Aaron Hughes’ Tea Performance: Building Community One Tea Cup at a Time

By Sam Baldwin

Photo credit Sam Baldwin

Photo credit Sam Baldwin

“Tea. It’s in all of our lives. We all have our own tea stories. Our own experiences over a cup of tea,” said Aaron Hughes, a Chicago artist, activist, and Iraq War Veteran. “So, what are some of your tea traditions?”

The audience members, who were sitting cross-legged in a circle around Hughes, began to chime in with their own “tea stories.”

“I haven’t had a conversation in a Syrian household without tea,” responded Glenview native Rachel Thomas, thus getting the ball rolling in this Tea Performance.

The dialogue, which took place on Oct. 22, was part of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s “MCA heart Chicago” 50th anniversary event. The anniversary event was a way for the museum to show gratitude to Chicago. The museum was free to the public for the entire weekend, and there were numerous events that encouraged reflection and engagement.

Hughes’ Tea Performance was an open conversation about humility, community, and Hughes’ experience as an Iraq war veteran. It was meant to simulate the conversations and reflections that occur over a cup of tea.

The performance is part of a project that Hughes started in 2009 after his return trip to Iraq as a veteran. However, Hughes said that the Tea Project evolved when he “sat down with Amber Ginsburg and talked about making a porcelain cup for everyone that’s been detained [in Guantanamo Bay].”

Throughout the performance, Hughes brewed Alwazah Tea in the typical Iraqi fashion. When the tea was finished, he proceeded to serve each audience member from one of the 790 porcelain casts of styrofoam cups that Hughes and Ginsberg created to represent the 790 Guantanamo Bay detainees, and the singular cup of tea that each detainee receives every evening in his cell.

Photo credit Sam Baldwin

Photo credit Sam Baldwin

Each porcelain cup is engraved with flowers, and has a detainee’s name and country of citizenship written on its base.

“The flowers on each cup are either the national flower from their country of citizenship or an indigenous flower from their country,” said Hughes. “The number of flowers on each cup represents the number of men detained with that citizenship.”

As the audience sipped their tea, they gained a sense of comfort and the dialogue continued to deepen.

“This reminded me of commonalities, and of the value of being vulnerable,” said participant Bethany Barrett.

Lorenzo Conte, an assistant in learning and public programs at the MCA believed that this sense of vulnerability came from the discussion’s intimate setting in which every participant and Hughes are sitting on the floor.

“It’s uncommon that you sit in a space on the same plane as equal participants with strangers and a performer,” said Conte. “It’s incredibly equalizing.”

The performance took place in a space as beautiful as the content of the discussion. The MCA’s brand-new space, known as The Commons, opened this fall, and it is a place for community gathering and dialogue. It currently holds an installation of many light planters by Mexico City artists Pedro&Juana, but it will be a constantly changing space.

“Just like the plants in the planters are going to grow and change over time, hopefully the space is going to grow and change over time,” said Conte. “It’s going to not be a static space.”

The event ended with each participant returning his or her cup to Hughes. Yet most lingered and talked to one another, solidifying the connections that the performance had catalyzed.

Steven Norwalk