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Tea, Tales, and Tolerance

Hannah Kuker, Tea, Tales, and Tolerance.png

2020-2021: Tea, Tales, and Tolerance

“How can we unify a community with differing perspectives?”

This fifteen-piece series seeks to explore that question entirely through the metaphor of food. Eggs, though pure in genesis, are shelled (close-minded); tea is inviting—we test the waters before breaking our biased exterior; bread represents communion—sharing food (breaking bread) at one's table. These works chronicle how prejudiced people, bound by their ignorant and often biased backgrounds, learn to empathize and cohabitate. This project was inspired by surges in anti-Semitism, political polarization, and discrimination across America, and seeks to chronicle how we can implement empathy and understanding to better coexist.

Art and Writing by Hannah Kuker

You only know who you are when you know who you're not. We begin taking steps toward unity by learning and growing from one another.

—Hannah Kuker | Tea, Tales, and Tolerance 2021

Symbolism: Synthesizing Processes and Ideas 

Perspective 2021 Cover

"The Baptism"

My portfolio tells a story. Each work feeds off the other to show progression and growth of the concept of unity. To begin my investigation, I started with humanity in its purest form: birth. Eggs, in their genesis, represent the untouched purity of a newborn child before it has been tainted by the biases of its older generations. The water being poured over the basket of multi-colored ("multi-racial") eggs is symbolic of the Christian ritual of baptism, which represents rebirth, renewal, purity, and virtue. I used photography to capture this moment to relay the ephemeral nature of our fleeting innocence. 

"The Indoctrination"

In this triptych, torn bubble wrap and a syringe serve as metaphors for faltering protections and a penetrating indoctrination. The vulgar quality of the hand-drawn scratch marks engraved into the egg photograph reflect the crudeness of the stereotypes which they form. This work shows how the eggs, innocent at birth, are indoctrinated with toxic biases during their upbringing, slowly breaking away at their protective bubbles until they are faced with the unforgiving consequences of bigotry.

"Baptism 2.0"

Here, there is irony in that the watercolor acts somewhat like the water in the first egg work to serve as a baptism, or “awakening.” Renewed by this sudden stroke of consciousness, these cracked eggs are no longer protected by their safe “bubbles” and instead have a newfound awareness of the bigotry which permeates society. No longer hiding in our shells of ignorance, we are enabled by our awareness to take the first steps toward unity. This journey to amity is investigated further in the subsequent tea section of the portfolio. 

"Tea, Tales, and Tolerance: Intersections"

Because tea has the connotation of being inviting, it's common for people to gather to share stories when they drink tea together. As such, tea represents how we "test the waters" before breaking our biased exterior. In this piece specifically, my process in creating the work is very important in explaining the idea. I used a rubber masking frisket to create the city grid lines, then washed a black ink overtop, and finally, removed the rubber to reveal the crisp white lines. This process of creating the city grids from the negative space mirrors the concept that “we only know who we are when we know who we’re not,” hence encouraging people to respectfully and eagerly learn about others in order to better learn about and understand ourselves.

"Come Drink With Me"

Determined to evoke social change in my community and the country at large, I sought to create a piece that would encourage the amalgamation of people as well as stress the benefits of shedding biases. I continued the tea motif by calling upon Southeast Asian and Japanese cultures. In a traditional Southeast Asian tea ceremony, guests remove their shoes before entering the tea house in order to be on equal footing with their fellow patrons. This speaks to the idea that, as we share tea, and more importantly, stories of our cultures, we regard one another as equals and quite literally leave our bias at the door. More so, the tea ceremony stages themselves capture moments of gathering, togetherness, and offering to draw attention to the beauty of fellowship and camaraderie. I made this work a diptych to emphasize the separation of the biased shoes from the harmonious tea ceremony, which is crucial in facilitating tolerance free of bias

"Unearthing a New Blend"

This next installment furthers the idea of tea as an exploratory stage for "testing the waters" in an attempt to reach out and eliminate ignorance. The hands in the piece are gathering up used tea bags and straining them to create a new medley full of a variety of flavors. This represents the idea that, when we reach out (as the hands are) and learn from one another (share our journeys during a welcoming session of tea drinking), we can replace ignorance with understanding. Bound by compassion, we will unite and create a new blend that is truly stronger when mixed together.

"Ties that Bind: Melding the Flavors"

This massive 4'9" structure, with its 170 diverse faces placed inside teabags, emphasizes the power of a large and welcoming community. This racially diverse "nest" advocates for a communal shift in society which prioritizes equitability and open-mindedness. A multitude of faces representing the world’s many races and ethnicities are all tied in a single knot at the top, emphasizing the idea that we as humans need to come together as one. By maintaining a limited color palette and utilizing the design principle of repetition within my line and shape, I create an illusion of similitude which further establishes this idea of a cohesive, unified body of people.

"Tea, Tales, and Tolerance: Hearts Pouring"

This sculpture emphasizes the role of tea as an emblem of friendship and unification because the teapot is sewn entirely out of teabags. Here, line is created by the endless strands of text which wrap around the teapot like an embrace, echoing sensations of the great friendships which form when we let our guard down and are willing to both listen and share with others, regardless of their background. The hanging faces in the teabags represent an uninhibited outpouring of heart which leads to the development of rapports between people.

"Baking Barriers"

As we shift to the bread section, we finally enter the solution stage in which harmony is realized through an honest exchange between diverse people. In this work, jokingly called “Baking Barriers” as a play on the phrase, “Breaking Barriers,” I collected bread recipes from the grandmothers of several of my ethnically diverse friends. The middle of the five is actually my great-great grandmother from Poland! Each work is unique to the culture the bread comes from, with the supplies surrounding the recipe card chosen appropriately for each, such as the traditional Indian Tawa which lies underneath the Naan recipe. I then sewed my handprints onto the paper. The semi-transparent vilene the hands have been printed on represents how people are able to soak in the cultures of others whilst still retaining their own identity, allowing for multicultural exchange. With this "give a little, get a little"  philosophy, we can bind—as I did literally with thread—our traditions with those of others to balance harmony and diversity.

"Barricades Unbraided"

In this work, the act of unbraiding the Challah is similar to the act of “breaking bread” because the loaf is being unraveled. What is significant here is that, rather than close the braid and keep the Challah within the confines of the Jewish heritage, the unbraided Challah is more open and welcoming, allowing people from all ethnic backgrounds to take part in learning about my Jewish heritage.

"The People With Whom I Break Bread"

My final piece in the portfolio is an interactive work, and an open invitation. Here, the people I "break bread" with have been photo-emulsified onto slices of bread to represent the diverse cohort of companions with whom I congregate. Yet, most eminently, some pieces of bread are adorned with a reflective, mirror-like surface. As viewers walk past my piece, they see their reflection atop the bread with the same prominence as some of my best friends. What this suggests is that truly anyone can be someone I "break bread" with, because I am accepting of all people. This concept that strangers are as welcome as close friends is a trend I wish to spark with this inviting work. Accordingly, this work advocates for a communal shift in society which prioritizes equitability, charity, open-mindedness, and fellowship over unchecked ignorance and exclusivity which cultivate discrimination throughout society.

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