A spotlight on a salmon-colored wall with a sign reading "The Contest of the Fruits"

Slavs and Tatars Compares Apples to Oranges

“The Contest in the Fruits” exhibition in the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery puts a modern, hip-hop spin on an ancient Uyghur poem.

Orange you glad in-person exhibitions are back? This semester, the John B. Hurford Center for the Arts and Humanities (HCAH) is hosting The Contest of the Fruits, an exhibition created by internationally renowned art collective Slavs and Tatars. The exhibition opened Sept. 10 at the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery, located on the second floor of the Whitehead Campus Center, and will run through Dec. 12. The Contest of the Fruits is supported by a Pew Center for Arts and Heritage Grant, which was awarded to the College’s John B. Hurford ’60 Center for the Arts and Humanities, artist collective Slavs and Tatars, and Philadelphia nonprofits Twelve Gates Arts and the Council on American Islamic Relations(CAIR) in 2019 for two years of planned artistic collaborations inspired by a 19th-century allegorical Uyghur text.

Slavs and Tatars’s work focuses on empires, ideologies, culture and religion in Eurasia, “east of the former Berlin Wall and west of the Great Wall of China.” Founded in 2006, the Berlin-based group has worked on various multimedia projects that highlight the intersections and influences of Slavic, Caucasian, and Central Asian identity. In addition to exhibitions, they write books and host lecture performances around the world. 

The exhibition’s namesake text was written in Uyghur, a Turkic language spoken predominantly by Muslim individuals in western China. The poem details a munāzara (“debate” or “competition” in Arabic) between rivaling fruits, who take turns heckling each other and declaring themselves as the best fruit. The text serves as an allegory for cultural differences in language, politics, and religion in the Central Asian region. Slavs and Tatars recognized the satire in the poem and gave it a modern spin, transforming the debate into a seven-minute film of an animated Turkic rap battle. Set in an arena of traditional Uyghur architecture and walls of animated speakers, 13 different fruits, including a walnut, mulberry, pomegranate, quince, and pear, take the stage one by one to spit verses in which they diss each other and declare themselves as the dominant fruit of the bunch. 

The animation style of The Contest of the Fruits enticed many to see the exhibition. Each fruit in the exhibition is illustrated with Uyghur calligraphy spelling out the fruit’s name. They use their cartooned hand movements to accentuate lyrics. Slavs and Tatars personified the fruits, giving each one a classic hip-hop personality and style. The apricot, for example, has gold hoop earrings. The apple has gold teeth. The grape rocks a cap with “4 Life” on it.

Many students were intrigued by the banners and posters of the fruits around campus. “I had been seeing these bright, quirky posters all over campus for the past month, so I was curious and excited to see what The Contest of the Fruits was about,” said Izzy Ray ‘23, who attended the exhibition opening. “The animation was so dynamic and vibrant! It was great to see something so colorful, unique, and engaging played on an enormous screen in the gallery.” 

Other students were introduced to The Contest of the Fruits through their coursework. “I’ve been following The Contest of the Fruits partnership with Haverford and Slavs and Tatars since I took a class with [Assistant Professor of Religion] Guangtian Ha last year,” said Naren Roy ‘23. “He piqued my interest in learning more about Uyghur populations in China, especially in light of the sometimes single-sided stories [and] representations about Uyghur people that reach us in the West.”

Ha, who helped drive the collaboration at the heart of the exhibition, met Slavs and Tatars at a conference in 2015. Because he shared common interests in the history of Islam in China and Central Asia with the art group, he insisted that they work with Haverford’s Hurford Center in 2018. With Pew grant funding, they were prepared to host several events along with the exhibition. But then, the COVID-19 pandemic happened. 

“From the initial idea of simply hosting a talk by Slavs and Tatars, this project expanded significantly over the past two years,” said Ha. “Then in early 2020 came the pandemic,so we had to rethink the entire program. The initial plan was to invite Slavs and Tatars to give their signature lecture performances every two or three months throughout the program. Now with the pandemic in full swing  we had to pivot to Zoom and come up with a slate of creative online events.”

In collaboration with other local Philadelphia organizations such as Twelve Gate Arts and CAIR, Slavs and Tatars hosted several virtual events on Zoom with Uyghur traditions and peoples at their center, including a cooking show focused on Uyghur hand draw noodles, a Uyghur and Urdu poetry reading, and a dance performance featuring Uyghur ethnomusicologist, dancer, filmmaker, and WEghur Stories podcaster Mukaddas Mijit. On Thursday, Sept. 30, the group will host a virtual roundtable discussion Uyghur language preservation and The Contest of the Fruits film with rapper Nashtarr (who wrote and performed all of the characters’ raps in the movie) and linguistic anthropologist Gülnar Eziz. The Zoom events bring together artists and audience members from all over the world, exemplifying the unity and community building that both Ha and Slavs and Tatars strive for in their work. 

Bringing The Contest of the Fruits exhibition to Haverford was important for Ha, especially in light of the recent events in Afghanistan, which has generated discussions about Islam and the Central Asian region. 

“The Uyghur region is adjacent to Afghanistan,” he said. “And it is closer to the broader Central Asia in language, religion, and culture than it is to East Asia. Bringing The Contest of the Fruits to Haverford was meant to raise our awareness of that civilizational hub lodged at the heart of what is often known as ‘Eurasia’. From Buddhism to shamanism to Islamic mysticism, the Uyghur region exemplifies a historical era when syncretism and cosmopolitanism were the staple of life.”

The comedy and satire of the exhibition helps ease the seriousness of its theme, and the musical genre it draws on—hip-hop and rap—also highlights the essential role of African American Muslims in the arts. “African American Islam crosses into such different artistic genres as jazz and hip hop, and African American comedy  is rooted in the same multifarious cultural tradition,” said Ha. “The moment one begins to pay closer attention to the imbrication of Islam with comedy,,  soon enough one would be drawn into the rich and burgeoning scene of African American Muslim comedy in the US.” In the Spring 2022 semester, Ha plans to teach a course on Muslim comedy in partnership with Moses the Comic, a Muslim comedian from Philadelphia who was a Contest of the Fruits program collaborator. He hopes the class will be able to host a comedy festival for comedians, especially African American Muslim comedians, from the Philadelphia area and beyond.

In addition to the exhibition, Ha and Slavs and Tatars collaborated on a related book, also called The Contest of the Fruits, that provides a more in depth analysis on the poem in relation to investigations of tolerance and identity in the modern world. You can learn more about the book, the first co-published volume between Haveford College and MIT Press, and pre-order a copy here

Photos by Holden Blanco ’17.