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Salt, Fat, Ashes, Heat
Photograph: Courtesy of the artistSalt, Fat, Ashes, Heat

This performance artist is cooking and eating her father's cremated remains

Eva Margarita's "Salt, Fat, Ashes, Heat" uses cannibalism to explore conjuring and mourning.

By
Adam Feldman
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It's mourning in America, as people across the country wrestle with personal and collective senses of loss. In a striking theatrical piece this week, performance artist Eva Margarita will be processing her own grief in an unusually literal way: by cooking and eating three kinds of food that, she says, will be made using the bones and ashes of her late father's cremated remains.

On Wednesday, September 23, the Tank is live-streaming Margarita's marathon Salt, Fat, Ashes, Heat, a 12-hour durational piece that aims to explore "an archive of blackness in everyday life." To some, the project may sound ghoulish. But its aim, which draws on the artist's Afro-Latinx heritage, is healing and instructive.

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"Done through a cooking practice, this conjuring aims to trace the cyclical flow of gathering, knowledge, and mourning for black folks across the Americas," the show's self-description says. "Taking an endocannibalistic approach, Eva Margarita will cook and eat three different entrees with her father’s ashes to not only honor his spirit but to show how communities pass on knowledge through a practice in eating and conjuring with one another. To consume the flesh is to commit to its history and its (re)invention."

Salt, Fat, Ashes, Heat begins at 8am EDT and lasts until 8pm. Margarita and others will discuss the project in a follow-up panel discussion the next day at 6pm EDT. Audience members may watch part or all of the streamed performance by reserving tickets, which cost $0–$10

We recently spoke with Margarita about the ideas behind her project. The interview below has been edited and condensed from that conversation.

Eva Margarita | Photograph: Courtesy of the artist

Salt, Fat, Ashes, Heat is described as a 12-hour project. Will you be onscreen the whole time? 
Yeah, it'll be a 12-hour marathon. One of the dishes I'm cooking is Guatemalan tamales, and those actually take about 8 to 12 hours to cook. So the first bit of it will be like four hours of prep and getting those in, and then there'll be two other dishes, so three dishes will be cooked over the course of 12 hours. Then at some point, I'll set the table, and then y'all will eat with me—we'll share the dinner table together, and have a family meal in that sense, too.

The following day, we'll have a panel discussion with some folks from NYU and Yale: some American and Caribbean studies scholars that'll come in and chime in on this practice of conjuring and consuming the other.

I really want to think about what it means for us to sit with something, and to sit with someone, for a long time. It's hard for us to sit still, especially now when we've got the Zoom universe and we're always distracted by our phones. To sit with someone for that long is to accompany someone in their liveliness. It's not always going to be, you know, entertaining, but you have to sit with it to get the full effect of it. When I think about this piece I think about how my father taught me how to cook: "I'm gonna tell you once and I'm not gonna tell you again, and I hope you know how to repeat the steps because you should've been paying attention the entire time."

And I think most of us kind of learned how to cook that way. If we're not truly paying attention, are we getting the most out of that experience?

So your hope is that people will join you pretty attentively for the entire 12-hour period, but on a practical level: If people would rather just drop in or go in and out, they will be able to?
People will be able to close the window and come back to it at different parts of the day.  But I'm asking for folks to sit with it as long as possible, as we sit in the mourning and the grief of what's going on in the world, in the Americas. I hope you can stay for as long as possible, and I also hope that something about even maybe the mundaneness of it will be capturing as well.

I grew up Jewish, where there is a mourning tradition of sitting shiva: gathering and sitting together to pass time. And there's a lot of food involved with that, too, but the body of the dead person is not involved at all. How long have you had your father's remains?
My dad passed away from lung cancer in June, and since then, we've had a large urn made and then three smaller ones for each of his children. For each dish, I'll pull in one of the small urns, and we'll pull out just the bone pieces from the ashes. And I'm taking this from other endocannibalistic approaches and cultures, where they take just the bones—we take just the hard part, and we break it down with our hands, in a hope that the way that life broke down, now it's done out of love.

But it's also done in a practice to consider what elements of mourning are entry points for gathering, for assembling—not just assembling in the gathering but in the assemblages within us. What are the bones, the ghosts, the flesh that come out of that?

I've had the ashes since June, and since then I knew I wanted to perform with my dad. I wanted him to be with me in some kind of way. I do other performances about practices of everyday life, and when I think about what our everyday life was, the biggest message he gave me was to cook. So why not cook some of the last dishes that he asked me to make personally: Guatemalan tamales, fritas, which is a fried bread, and then rice and peas. (My family also comes from a Caribbean background, so they're Jamaican rice and peas.) And each one of them will have some of the ashes.

In the tamales, it’ll be in the sauce that goes on top. In the fritas, it will be in the dough. In the rice and peas, it’ll be mixed throughout. Each dish represents my father, but also another way of reinventing the body and reinventing the flesh, and another way to consume the flesh and to commit to what it means to have this history, and to have this trauma, to put this mourning and this blackness in the bones—for us to inherit it, but also in the hopes to make it better, to reinvent it, to consume it. It'll come out—and it'll be shit, it's just gonna be shit—but also it'll have been processed through me personally, and I think that's another agent in mourning. 

So you're focusing specifically on the larger pieces of bone?
Yeah, the larger pieces. I'll pick them out. 

And you'll be boiling these pieces for some kind of broth, or grinding them…?
I grind them. There are cultures that make wines, or mix the ashes with water; other folks cook or just eat pieces of the heart or the flesh. But I'm taking just the bone pieces. I'm grinding them down in a molcajete, or a mortar and pestle, and then I'm adding them into the food. I'm grinding them down in a metaphorical sense to help grind down the body and flesh, but also it's almost to subvert the grinding that we do in real life, and all the beating that we've taken throughout, but now it's done out of love. Now it's done to pass on, to process, figuratively and literally. But also I'm grinding it down because if we don't grind it down even further it'll be really gritty, and it's not going to mix well with the rest of the food.

