Aaron Hughes would like to invite you to a cup of tea.
It's a simple enough gesture, but for Hughes, it's much more than that.
"Detainees in Guantanamo Bay have tea every night after their meal. Tea is sipped here and in Iraq. It's one of the universal symbols of our shared humanity," says Hughes, a veteran of the Iraq war who has created the Tea Project as a way get a dialogue going about some of society's most-pressing issues, including war.
"The violence of our society isn't just within soldiers; it's our whole society. I'm interested in creating new meaning out of that trauma. That is what I want my art to express. It's a perfect medium to talk about these things."
He will have a tea performance at 3 p.m. Feb. 23 at the Headlands Center for the Arts in Sausalito, Calif., where his Tea Project installation is on display as part of the "Reconnaissance" exhibit.
The Santa Rosa, Calif., resident never planned to be an activist, and while he studied industrial design at the University of Illinois before he was deployed to Iraq, he didn't expect to be an artist either.
But something happened when he stepped foot in Iraq.
"I went over there really excited and motivated. We were going to get rid of this terrible dictator and help build a new democracy," he says.
He thought he would help the Iraqis and return home a hero. A few months into his 15-month tour driving supplies from Kuwait to outposts in Iraq, it was clear that that wasn't why he and his fellow soldiers were there.
"Everything I had thought about my upbringing, my education, the military I was in, my country, all these ideals really crumbled. I was part of a massively destructive force. And I didn't want to be a part of that. The only thing that I could logically think through in those hours of driving through Iraq that could counteract that amount of destruction was art," says Hughes, 31, who enlisted in 2000 the Illinois Army National Guard.
A friend of Hughes had been a guard at Guantanamo Bay and told him about the tea cups he collected nightly. The detainees would use their fingernails to carve poems and designs, flowers and arabesques, into the sides of the Styrofoam cups, and military intelligence officers would analyze them to see if there were any secret messages on them before the cups were destroyed.
"He kind of fell in love with those cups," Hughes says.
That inspired him to create the Tea Project, a collection of Styrofoam cups into which he's carved designs that he turned into his MFA thesis in 2009. And he has been performing it all over the world, including Beirut, Tokyo and Chicago.
"Who likes Styrofoam? It's a nasty, horrible thing for the environment. That's a lot of how society looks at these people. For me, inscribing these cups is about that human expression and the humanity of these individuals," he says. "They're not expressing anger. It's flowers — another universal thing of beauty."
At the end of the tea performance, Hughes shares his friend's story, a curious love story of a man and cups. But while he's preparing the tea, which takes about a half an hour, he asks questions and seeks stories.
"Everyone has been drinking out of these cups and it's really up to them what they want to do with this cup. It's a way of sharing ownership over what our nation is doing, extra-legal processes our nation's undertaking," he says. "It's really about facilitating people's relationships to war, racism — these issues that are really deep in our society."
The installation includes 155 cups, one for each remaining detainee, including 76 men who remain despite having been cleared for repatriation years ago, he notes; all the materials necessary to make traditional Iraqi tea, from the spices to pots and a double boiler; a rug he brought back from his deployment; and collages he's created.
"What's the counter to destruction? Creation," he says. "I think activism and organizing is another form of art. It's a creative process. It's a way for people to tell their stories and relationships to these systems that we live within, and to realize that their isolation, their pain in these systems are not just theirs. Organizing and activism is about people coming together and sharing those experiences and using those experiences to alter and transform the relationships we live within."