This past Veteran’s Day I had an extraordinary experience at MoMA. Aaron Hughes, an artist and Iraq War Veteran, invited two small groups of strangers into an intimate exchange: he made tea for us. He made tea for us in what might seem a very strange place within the museum, on a bridge next to MoMA’s Walid Raad exhibition, near Take an Object, and in proximity to Soldier, Spectre, Shaman: The Figure and the Second World War one floor above—all of which include work that reflects artists’ responses to war. Walid Raad, a friend of Aaron’s, was excited that this would take place near his installation.
Aaron had laid a rug down on the floor, with a small electric burner on top. Behind him was a beautifully crafted wooden box, which he later opened to reveal a specially designed tea set. Wearing a fatigue jacket with his rank embroidered on the sleeve, he welcomed all warmly. You could almost picture him as a lanky 19-year-old recruit as he invited us to sit with him and graciously spun compelling, poignant stories for the group. Beginning with his first assignment in Iraq, he told us about one night on guard duty, when an Iraqi man offered him tea—a common and generous gesture of Middle Eastern hospitality. But as a U.S. soldier he was forbidden from taking tea from Iraqis. Could it be poisoned? Or could it be common ground? There is the rub with war and humanity: fear and suspicion become necessary armor. He continued to tell stories and to invite people to share memories of where they were, physically and emotionally, when the Iraq War began.
While the stories and exchanges unfolded, Aaron heated water in a copper kettle, took Iraqi tea from a red-and-gold Arabic-lettered box, and combined the two to steep. He unfurled a story about a friend who worked at Guantánamo, and how the detainees found a small opportunity for tactile expression by incising line drawings into the outer surfaces of Styrofoam cups during meals. These were confiscated, and his colleague noted that the detainees most commonly drew flowers. Aaron ceremoniously handed each of us a ceramic cup in the shape of a Styrofoam cup incised with simple flowers and patterns. The number of flowers on each cup corresponded with the number of detainees from a specific country, the name of which was printed on the bottom of the cup. He finished by serving each of us some of the tea he’d prepared, then providing teaspoons of sugar, one by one. We drank it like it was a communion cup of sorts, eyeing the tea and cup in deep reflection, eyeing each other with the knowing looks of common experience, linked by the wisdom forged from Aaron’s sacrifice.
What made the evening so special was not only the emotional space and social exchange that was created by Aaron’s TEA (as he called the gathering), but by the assortment of people from different walks of life—veterans, people from all ages and backgrounds and many nations, artists, activists, writers. Each had read the description of this program and made a conscious decision to give their time and attention to being in this place with Aaron Hughes.
I left that evening, passing the next intriguing group of TEA participants. Familial responsibilities tugged me into the damp, dark night, although I longed to see how the next TEA would play out. How would they experience the Museum as a place of social consciences at a time when terrorism is tearing the fabric of our world, and refugee migration is challenging our sense of trust? Would they take the TEA?
I was not a supporter of the war in Iraq, and there were none of my family or friends were involved. Aaron made the complexity of military service human and immediate to me that night, and I expect he did the same for others. I imagined my son being drafted to war. I thought about the police in Paris who forced their way into the Bataclan to stop the killing, and what sacrifices they and others like them are making for all of us daily.
But another gift of this evening arrived a few days later, in the form of an e-mail from Aaron. He said, “I cannot thank you enough. To have had the opportunity to share my work in proximity to so many artists I admire and in the context of Walid’s show and the Figure and the Second World War show. Humbling. You know many of the artists in the Second World War and Take an Object show are artists that helped me hang on in the midst of my deployment. Knowing that the artists still created through the pains of World War One, the Spanish Civil War, and World War Two gave me hope that I could still create and be part of something creative.”
Proximity and place were critical to this program for Aaron, for the audience, and for MoMA. We rarely talk about what we ultimately stand for as an institution, a belief that art is not just something to be consumed but something that has affect on people—their lives and our world is better for it.
For the last month I’ve had a newspaper clipping on my desk with this quote by artist Mariam Ghani, as it’s one of few quotes I’ve found that addresses a sense of what art does: “I don’t think that works of art produce concrete change. If anything, they are thin ends of a wedge where they just create a small opening in someone’s mind where something more direct and more concrete can enter in.”
Small openings let something novel and unexpected into a place like MoMA: new connections. Michael Rakowitz, who is participating in the Education department’s Artists Experiment program, invited Aaron Hughes to MoMA for the evening. Aaron and Michael have collaborated in the past, and much of Michael’s work uses his own Iraqi-Jewish familial identity as a starting point for considering current social, political, and civil tensions in the Middle East. Aaron will soon begin a tour bringing TEA to audiences across Europe, where undoubtedly it will have continuing, growing resonance in proximity to Syrian refugee migration and recent acts of terrorism.
As a final note, I’d like to mention the often forgotten history of MoMA’s role in World War Two. MoMA’s aid in bringing artworks and artists from Europe to safety in the U.S. is well documented. What is less known is MoMA cofounder Abby Aldrich Rockefeller’s commitment to the rehabilitation of war veterans through engagement in art. Mrs. Rockefeller was instrumental in the creation of the War Veterans’ Art Center, a dedicated space for pedagogical experimentation that explored the role of artistic engagement in the transition from military service to civilian life. This early initiative of MoMA’s Education department was meant to address, within our limited capacities, the social impact of the war. Today we continue that history through multiyear Access Partnerships with local institutions like the Veteran Support Center at the Brooklyn VA. MoMA is more than a building with the greatest collection of modern art, it is a place that invites people to have experiences with art that, as Ghani says, make “small openings” where “something more direct and concrete can enter,” perhaps an expanded sense of yourself or a greater connection to issues, ideas, or a community beyond what you had imagined was yours before entering.