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Tainá Guedes and Mottainai: on mindfulness – and how we conquer wastefulness

Food artist Tainá Guedes smiling
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Food Artist Tainá Guedes talks about her way of making a statement on wastefulness and what she wants to convey with the term “Mottainai”.

Tainá Guedes is a chef – and an artist. Foodstuffs are her work tools, not made of plastic, but real ones, fresh. She plays with them in order to make a statement on wastefulness. In our interview she explains why this is not in any way cynical and whether her exhibits are really all eaten in the end.

Tainá Guedes and one of her art installations

Tainá Guedes, Brazilian by birth, was a feisty child. Every five minutes there was a new idea brewing in her mind and demanding attention. The freedom to pursue these ideas was given to her by her mother, who was Japanese and a teacher of art and literature – and Tainá would not be one of the most exciting food activists in Germany if her mother hadn’t.

“My father died when I was 11 years old. He was an artist and worked with very well-known personalities in Brazil. His early death naturally had a big influence on me; suddenly my mother was alone and due to the crisis in Brazil we suddenly didn’t know how we were supposed to pay for our food. I helped my mother look after the family, and I often cooked. At the age of 13 I had my first job as a radio production assistant, and at 19 I opened my first Japanese restaurant”, she explains. The first restaurant was followed by others; for nine years Tainá managed them and at the same time founded a lingerie label. It was going well – but then doubt came. “I asked myself what I was actually doing. Is this important to me? Or am I simply doing it because it’s just what I’ve always done?”, she asks. “It became clear to me that it was too much. Too much fashion, too much superficiality. I wanted to do something worthwhile, something that is really important. So I became a vegetarian.”

Tainá Guedes found the meaning she was looking for in her work with food – or rather: in the appreciation. This is what it’s all about for her, in everything she does. And she does a lot. In 2006 she came to Berlin from São Paulo for a job as a chef. But unexpectedly she did not get the job after all and found herself in Germany with no prospects. Today she runs the Entretempo Kitchen Gallery in Berlin, since 2015 she has been the initiator and organiser of the Food Art Week, which takes place from 22 to 29 September in Bologna and is soon to make the leap from Europe to America, and has just brought out a new cookbook: “The cuisine of mindfulness”, keyword: Mottainai. That is the subtitle. But what on earth does that mean?

We have to show more respect for things. Tainá Guedes

“Mottainai is a term from Buddhism”, Tainá explains, laughing. “It stands for treating things mindfully and showing them respect.” She says she learned this word last year. It has changed her life, she explains, although the philosophy behind it is over 3,000 years old and yet is actually perfectly obvious: “We have so much that is valuable everywhere, but we no longer see it. There is no room for respect in our modern world. We buy more and more new things without understanding the connection. But it is the case that it is all linked. That’s also what I say in my book. There are lots of recipes, but also lots of stories, for we have to learn to see the big picture and understand our food. All these terms, sustainability, local, organic, fair trade – they are all good and important, but they only ever describe individual aspects which you actually cannot separate from one another. That’s what Mottainai stands for.”

Two women blow dust from their hands

So that’s the theory. But Tainá Guedes also has precise ideas about how it works in practice. The foodstuffs she uses for her works of art are eaten by the visitors to her exhibitions. But she donates the leftovers to food banks or makes them available via food sharing platforms. She develops recipes involving banana skins (yes, really) or leftover bread. “As consumers we have the power to make change happen”, she says. “And yes, this change is practicable. Many people then ask where they should start or what business of theirs the problems in India or Africa is, how they could possibly do anything about something that is so far away. But it is very simple. We just need to understand that food is political. Every time we go to the supermarket we make decisions not just on behalf of ourselves but also on behalf of many other people, animals and our environment. Every one of our decisions influences the future. We need to recognise this.”

Imagine there is suddenly no more overproduction, industrialisation of our food, and no more processing. And we know where our foodstuffs come from. Tainá Guedes

Again and again Tainá meets people who understand her views but think they don’t have enough time, money or opportunities to consume more sustainably, better and with more awareness in the middle of a big city – to live Mottainai. But she says these are excuses which are down to laziness, and which she cannot accept. She is convinced that nowadays there is no excuse for waiting for governments to act instead of doing something yourself. But what sort of action could people take? Something like this: “Solidarity agriculture, have you heard of that? A farmer produces food for a group of customers, completely on demand, organic, of course, regional, and twice a year the customers help out in the fields and learn about where their food comes from. This is a really simple model, but the effects it has are huge. All of a sudden we no longer have any overproduction, no industrialisation of our food, no processing, just totally natural foodstuffs, and we even know where they come from”, she explains. And if that is all too much for anyone, they can still make a contribution by buying regional and seasonal produce, organic wherever possible, and, please, no products from New Zealand or Colombia. In this way individuals can still make a big difference. But the most important thing that each of us can do is this: recognise that the hunger in the world is linked with the wastefulness, buying habits and throwaway mentality we regard as normal.