Yesterday we had a rehearsal, and something in me just felt like, "I need to bring him in now," even in the rehearsal. I was rendering the fat that I'll be using to cook and I was grinding the bones down. I hadn't ground them down before, and the part that was the hardest to grind down was the darkest part. I somehow said to myself, "It's funny how the black part doesn't break down so easy." Something about it—it was in the sound, it was in the difficulty, in the grinding. But ultimately it did make powder. I blew it over the fat, and it just kind of stayed in the steam and kind of sat there for a minute, before it floated within the fat that we'll be using to cook. 

Salt, Fat, Ashes, Heat | Photograph: Courtesy of the artist

There will be a panel discussion the next day. How much of the content and meaning of the piece will you be explaining during the 12 hours itself? Will you go into the background of what you’re doing, or will you just be making and doing?
I'll be making and doing—this impromptu performance that happens, just in the practice of cooking. 

But you won't be theorizing it explicitly as it happens.
No, not till the next day. At the panel discussion, I'll speak for about 10 to 15 minutes to theorize and explain exactly what was behind each piece and each aspect of what I was doing. 

Is there any health danger attached to eating these remains? 
Not that I know of! I looked it up! [She laughs.] A couple of years ago, a girl put ashes in sugar cookies and fed them to people at her school, and then they interviewed a scientist who said, "Well, there's actually nothing wrong with it and it won't make you sick. The only thing is that it's really high in carbon." You have to be careful about how much carbon you take in, but a little bit shouldn’t really do too much. But it's just carbon. There's carbon on a nicely charred piece of toast.

What is your performance background?
I've been performing for about six years now. In undergrad, I started writing about Brujeria, specifically through an Afro-Latinx lens. I wrote a couple of plays there. Then I moved on to NYU for my Master's in Performance Studies, and there I conjured up Conjuring Stains, which is about reactivating an archive of blackness in everyday life. I worked on that performance for about a year. But this is the first time that a performance on a digital stage has taken this amount of production. I usually just do things about everyday life and Brujeria. 

Can you tell me more about Brujeria?
Oh, it’s like Latin witchcraft. It’s essentially conjuring. Latin conjuring. The crux of my work is working with an archive of Conjure, which is tracing the steps back—tracing the residual transcripts of blackness in the ways that we gather in everyday life. And I find that it's most often at a crossroads of the morgue, stage and spiritual practice. It's these things that we do in everyday life that are truly just ways that we come together, be it in life or in death. We still come together, we still find ways to consume each other, be it actual physical consuming or just consuming the energy of the moment. 

Is that idea of consumption metaphysical for you, or is it just metaphorical?
It's both. It's both. I mean, you'd be surprised how many things happen when you don't expect them to happen. I think it's certainly metaphysical in that we can translate the immaterial and the material, and that energy is definitely something that's real when you walk in the room. Sometimes, you know, I'm doing things and I may not know the impact of what I'm doing and suddenly things become silent, and everything just makes sense. And there is something in that silence that I can't deny, that I can't say is not real. 

Endocannibalism, if I understand it correctly, means eating people from within your own community, as opposed to people from somewhere else.
Exactly—this is something within the community, ideally someone within the close family. I know other cultures will say, "The women have to eat this part, the children eat this part, elders eat this part." But I'm mostly looking at the community aspect of it.

Your description of the event mentions "mourning for black folk across the Americas." Would you say that his project is more of a personal mourning process or is it also connected to larger social issues?
It's definitely both. I say the Americas because it's the United States of America, but it's also Central America, it's also South America—it's diasporic. It's about my own personal mourning, but it goes beyond the "me" search; this is performance as research, this is how performance can affect all of us. And this research asks folks to consider what it means for mechanisms of mourning to be that entry point for gathering, that entry point for assembling our ghosts, our bones, the flesh, but our everyday life as well. Part of it is recognizing the black part of it, the blackness, the mourning. Those two things are inexorable. You can't get them away from one another. 

Tropes of cannibalism have been bound up with the idea of the "primitive" in some of the ways that Mesoamerican and African cultures have been represented for centuries. Are you concerned about how this project plays with that?
No. No, not at all. It's funny that you use the word "plays." It's certainly a play, but it's not to disrespect. It's a subversion, but not necessarily an appropriation. It's to pay respect, it's to honor that there are different ways of paying respect, and part of that works into where the conjure is pulling from all these different spiritual aspects and elements. And if one of those speaks more to the entry point of mourning, or the practice of cooking and the practice of conjuring, then why not lean into it? It may be seen as taboo, but it's beyond that for me. It's looking at what it means to enter a spiritual practice or a morgue from a different door.

There are certainly a lot of people who are going through their own mourning processes right now, either for people who have died or from a general sense of loss in the culture over the past six months or more. Do you want to share your mourning with them? Is this a communal experience? 
Yeah, absolutely. It's definitely a communal experience. A Jewish friend told me that someone at their temple told them, "Mourning is like a club. Grief is like a club. And its members will reveal themselves to you as you go along." And I've found that to be very true: We don't know we're all part of this mourning or this grief club, but somehow we're all in it, and we all reveal ourselves to each other, little by little. And if that begets a communal experience, then I so very welcome that. Because I think we all are definitely mourning the loss of time, the loss of lives, the loss of any sense of normalcy, and for us to share that—I think it's comforting. At the very end, if anything, misery does love company. And we can all be miserable together in it. 

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