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"It's not just about food. It's way deeper than that."
Artist Leah Abucayan shares the inspiration behind the debut mural at Pinetree Plaza on Buford Highway.
Leah Abucayan is painting the outline of a giant 4-foot pink dragonfruit, part of a 70-foot long mural at Pinetree Plaza on Buford Highway. The sun is bouncing off the asphalt, and in between brushstrokes she takes sips of an iced coffee to stay cool.
For Leah, it’s not just the first mural she’s ever done of this size, it’s also a way for her to pay homage to something quintessential from her childhood: kamayan. Literally translating to “eating with your hands” in Tagalog, kamayan is a Filipino style communal meal, laid out on banana leaves and eaten with your hands. But the kamayan she’s painted along the side of Pinetree Plaza doesn’t just have Filipino food - it includes ramen, spring rolls, Korean BBQ, tacos, as well as traditional Filipino foods like the dessert halo halo. “Instead of using the traditional foods on a big banana leaf, I wanted to incorporate different cultures. So it's like a mix of my own, but also a mix of everything that you find on Buford highway.”
Leah puts the finishing touches on the mural at Pinetree Plaza on Thursday.
The mural came to be through a collaboration between the City of Doraville, the public art nonprofit LivingWallsATL, and Halpern Enterprises, the company that owns Pinetree Plaza. It’s the first phase of a larger project launched by the City of Doraville and private property owners to develop a 2.6 mile span of Buford Highway - the BUHI Walk - by incorporating murals from local artists. “The idea behind it is to showcase the diversity in the community…to have a stretch that you can walk and enjoy the art and also visit businesses,” said Emily Heenan, spokesperson for The City of Doraville.
That famous Buford Highway diversity is also what drew Leah here. When she moved here from California with her husband six years ago, she found herself looking for foods that reminded her of her mom’s cooking. “I went on Yelp… I was looking for the Oriental market, and like where’s the Filipino food. Immediately I found Buford Highway. I guess it's like a taste of what I was used to at home…its like what you look for when your family is far.” (Kamayan Atl - a popular Filipino restaurant - is just a two minute drive away from the mural at Pinetree Plaza.)
Growing up, at least once a year, her mom insisted on making a kamayan style meal. “My mom always did it because she wanted us to know our culture,” said Leah. She’d cover the kitchen table with banana leaves and fill it with traditional Filipino foods like pancit (noodles), lumpia (egg rolls), leche flan, BBQ on a stick, and halo halo (a cold dessert made with a mix of ingredients like shaved ice, milk, and fruit).
Leah with her family, about to eat a traditional kamayan style meal. Photo Credit: Leah Abucayan
Already, the mural seems to have tapped into something in the community. Leah says the owner of Rice Cakes, a Korean cafe just across from the mural, regularly comes out to bring her snacks. Another woman has been coming by with her small child and watching her paint for the last three days. And people drive by regularly, Leah says, asking how they can get art for their businesses. “I can definitely see in the community, and the business owners, that they want more art…”
Arah Kang, an Atlanta area native who grew up in the Johns Creek area before the demographics shifted so dramatically, has been working alongside Leah on the mural. “It feels super surreal. I have other friends who also grew up with me. They've stopped by and been like, this makes me feel really emotional.”
The representation - seeing foods you grow up eating at home - Arah says, is huge. “For children who are going to walk by with their parents. Or like, they point and they notice…that's big, because we've never really had that growing up.”
This effort to cultivate and celebrate what Buford Highways means not just for the residents who live in the area, but also for Atlanta as a whole, has been gaining momentum, thanks in part to organizations like We Love Buford Highway, that work to ensure that local communities are included in the conversation and that their histories are accurately represented. In February, the City of Brookhaven officially named Buford Highway the “Buford Highway Cultural Corridor,” and is part of a larger plan to devote more resources to arts and culture in the area.
These initiatives are highlighting the area’s diversity, but they also seem to be reaching people on another level - they’re helping traditionally underrepresented communities feel seen.
“It’s not just food. It’s way deeper than that,” said Leah.