By Liz Hitchcock
Food has not always been an issue on artist and Baylor alumnus Mark Menjivar’s conceptual plate.
His interest in studying food was ignited shortly after graduating in 2002 from the School of Social Work by a trip to his home continent, South America.
When Menjivar was attending college, he said he never thought about the food he put into his body, where it came from, who made it or even why he chose to eat it. Like most college students, he was eating out a substantial amount and was completely unaware of the hardships that surround the issue of food.
“I think the first, as far as in my artistic practice, was when I started working with Michael Nye, another artist, on a documentary on food in 2006,” Menjivar said.
“I was talking to a lot of people who were really experiencing hunger and food insecurity. I was talking to them deeply about their thoughts about it and the physical reality of hunger on the body. That was the origin of beginning to think about it.”
While helping Nye, with a exhibit titled “About Hunger and Resilience,” in which Menjivar came in contact with many people faced with the problem of hunger, Menjivars’ interests in visually documenting food issues were solidified.
“The exhibit [About Hunger and Resilience] is more about reflection than it is about suffering,” Nye said. “The stories are all about life experiences with hunger, but they are also about a larger picture of life. There are 15 stories and portraits. It is very diverse. In America, it’s hard to imagine someone that’s so hungry they would cry and not want to go on living.”
After working on the documentary, he returned home to San Antonio only to uncover another passion – photography.
Menjivar then embarked a new journey for the next three years, documenting people’s lives through their refrigerators.
“One of things that I first fell in love with in the conceptual idea of refrigerators is that they are like our bodies in a way,” Menjivar said. “They are constantly changing; the things in there are sometimes alive. They change more than any other space in our homes. That conceptual thought fascinated me.”
The concept of his most recent and complete body of work, “You Are What You Eat, ” was derived through Menjivars’ own goals in carefully monitoring his daily food consumption. He had been self-sufficient in South America and witnessed the full cycle of food, from the ground to the mouth.
“His work is extremely strong and really touches on so many issues, like financial securities and nutrition habits,” Nye said. “’You Are What You Eat’ really makes you think about what you eat and what’s in your fridge.”
The photographs in this series are pictures of refrigerators of an array of types of people. The pieces are compiled with information regarding each individual, small excerpts about their job, the number of people in their household and a fact about them.
Through the execution of this series, Menjivar said he discovered things about people and each of their relationships with food, whether it be good or bad.
Dr. Diana Garland, dean of the School of Social Work at Baylor, said it is important to be aware of hunger issues around the globe.
“We don’t think clearly or set goals, make plans or dream dreams, or just live our lives in forward thinking if we are hungry and we have to focus on where our next meal is going to come from. Our lives are affected by hunger.”
Menjivar began to see that regardless of who people are or what they do, food has a prominent impact in people’s lives.
One of Menjivar’s pieces is a list of virtually everything Menjivar ate for an entire year. He was driven to record his own eating habits when he was challenged by a nutritionist friend.
Something that he realized once he began the process of fastidiously recording every meal and snack, was that like many people in America, he was sometimes unaware of the things he ate.
Whether it be the quality of nutrition he was in taking in or the number of times he ate fast-food, Menjivar said that he began to see the relevance of food in people’s lives and how we form a relationship with our food.
“Something that fascinates me about food,” Menjivar said, “is that we can all relate to it. It’s kind of like this large umbrella that has all these different explorations in it.”
Menjivar is currently working on a project that combines new media art and social work. He will be organizing cities to chart out food maps.
“I will be working with communities to make these alternative maps of their cities by exploring the community through the lenses of food,” Menjivar said. “This will look different for each place, but it may include the location of restaurants, grocery stores, gardens, or even pictures of the food people are eating. The possibilities are endless.”
The concept behind the food maps is that you can glean a greater knowledge of a community through examining the way that community eats.
“My hope is to make a comprehensive food map of the city of San Antonio,” Menjivar said, “but then expand the project as I go to different communities around the country, hosting food mapping workshops and I will invite people to contribute to the process from wherever they are.”
His plans are to gather groups of people to construct a plan involving splitting into smaller groups of people and having lunch. Once each group decides what, where and how they will eat, they will document their experience.
“He is being an advocate on an issue that is very important,” Garland said, “which is adequate food and reliable source of nutrition. Mark’s work is a direct outcome of his social work education. He just uses a different medium to get the message across.”