Jaydee Dizon was born in Pampanga, a province in the Central Luzon region of the Philippines, just north of Manila Bay. The region’s two main industries are farming and fishing, and rice, corn and sugar cane are its principal crops.
Every morning, she would wake up around 6 a.m., get dressed and then pour water buffalo, or Carabao, milk and salt crystals onto her bowl of rice. As a child, this breakfast signified a good start to the day. Today, the memory of this rice-based meal has become part of her cultural identity as a Filipina living in Southern California. It has even inspired her to explore the relationship between grains and cultural heritage in a photography series.
For documentary project “Identity Series: Our Home Grains,” Dizon has embarked on an engaging series of portraits of women from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds photographed with their faces sprinkled with a grain (or other staple food) that is part of their cultural identity. The idea came to Dizon in 2014 when she was taking a documentary photography class at Venice Arts, a non-profit neighborhood arts center, and was instructed to create a self-portrait. As a photographer specializing in landscapes, she was struggling to come up with an idea for a portrait series and found herself at an “artistic roadblock.” At one point she was amusing herself by pouring some jasmine rice on her face. In this moment of playfulness, she understood her strong connection to this rice of her childhood, and her image “Rice Face” was born. Soon she realized that, just as rice was an integral part of her identity, grains could define cultural identity for others too.
Dizon proposed the idea of a series of similar portraits of women from different cultural backgrounds to Kathy Gallegos, director of Avenue 50 Studio in Highland Park, and an exhibition was scheduled for summer of 2016. She invited 19 culturally diverse women to choose a specific grain that played a role in their cultural upbringing and then write a brief statement about their relationship with the grain. As the project progressed, however, she began to realize that there were some problems with her premise. Rice and wheat are staples in many cultures, and a number of women selected the same grain for their portraits. Dizon had imagined a series with a diversity of grains alongside the faces. More significantly, many of the women who wanted to participate in her project were of mixed backgrounds, so they had relationships with several grains. And others identified themselves more strongly with not just cereal crops but pulses, beans and other staple foods, sometimes with little connection to their ethnic heritage. At this point, Dizon admits, “I realized that the project was not about me or my ideas anymore. It was about them.”
The 20 portraits created so far in the “Home Grains series share a uniformity of composition. Each subject is photographed lying on her back with eyes closed and hair fanning out to frame the face. Each face has been peppered with a handful or two of rice, wheat, corn or beans of different sizes and colors. The grains are spread out in abstract patterns over the women’s skin — rough against smooth, light against dark — and become embedded in their hair or form halos encircling their heads. There is an aesthetic richness in the variety of tones, textures and compositions created by the pouring of hard, dried grains onto living, breathing skin — one that echoes the cultural richness of the Los Angeles area, that, Dizon notes, “people from 140 countries speaking 86 languages call home.” For many of these people, even after generations of living in the United States, food provides a comforting, almost umbilical, connection to their ethnic motherland.
For Mackenzie, whose cultural roots lie in Ireland, Scotland, the Netherlands and Germany and whose mother, Shannon, is another of Dizon’s subjects, the choice of grain was simple. "Oats and oatmeal in particular have been a constant in my growing up,” she explains. “Not only have I prepared oatmeal for breakfast at least a few days out of the week for as long as I can remember, but I've also used them in baking and even topically. Oats are a symbol of comfort and sustenance for me."
For Susan, whose father is from Cameroon and mother is American with Anglo-Scottish ancestry, it is maize that bonds her to her West African heritage. "I grew up in Cameroon where many of my favorite dishes were based on maize — an affordable and creatively used staple throughout the country. The traditional dish of my father's tribe (the Wimbum people of the northwest grasslands) is fufu and jama-jama — a stiff ball of corn flour porridge paired with spicy, cooked greens and eaten with the hands. Cameroon's maize is widely cultivated by millions of subsistence and small-scale farmers, including my father who enjoys growing maize in his retirement. Conversations with my parents often catalog the seasons, farming cycles, and harvest yields."
Korean American Hannah chose barley, remembering fondly, “Growing up in a traditional Korean household, my mom would add barley to rice to make sure that I have a much more nutritious meal.”
For some women, the selection of a particular grain was more complex. Sanae, whose roots are Japanese, African American, Native American and Irish, reflects the difficulty many Southern California residents experience when asked to identify with a particular culture. When approached to participate in Dizon’s project, she explains, "Being of mixed heritage doubled (quadrupled!) the choices for me. Should it be the cornmeal or grits from my Native American and African American ancestors or the oats from the Irish? Would soya, adzuki, or mung beans honor my Japanese mother? How about mochiko (rice flour)? But when we landed on goma (sesame seeds) it felt right. Not only is goma an ingredient in so many of my favorite Japanese dishes but it was also in the very first dish my mother taught me to make as a small child."
Clementine Paddleford, a New York-based food writer who introduced her readers to the global range of food available in New York City from the 1920s to 1960s, claimed, “We all have hometown appetites. Every other person is a bundle of longing for the simplicities of good taste once enjoyed on the farm or in the hometown left behind.” This belief seems apparent in the serene, even beatific, expressions of the women in each image of Dizon’s “Home Grains” series. Eyes closed and faces covered with the familiar grains of their homeland and their childhoods, they seem transported back to a place of nourishment, comfort and belonging.
Encouraged and inspired by her work with these culturally diverse women, Dizon plans to continue this series of cultural portraits. “I would like to have the series exhibited in communities that need to understand the importance of cultural diversity and coexistence,” she explains. “And food is one source of this understanding.” With this goal in mind, she will continue to reach out to other women in Southern California and invite them to meditate upon their own cultural, culinary and spiritual homes.
More images from Jaydee Dizon’s "Identity Series: Our Home Grains" can be found on the artist’s website.