Artist discusses Iraq war over tea

Lizzie Rivard

Debbie Myung/The Daily Northwestern

Afternoon tea took on a new meaning for Northwestern graduate student Aaron Hughes. After serving in the U.S. military in Iraq, he channeled his experiences into his masters thesis in Art Theory and Practice in an exhibit, “Tea: A performance. A discussion,” on display at the Block Museum of Art from May 8 to June 21.

His work incorporates collages, a performance and a discussion on the war in Iraq as part of the annual Masters of Fine Arts Thesis Exhibition..

Hughes served in the Illinois Army National Guard over the course of one year and three months protecting contracted workers in Iraq. At the end of long convoy drives, Hughes’ unit would often sit with the workers and drink cups of tea, which provided the inspiration for his masters thesis exhibition, he said.

“Drinking tea is one act that we can commune over despite our culturally constructed differences,” Hughes said. “In order to dive into those differences, I try to tell these different stories and histories that complicate our idea of “the Other” specifically with regards to the Iraq conflict.”

Hughes’ exhibit uses the medium of conversation over tea as a forum for participants to discover the human elements of war and conflict, he said.

Visitors to the exhibit gather around an oriental rug while Hughes brews and serves tea, relaying stories from Iraq and asking audience members about their own opinions and experiences regarding the conflict. After the hour-long conversation, participants can view photographs and collages pertinent to Hughes’ observations in the armed forces.

Nate Baglyos said taking part in Hughes’ exhibition was a valuable experience.

“It was a very unique perspective on an issue that not only does everyone know about, but everyone cares about,” the Music junior said.

For Weinberg junior Allison Putnam , an Art Theory and Practice student, the experience was a chance to discuss the Iraq war without the bias of media reports, she said.

“Any chance there’s an opportunity to talk about something rather than have a one-sided conversation, a lecture, or one agenda about these issues is important,” she said.

During the May 21 performance, Hughes recounted seeing Iraqi beggar children alongside the road during a drive. Hughes said his commanding officer cried for three hours because he felt that U.S. involvement in Iraq was not making a positive difference.

“I want people to realize that we have a space to talk about these things, to talk about the issues of war, of humanity, of culture and of conflict,” he said. “They realize that they have a voice and that they can speak about these things, and that it’s as simple as sitting over tea.”