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The Quinoa Quandary: A deconstruction of a documentary - Senior Art Show by James Cole

(Princeton, NJ) The Lewis Center for the Arts’ Program in Visual Arts will present an exhibition of photographs and video by senior James Cole.  The exhibition, entitled “The Quinoa Quandary: A Deconstruction of a Documentary,” will be on view daily in The James S. Hall ’34 Memorial Gallery of Butler College, April 9 through 20.  An opening reception, where visitors can meet the artist, will be held Thursday, April 12, from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m.  The reception is free and open to the public.

Cole is a senior in the Department of Art and Archeology and the Program in Visual Arts.  His senior thesis exhibition combines his studies in both subject areas, using photography and video to call attention to the complex issues surrounding quinoa production in Bolivia.

Quinoa is a highly nutritious, grain-like crop cultivated at high altitudes and a historical staple for the native people of Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Columbia.  Bolivia and Peru produce 97% of the world’s quinoa, cultivated by farmers with a very low standard of living.  More recently quinoa’s value as a healthy, high-protein food source has exploded demand for the crop in other parts of the world, including the United States, with Bolivian exports increasing 500% in the last decade.

“The U.S. media have suggested the quinoa exportation boom has had an adverse impact on Bolivian society,” notes Cole.  “The media claim that the rising prices due to new-found international demand deprive native Bolivians of an inexpensive source of protein.  The ‘quinoa quandary,’ as it is referred to, is presented as a slam dunk:  Bolivia makes, America takes.  The truth, however, is considerably more complicated and nuanced.” 

Cole’s take on the complexity of the “quandary” is based on both study of the issues from an archeological standpoint and first-hand experience.  He spent three and a half weeks over two trips in Bolivia, visiting small villages, meeting the farmers, and photographing his experience.  “There is a stark contrast between the ease of purchasing quinoa from your local grocery or health food store,” he notes, “and the labor intensive processes and extreme conditions in which quinoa is grown, harvested, and processed for market.”

His exhibition presents photographs from his trip presenting both highly romanticized depictions of quinoa farming and more stark images that place the industry and the living conditions of its workers in context.  A video produced by Cole documents his travels through desolate regions to remote farming areas high in the Andes Mountains including the extreme challenge of oxygen deprivation for those unaccustomed to the high altitudes.

“My thesis project explores the deconstruction of the final ‘product,” states Cole.  “The quinoa that is grown in unforgiving conditions and consumed in privileged America, and the photographs I captured of the Bolivian farmers I met, do not reveal the entire story.  I question if it is possible for a Princeton student to document a foreign, third-world culture without viewing the subject matter through a first-world lens.  Probably not, however this exhibition examines the impact of the quinoa boom through my eyes and documents my struggle to objectively capture this aspect of Bolivian society.”

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Event Information


Opening Reception

Thursday, April 12th
7:00 PM – 9:00 PM

Exhibition runs:
April 9 - 20, 2012

Monday - Thursday
10 AM - 7 PM

Friday and Saturday
10 AM - 9 PM

1 PM - 5 PM

The James S. Hall '34 Memorial Gallery in Butler College

Free and open to the public



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