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Installation view of Aaron Hughes’s “Tea” (November 11, 2015) at The Museum of Modern Art. New York, New York (all images courtesy the Museum of Modern Art, New York, all photos by Beatriz Meseguer )

We sat on the hard floor on a mezzanine next to Walid Raad’s installation at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Scratching on things I could disavow (2007–ongoing), its lights flickering on the periphery. But the 20 of us were there for Tea, a performance ceremony by artist and activist Aaron Hughes.

As we sat in a circle, Hughes began his performance by describing where he was in February 2003: watching the snow fall in his barracks while his fellow American troops were being deployed to Kuwait for the Iraq war. As he carefully donned his army fatigue jacket, he asked us: Where were you at this time? I answered, in San Francisco, marching on Market Street. I had taken part in the first “social media” protest where many fellow protesters stopped mid-Market for selfies, at times making spectacle instead of statement. Many in the circle shared their stories of this time, and what was clear was that we remembered those days leading to war. Later that spring, Hughes was deployed as an army specialist, driving trucks of supplies to troops in Iraq.

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“Tea,” with artist Aaron Hughes at the Museum of Modern Art, New York

I first met Hughes at the Kitchen’s Summer Institute in 2006. We were there for Harrell Fletcher’s “Come Together” residency. Recently returned from the war, Hughes was quiet, processing his experience, his veteran status, and his opposition to the war. For this MoMA performance he made direct eye contact and used deliberate gestures, commanding the attention usually reserved for teachers.

He kneeled close to a small Persian rug, and, without pause, unpacked from a wooden box accouterments for tea: a hot plate, a spoon, a jar of sugar, and two copper kettles, one small, one large. He never missed a beat. Aaron made the box, modeled after ‘belly boxes’ in the center of the semi truck’s trailer that holds a variety of goods, and in the case of the people he met while deployed, their tea supplies. He boiled water, he added loose leaf tea, described how the tea needs to boil for 30 minutes, and added cardamom for the last few minutes. We waited, watched, listened, and spoke, anticipating when we too would drink tea.

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Aaron Hughes pours tea in his performance at the Museum of Modern Art, New York

Hughes’s deployment was punctuated by encounters with tea, whether being offered a cup, watching others drink it, or hearing from a friend how she had found a teaspoon in an abandoned foxhole. Many folks offered Hughes tea, the first being a Kuwaiti solidier when Hughes was on his first “lookout.” He refused. Subsequent times by other “third party nationals,” he always refused.

The act of drinking tea is a tradition in many parts of the world, a space for conversation, a ritual where time stops until the tea has finished and the world can continue. By using this ritual, his performance transformed into a slow meditation.

In 2009, as a member of the Iraq Veterans Against the War peace delegation (part of a labor delegation from the United States), he attended the First International Labor Conference in Erbil, Iraq. As he gave us each a cup, and then a spoonful of sugar, he described the setting and told his final story.

At the conference he stood on stage and acknowledged to his audience of 400 or so Iraqi workers his role in the occupation. He said he took responsibility for any pain and suffering he may have caused while being deployed, he offered apologies, and he declined forgiveness. He spoke about the US war resisters and the US peace movement. After the talk, an Iraqi man stood up and took the microphone. With animated speech, the man approached the stage, while Hughes shyly backed away. Just as the man got to the stage, the translation came through: “I just want to come on stage and give this man a hug.” Hughes broke down as he was embraced. The conference organizers whisked Hughes off stage and brought him out of the auditorium and sat him down. A hand reached through the crowd: Aaron, “have some tea.” He accepted.

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One of the Styrofoam cups, inspired by Guantanamo Detention Camp detainees (click to enlarge)

And with this apogee, he poured us tea.

The individually crafted clay cups — made with artist Amber Ginsburg — were modeled after Styrofoam cups given to prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. Each cup was etched with the national flowers of the 779 remaining detainees’ home countries. The inspiration for the cups came from Chris Arendt, a Guantanamo Detention Camp guard, who loved the patterns, mostly flowers, detainees had ‘carved’ into their Styrofoam cups. As artifacts, the cups represent an ongoing global conflict and its collateral damage, while at the same time acting as individual vessels for tea.

Tea traverses several emotional landscapes. When we are asked to sit, wait, and reflect over a cup of tea we are more open to ours and others’ experiences of and relationship to the world. In light of Hughes’s anti-war stance, his work functioned as a poetic counter-narrative to war and destruction, while resisting the dominant narrative of war veterans as heroes or victims, and giving importance to exchanging stories of love and humanity. These stories, of solidarity and genuine rapport, reveal what lies beneath the surface of political rhetoric and the dehumanizing effects of the global war on difference.

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“Tea,” with artist Aaron Hughes

Hughes’s story of redemption might be somewhat facile, but as a dramatic ending to a performance it worked well. Delivered by a different man — and this is where my acquaintance with Hughes might get in the way — it may have seemed a little self-involved. But his firsthand experience of war, his bearing witness and continued involvement in the Iraq Veteran’s Against War, gave gravity to his performance and a raw honesty that made it more potent than many politically or socially engaged projects that also seek to jumpstart relevant conversations. Can opening a space of dialogue register as a political act? In this context, yes, by moving us through the complex layers of trauma and suspicions that come with war. Of course, his audience at MoMA was limited — certainly most of the people there were against the war — and one wonders how far or diverse his reach will be as he performs his piece around the world, and how different the reactions might be. As for myself, it was the quiet gestures of the tea ritual — the moments between stories, of serving and drinking — that reminded me that under all that machinery of war are people.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the Styrofoam cups used in the tea ritual were inscribed with the numbers of citizens from various countries represented in the Guantanamo Bay prison. This is incorrect and has been amended. 

Aaron Hughes’s Tea took place at the Museum of Modern Art (11 W 53rd St, Midtown, Manhattan) on November 11, 2015. The performance will continue to tour in 2016. For more information, please check the artist’s website.  

Gretchen Coombs lives and works in Brisbane, Australia, where she teaches in the School of Design at Queensland University of Technology. Her interests include art and design criticism/activism.