Sara Mashayekh, photo by Camilla Brison

An Epic Food Fight Told through the Iranian Tradition of Naqqali

April 5, 2024
Shadi Shafiei, Research Assistant, Art of the Middle East Department

Dining with the Sultan at Charles White Elementary School, a companion exhibition to Dining with the Sultan: The Fine Art of Feasting on LACMA’s main campus, features over 60 food-related objects from LACMA’s collection, showcasing a variety of materials, decorative techniques, and functions. The exhibition, now on view through August 10, is an engaging introduction to Islamic visual culture and its culinary and dining traditions for kids and adults alike.

Installation photograph, Dining with the Sultan at Charles White Elementary School, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, January 20–August 10, 2024, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

Notable among the objects displayed in this exhibition are a set of reproductions sourced from a delightful 19th-century lithograph book, the Kulliyat (Collected Works) of Bushaq At‘ima. Originally written in the 15th century, this witty parody draws its inspiration from the legendary Persian epic, the Shahnama (Book of Kings), which recounts the adventures of kings and heroes. But unlike the Shahnama, which amuses audiences with exciting tales of heroic battles fought by humans and sometimes demons, this book replaces the human warriors with food items competing for top-dish status. The accompanying illustrations hilariously depict a cooked chicken fighting a fish, noodles in combat with rice, and other culinary delights in an epic food fight.  

Reproduction of Folio from The Battle of Muza‘far and Bughra in the Kuliyyat of Bushaq At‘ima, Iran, 19th century, National Library and Archives of Iran, (6-7112)

To bring this comical text to life, Sandra Williams and I, who co-curated the exhibition, invited Sara Mashayekh, Iranian-American performer and scholar of theater, to translate the text into English and perform it as a naqqali. Rooted in Iranian tradition, naqqali is a fascinating form of dramatic narration in which a skilled performer, known as a naqqaI, breathes life into these epic stories through passionate recitations, accompanied by body gestures and in some cases music. It is an art form that has amused Persian audiences for centuries and is one that we are excited to present in the exhibition space. 

To experience the magic of Iranian storytelling, we invite you to join us at LACMA’s gallery at Charles White Elementary School on Saturday, April 13, where Mashayekh will take you into the heart of the epic battle between two dishes and bring these timeless tales to life.