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We sure did eat a lot of poison when we were young. Not just the comestible kind, though we ingested loads of that, too—the cyclamates in TaB, say, or the chlorpyrifos from our carpets. We also imbibed other toxins: racist caricatures filled our television screens; cosmetics packaging tried to convince women, people of color, and non-binary folks to hate ourselves; our bodies became fungible objects.
Maryam Jafri’s show at the ICA LA, I Drank the Kool-Aid But I Didn’t Inhale, takes as its premise a joke about Bill Clinton, yet its real subject is the death of old, mostly bad, ideas. In making the body of work for the exhibition (titled Product Recall: An Index of Innovation, 2014-2015), Jafri researched the archives of food branding consultants, and from their notes, tracked down now-obsolescent goods from eBay or flea markets. She then assembled a series of readymades of doomed household products. Outmoded consumables, propped up on plinths like exotica found in ethnographic museums, fill the small exhibition space.
One vitrine contains a brown-and-white package of Fact brand cigarettes. Exquisitely-researched didactics narrate the demise of this and other products that Jafri appropriates. (Fact wasn’t withdrawn from the market because it caused cancer, but because the Philip Morris brand Merit Cigarettes kept outselling it.) Then, there’s the full-color, framed ad of two bottles of Spalding Sports Refresher, a heavily-sugared beverage marketed in the ’90s, primarily to African Americans. The soda didn’t croak because of allegations of food industry racism but because of “brand diffusion.” Jafri hangs the photograph next to wall didactics explaining the history of the product; the dry presentation highlights the overly-fun branding of the product and the emotional manipulation therein. She further escalates the stakes with her display of Central Soya’s “PLUSmeat,” a soy-based meat replacement, which the company withdrew from grocery stores in 1975 due to low sales, and instead started vending to prisons. Jafri’s signage explains that an inmate accused the Illinois Department of Corrections of cruel and unusual punishment when he grew sick from soy products the prison fed him.
Jafri’s installation inspires the thought that maybe we, too, should always be suing. From the ’90s rage for trans fats to contemporary facial fillers and addictive iPhones—when we read her ghastly histories we may fear that we will fall prey to some yet unknown corrupt brand. Jafri’s work reminds us of how progress has made us healthier but creates an ever-renewing roster of dangers. Her work argues for educated purchasing practices, but even that may not do enough.
Maryam Jafri: I Drank the Kool-Aid But I Didn’t Inhale runs from February 10–June 30, 2019 at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (1717 E. 7th Street, Los Angeles, CA 90021).