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Food for Mind and Soul

The 17th Istanbul Biennial

Thomas Roueché reflects on the lessons of the 17th Istanbul Biennial

  • Peter and Elka Schumann, founders of the Bread and Puppet Theater, with two of their children, Tamar and Salih, in New York City in the 1960s (Courtesy of Bread and Puppet Theater)

Elka Leigh Scott Schumann, who died in August 2021, was one of two children born in Magnitogorsk, in Russia’s Urals, to the radical journalist John Scott, who had left the USA in the 1930s for the nascent Soviet country. The family returned to America after Germany invaded Russia in 1941, taking a train to Japan and an ocean liner to Hawaii before continuing to San Francisco. After the war and four years with her family in Berlin, Elka attended Bryn Mawr women’s college. While studying in Munich in her junior year, she met the sculptor and dancer Peter Schumann. They would marry in 1959, and move to the then working-class Lower East Side of Manhattan, where, fuelled by the frenetic political atmosphere of the early 1960s, they founded the Bread and Puppet Theater.

The Theater, which presented three performances at the 2022 Istanbul Biennial, had a multitude of inspirations, from radical politics and the avant- garde performances of John Cage and Merce Cunningham, to the rich heritage of European street theatre. The shows featured recurrent characters – representations of Presidents Nixon and Johnson, and the slum landlord Uncle Fatso.

The couple remained avowed anti-capitalists, moving to a farm in Vermont and producing pamphlets. One, entitled Why Cheap Art?, read: “Art is food. You can’t eat it, but it feeds you. Art is like good bread! Art is like green trees! Art is like white clouds in blue sky! Art is cheap! HURRAH!”

Discussing the process behind the Biennial, the curatorial team, Ute Meta Bauer, Amar Kanwar and David Teh, used the metaphor of compost, issuing the statement: “Rather than being a great tree, laden with sweet, ripe fruit, this biennial seeks to learn from the birds’ flight, from the once teeming seas, from the earth’s slow chemistry of renewal and nourishment.” The Bread and Puppet Theater was an example of the curators’ blend of inspirations, radical politics and new forms of collectivity.…

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