On February 28, Otabenga Jones & Associates (2008 Visual Arts) premieres The People’s Plate, a collaborative art project and public health program addressing the ongoing crisis of obesity and its related risks. The Collective will unveil a public mural at the Lawndale Art Center in Houston and launch a series of adjacent programs, kicking off a year-long commitment to health education.
Inspired by the Black Panther Free Breakfast for School Children Program, which saw the Panthers cooking and serving breakfast to poor inner city children, The People’s Plate aims to provide at-risk community members with a set of tools that encourage self-sufficiency and empowerment in maintaining their own health through food choices while building community. Programs at Lawndale and other Houston venues will include cooking classes, a foraging workshop, an urban gardening workshop, an instructional cooking video and a line of mass-produced lunchboxes that will be made available to the public.
Otabenga Jones & Associates is a Houston-based educational art organization founded in 2002 by artist and educator Otabenga Jones in collaboration with members Dawolu Jabari Anderson, Jamal Cyrus, Kenya Evans and Robert A. Pruitt, among others. I connected with Robert Pruitt to learn more about The People’s Plate and other projects in the works.
Jenny Gill: Obesity is a national health crisis, but I’ve read that it is particularly widespread in the Houston area. Do you see The People’s Plate as being locally specific to Houston? Do you envision it having a broader reach at some point?
Robert Pruitt: This project is specific to Houston primarily in that we live in Houston and can see some of these issues here directly. The issues we are targeting are indeed a national problem and this project could easily have a broader impact. At this point, however, we’re concentrating on Houston and specifically a few neighborhoods in which we have community access.
Jenny: You mentioned that this project is inspired in part by the Black Panthers’ Free Breakfast for Children program. Are you specifically targeting school kids with any of the programs you have planned?
Robert: Ideally we will work not just with kids but with families and other community members as well. We will identify participants through a few after-school and community-center programs we are familiar with. Working with this issue of food choice/justice, we wanted to create an object that could distill meaning from this project, but also be functional for a non art public. To that end, we are creating a line of lunch kits that we will make available to participants in our workshops. Like the Lawndale mural project, the lunch kits also uses imagery by Emory Douglas, a graphic artist who created a lot of iconic artwork and graphics for the Black Panthers. We hope these lunch kits can function in real world ways while also extending the ideas of this project.
Jenny: Has Otabenga Jones & Associates faced any challenges with past community-based work?
Robert: This is the first time we have worked in this way. Our projects have traditionally manifested as happenings, performances and installations (film screenings, public lectures and museum installations) that ask viewers to engage as audience more than as a community. I think the difference would be about the level of exchange, and the voice that the audience/community has within the project. We are anticipating that additional voice as an early challenge. We have our own ideas about the issues we are targeting, but how will those ideas change and adapt during our workshops? It’s crucial to think about that.
VIDEO: Time-lapse of The People’s Plate mural painting at Lawndale Art Center, Houston, TX
Jenny: In addition to the Lawndale Art Center mural and the People’s Plate programs, what other projects are you working on right now?
Robert: Aside from The People’s Plate, this will be a busy year for OJ&A. We have two other large-scale community projects we are working on. Here in Houston, we will be producing the next round of installations at Project Row Houses this spring, as part of their 20th anniversary. We are examining the Third Ward neighborhood in which Project Row Houses exists (and in large part, grew out of) and working with its various histories and legacies to create a series of installations and public monuments to some of those histories.
Later this year we will also be participating in a Creative Time project called Black Radical Brooklyn. We will create a project centered on the history of a former Brooklyn jazz site called Kingston Lounge.