart of what this writer is saying and such questions were opened up for public discussion at the event.

Two artists, whose work is currently exhibited in Turbulence, as well as a number of other speakers, travelled from the front-line of the current crisis to address the symposium. Cengiz Tekin, who travelled from Diyarbakir on the Turkish border with Syria, is operating as a Kurdish artist in Turkey and this was made explicit in the questions that he addressed. Gülsün Karamustafa referenced her time in a Turkish prison, and her role as an activist as well as an artist. Both spoke about their experiences in response to questions by the symposium’s keynote speaker, human rights activist and lawyer, Anna Morvern, whose presentation surveying activist interventions and the criminalization of humanitarianism, raised plenty of scope for future actions.
Morvern, in reply to your article, states: “The art within the exhibition and that which was highlighted in the talks by the artists, represented migrant experiences. There is in fact little cause, as Burthom hoped, for ‘riding a wave of affirmative activism directed at the current refugee crisis’, as the structures perpetuating this ‘crisis’ remain in place and are being intensified. Having more migrant or black speakers present direct testimony of border controls might allow us to feel we were hearing ‘other’ voices. However, the art and work appearing sought to depict the traumatic, central reality which is one of absence due to the huge ongoing death toll in the Mediterranean, the incarceration of arrivals in camps and forcible returns.”
It’s true that when we speak about the current refugee crisis there is a breadth of important conversations to be had. How we address that reality and change was very much the topic of all the debate at the event. It was unfortunate that the speaker on behalf of SGK, who was willing and happy to join in the debate, was not posed a question. However it is somewhat patronising that anyone would feel that “to address the person would have been to put her under unfair pressure.” To cast SGK members as “participating in some kind of Art-validated and personally rewarding relational activity, [whereby] to all intents and purposes they … appeared in the guise of service staff” diminishes the project, and sadly belittles SGK’s significant achievements.
Turbulence aimed to ask questions and to provide a space that made explicit the fact that as the writer states “we have to live with some uncomfortable truths and rub shoulders with the bearers of such”.

Unfortunately there is no easy way of assuaging such discomfort.

Emer McGarry
Interim Director,
The Model


After reading, i think the artist has a right to his opinions and knows from where he is coming and how he sees the problem. This is how and where we see it.

Right here and right now, no matter how small or marginal it may seem, a space has been provided for a community which otherwise will not afford it, to come together and share their culture and the art of cookery with the wider community. This not only brings a swelling sense of pride and usefulness under our circumstance, but also put participants in an empowering position where we are givers of something which is received and accepted by our community.

All restrictions put on refugees and asylum seekers is not only a “Sligo problem” it is national but the Sligo community Through the Model has created a medium to alleviate the stress and boredom and invisibility of the community of Asylum seekers and refugees. It will not all turn around in one day, it may come to and end or it may morph into another kind of problem, that we are receiving national attention through awards means the Sligo community is doing something good through the Model.

Yes we may not always get a chance to speak for fear of putting us “under pressure” in those moments, we listen and learn and when we will speak out, it will be with “no pressure” and you will understand us without needing an interpreter a middle man or liaison person. Anyone can sit and write or say anything from their tall perspectives, when life deals you a hand like that which is dealt to those who live and have lived under direct provision circumstances (after having uprooted themselves and fled from their homes), an opportunity like that which has been offered by the Model through its kitchen and space is seen to us as a gem. you can only try to understand.

You can ask our Syrian friends from Ballagherdereen who have twice come out to join us on how much an opportunity like this will go a long way to get their minds off their worries and integrate them into the community if only they had one in Ballagherdereen. Training and mentorship and qualifications in food handling have been awarded members of Global Kitchen which could otherwise not afford it. Many only see the people serving food accepting complements and smiling.

Does anyone ask how many times they get to be given the opportunity to do something that gives them that instant satisfaction? it may be just for a few hours but it is there and much looked forward to as opposed to siting in a 3 by 3 room all day with 3 other people or being pushed to go sit down in a class and take lessons on some subject just because that is all someone in your situation is allowed?

Talk about “Turbulence Symposium” most of us who cooked there don’t even know the meaning of any of the terms but guess what? we are happy cooking sharing and being appreciated through the continuous support and showing up of our community at every event. What ever terms you decide to use to try and describe or portray and explain what we are going through are really just terms and words best understood mostly only to you. Pity and “awws” are not what we are about. This is something we can do under the circumstances we find ourselves and we do it with Pride and our heads held high. Someday, all this will come to pass but before it does, we are here now and it should only get better.

Because of the fear to come out as exploitative, should the Model shut down its doors to us so we go sit in our rooms for 7 years+ and wait?
It is ok if we are not given the opportunity to tell our stories. If you are really interested in our plight won’t you come up on a one to one basis as an individual and talk to us to know us? This is a forum created to facilitate all this, we have put a foot forward cooking and inviting you to share with us, you meet us half way and ask to know just our name and the name our dish then we all take it from there…


Mabel Chah
Sligo Global Kitchen


Circa Art Magazine has published the above responses on their website with a note from the editors clarifying the points of the argument.

“In the interest of a healthy and open debate, we very much welcome the responses of Mabel Chah, from Sligo Global Kitchen, and Emer McGarry, Interim Director at The Model, to Adam Burthom’s text on the Turbulence symposium organised by The Model on the 8th of March. We would like to emphasise, however, that Burthom’s critique was not aimed at the Global Kitchen project – which is a really great initiative facilitated by The Model, offering much needed opportunities for people in Direct Provision – nor even at the intentions of the organisers, but very specifically in how the event was staged and how The Model situated and partially excluded the Sligo Global Kitchen’s participants within the frame of the symposium. The text also touches on the all too common problematic disconnection between the avowed content of an event and its form – its presentation and organisation – which is by no means particular to The Model.”