For Brooklyn artist Kemar Wynter, Caribbean cuisine is a path home

During his first year as an art student at SUNY Purchase, Kemar Wynter was expected to choose an area of ​​interest. At first he couldn’t think of anything. Then it clicked: he would focus on residence. As one of four black students in a cohort of 22, several hours from his home in Flatlands, Brooklyn, he yearned for that welcoming feeling of being in the kitchen, surrounded by his family, along with the smell comfort foods and traditional Jamaican dishes filling the room.

As a child, Wynter would rush home from school for Friday night dinners and head straight for the kitchen, where his aunt put him to work peeling carrots, stirring pots, and marinating meats. What started out as a childhood bond has turned into a lifelong passion. He was drawn to the experimental process of cooking, which required a balance between careful attention and self-confidence. From the age of eight, he focused on macaroni pie, a family staple that he then spent 18 years perfecting, tweaking the recipe until it was perfect. In Wynter’s family, written recipes did not exist. He learned by watching his aunt and mother cook, absorbing the basics and then moving on to more advanced techniques.

Likewise, Wynter’s jubilant and movement-filled abstract paintings, with titles like Macaroni pie, Aunt Del’s Pea Stew, and Aunt Pearline’s Potato Salad-are the result of diligent growth and iteration. Each layered surface is made of oil pastel, charcoal, and metallic grommets on paper and fills a gallery space with a bubbling light so rich you can feel its warmth filling your chest. For Wynter, food is a multisensory experience directly linked to his early childhood spent in Crown Heights, adulthood spent exploring the Five Boroughs, and his Jamaican heritage.

When we chatted via Zoom, Wynter was taking a break from shipping his paintings to various galleries around the world the day after his first solo show, “Portions” closed. He spoke about the importance of archiving history, how his practice evolved during the pandemic, and his favorite vegan cookie in New York City.

“Portions” was my first solo show and it focused on … generosity and being able to give [to others]. I paint about the food and these pieces on the wall – these are the parts of myself that I share with people. In the idea of ​​generosity, there is also a level of care, and also of control and power, to designate who gets what. The painting is a gift, a tribute to the dish, to the chef and to the moment. But to come to my internal dialogues around the [piece], you need to do extra work. I want my non-black viewers to work for their meal.

Over the past year and more, I have seen so many gestures of solidarity on social media … but where is the real work done among the so-called allies? There is a lot of coding that I placed in the text for each of the paintings, thinking about how for me as a black individual I have to constantly change the way I talk to others just as a way of navigating the precariousness of the world – knowing that the way I speak in certain contexts can be the thing that determines the level of care that is presented to me or the access to the opportunities that I have.

Each of my paintings is titled After Food … and sometimes relate to specific people in my life. I think it’s important to hang on to this notion of lineage. I was the first person in my family to be born in the United States. So I see myself as an archivist and I see my practice largely as a form of archiving, both of my family’s recipes and the stories associated with it. I am a child of immigrants, so I feel responsible for cherishing these dishes. In a generation or two, if these recipes are lost, what is my attachment to Jamaica? Where is my family’s legacy? If my kids and grandchildren come to me for fast food before asking me to make them an oxtail pot, I put that failure on me.

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Michael M. Tomlin

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