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Scenes from The University of Rhode Island

URI’s Excess photography exhibition offers food for thought

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KINGSTON, R.I. -- September 10, 2004 -- Remember the Associated Press photograph of President George W. Bush serving our troops in Baghdad last Thanksgiving? In the picture, the commander-in-chief is shown hoisting a succulent-looking turkey atop a platter. Although the picture perfect turkey was, in fact, a plastic prop, the turkey is symbolic of our nation’s abundance. The photograph with its Norman Rockwell echo is, so to speak, as American as apple pie.

The image is part of a fascinating and thought-provoking photography exhibit called “Excess: Food as a Metaphor and Other Strategies of Consumption,” which runs from Sept. 16 through Oct. 28 in the Photography Gallery, URI’s Fine Arts Center Galleries. The exhibition is open to the public without charge.

“Food is part of our national identity. It tells us something about ourselves, particularly the overabundance and excess of it,” says University of Rhode Island anthropologist Marquisa LaVelle whose international studies include the effect of food on the body, particularly the health consequences of malnutrition and obesity.

LaVelle joined forces with art historian Judith Tolnick, director of URI’s Fine Arts Center, to create the exhibition, which is running in tandem with this fall’s Honors Colloquium, “Food & Human Rights, Hunger and Social Policy.” While the colloquium focuses on the issues of food insecurity, the exhibition calls attention to the role food plays as a symbol of religious, cultural, ethnic, individual and national identity.

A jarring centerpiece of the exhibition is a series of eight photographs of last meals requested by prisoners before their execution. The series, widely publicized by the international press, confronts and confuses the viewer with its mixed messages: the meal gives life to the body; the execution will take life away. After all, none of the prisoners lived long enough to digest what they ate.

The meals were painstakingly researched and recreated by Celia A. Shaprio before she photographed them. Tolnick had to track down Shapiro, a former New York City artist who had moved to Brazil after Sept. 11, 2001.

One prisoner chose a dozen hot dogs for his last meal, another chose liver and onions, and yet another requested a Kit Kat candy bar and a bag of Cheez Doodles. One woman prisoner, Stacey Lamont Lawton chose a jar of sweet pickles. She was executed for burglary and murder in Texas, where most of the executions took place.

“The photographs tell us something about the prisoners’ social status, education, past histories, and past choices,” says LaVelle whose commentary is printed in the illustrated color brochure, which accompanies the exhibition. “Even though the meals are given as a “gift” to the condemned, no alcohol or cigarettes are allowed.

The meals are controlled and given in a controlled setting-- served on stark cafeteria trays with plastic silverware.”

Not all food in the exhibition is confined. Along one of URI’s gallery walls a raucous food fight is in process. A group of Victorian schoolboys, dressed in proper school uniform, are seated in a formal dining room replete with chandelier, oil paintings, and oriental rug. The boys are in various stages of flinging food and making a mess that they will probably never be forced to clean up. They are, you understand, from the upper crust. The work is indulgent, wasteful, and fun. Not surprisingly, the photomontage entitled Feastlings 2001 by Cuban American artist Anthony Goicolea and featuring his image is huge -- 40 by 75 inches.

There’s much more to see. With a mischievous smile, Tolnick, notes that an elaborately decorated birthday cake will be part of the exhibition. The cake, of course, is a fake.

Gallery hours are Tuesday through Friday, noon to 4 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 1 to 4 p.m. The galleries are closed on federal and local holidays. Fidelity Investments is a major sponsor of this exhibit and others in the Fine Arts Center Galleries this fall.