Blog > When Mamaliga Becomes Form

Wikipedia will tell you that “mamaliga” – (Romanian pronunciation mămăligă [məməˈliɡə]) – is a dish made out of yellow maize popular in such countries as Romania, Moldova, Russia and Ukraine. It is usually considered a peasant food, and in countries like Moldova and Romania mamaliga has often been regarded as the local farmer's substitute for bread. In these countries mamaliga is also a very iconic dish, with a lot of symbolic connotations, since it has not only been part of the national cuisine but has also appeared in local folklore, in popular songs, customs, literature,  and so forth. When upon certain occasions I explain to a foreigner what mamaliga is, I will likely mention the Italian polenta – a dish better known in the West which some claim is very similar to mamaliga. This may be true, but only to some extent. There are some essential differences between polenta and mamaliga. The main difference is in the consistency and the density of the two. Unfortunately for the Italians, their polenta cannot stand on its own (see right picture below); it always requires an external support – a vessel, something to be served in, something to be contained in. If left uncontained the Italian polenta tends to spread out all over the place like a puddle, or like the Roman empire in its times of glory. The consumption of polenta is also different from that of mamaliga, for it always requires a spoon – another external device, another cultural prosthesis.

Left: Mamaliga (form as sedimented content), Right: Polenta (form without content) image source: Wikipedia

Mamaliga, on the other hand, can stand on its own. It can persist and endure in its dense viscosity, like the Moldovan peasants, who managed to survive in spite of various social and political external forces that sought to hold and contain them within the shape of a foreign ideology: be it that of Soviet collectivist Marxism, which was disseminated until two decades ago through the shared equipment of the kolkhozes, or of the current Democratic-Liberalism that made its way to the Moldovan countryside by means of micro-loans and credits provided selectively by the IMF and the World Bank. Mamaliga, on the other hand, requires neither a container nor an external utensil –  just take it from where you left it and eat it with your own private hand. To speak in aesthetic terms – for this is where this brief note is heading to – one may say that polenta is content without form; it is material or amorphous mass that is constantly awaiting an external governing principle, an external form (a plate or bowl), an external prosthetic device (a spoon or fork), an additional external idea (perhaps like the Western farmers about whom the Moldovan peasants say – with a dose of resentment – that if they were suddenly devoid of subsidies, sophisticated agricultural equipment and fertilizers, they might not know how to make it through the winter).

Aesthetically speaking the Moldovan peasants' mamaliga is both content and form. To put it in terms of Hegelian aesthetics – mamaliga is form as sedimented content. As soon as the water-maize mass escapes the hot cooking pan, it is left on its own to generate its own form, to configure itself according to the movement of its own idea, being subject only to the law of gravity like that volcanic lava that once covered the city of Pompeii.

It is this formal quality of mamaliga, as well as this dish's cult symbolic status within the local national context, that has allowed and inspired the Moldovan contemporary artist Ghenadie Popescu to turn mamaliga into artistic material, to produce mamaliga-art. If I were to curate an exhibition showing his mamaliga cycle of works, I would without doubt call it: “When Mamaliga Becomes Form.”

The artist Popescu has used mamaliga as his primary artistic material for quite some time. Most of the objects found in his studio are made from the yellow corn flour. When I visited his studio in Chisinau last summer I saw on the shelves, on the floor, on the desks and chairs: cups and caps made from mamaliga, helmets and shovels, shoes and radiators, telephones and bottles of various soda drinks, some weird mechanical devices made for I don’t know what purpose but made for certain from boiled down and hardened corn maize; boxing gloves and medals; radiators and wheels; bells and bicycles; gratings and carts; spoons and plates; and then again some unknown movable mechanisms and devices made for I don't know what purpose but from what looked like hardened yellow maize porridge to me – which means that all of them were perfectly comestible.

If there were a parallel world, a parallel universe predestined and designed only for those who hold a blue Moldovan passport, then in such an universe everything would be completely comestible. Here, I could eat everything around me; I would have the chance to be the most consistent, consumptive, and consecrated consumer. Only here would I have the possibility of eating both the plate and what is in it, as well as the yellow spoon that I aim at the food; and then, the cup from which I drink, the chair on which I sit, and the table that holds my yellowed elbows; and then if I were still hungry I could start munching on my hat, clothes, shoes (and the laces, like that funny little Englishman), the car, the yellow iPod with 80 Gb of maize hard disc memory, then move towards the mamaliga-made wallet, money, health, auto, home insurance and the credit and debit cards. And then I would also eat my passport, made from blue genetically modified corn. In such an universe there would cease to exist any distinction between edible and inedible things, between raw material and finished products, between tools of production and objects of labor, for here the tools of production are in fact the actual products, and the means of delivering something are as perfectly consumable as the delivered product. In other words: I would swallow in one gulp both the medium and the message. There may also be many other implications for such an Utopian place, implications of which I am afraid even to think at this late hour, but which may affect the relations among the inhabitants of this universe, or the relations between this universe and the “really existing one.” I can see for instance how a polenta-eater who had lost his spoon in last Friday’s market crash could come to Ghenadie Popescu to borrow his mamaliga-made spoon and bowl.

Octavian Esanu, November, 2010