Documenta exhibition in Germany opens new perspectives for Arab art

BERLIN: This year, Documenta – the contemporary art exhibition that takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany – puts aside isolated individual work in favor of the collective. The exhibition, which runs from June 18 to September 22, explores the intersections between art and life, less object-oriented and more process-oriented; artistic practice as a social structure.

Mirwan Andan, artistic director of this year’s Jakarta-based Ruangrupa collective, tells Arab News: “We realized from the beginning that involving people from different backgrounds enriches the idea of ​​the collective. Involving artists is not enough.”

Ruangrupa designed Documenta 15 around the idea of ​​“lumbung” – an Indonesian term for a communal rice barn. In this case, conceptually and in practice, it is akin to the Islamic notion of jam’iyah, in which participants pool resources and redistribute them.

The Question of Funding, how to work together, 2019. (Supplied)

In fact, many of the organizing principles of Documenta 15 are based on aspects of Muslim culture, such as working groups forming a majlis, and the public program, called Meydan. “We don’t separate daily life from our practices, so lumbung isn’t a theme, it’s more like software that can run on any hardware,” Andan explains. “We want to experiment with this practice, which takes place in the southern hemisphere, rather than hijacking the art world as curators.”

Ruangrupa is perhaps better known for the convivial spaces it opens up in an urban context than for the art it produces. For example, during the Sharjah Biennale in 2019, he staged “Gudskul” (pronounced “good school”), a public learning space created with two other collectives that provided a toolkit for knowledge sharing . Here, the roles of teacher and student were interchangeable.

“Many aspects of the Ruangrupa space in Jakarta – a house, an exhibition space and a library of pirated books – which I discovered in 2015 during a visit with the curatorial program De Appel, resonate with the scene. art form in Ramallah,” says Lara Khaldi, who works in Palestinian culture and is a member of Documenta’s artistic team. “And what the Ruangrupa calls ‘ekosistem’ – a set of relationships that you cannot define – are like the conversations that take place at home, in the garden and in cafes.”

Yazan Khalili. (Provided)

“The exhibition curator is very close to the author, which is not ethical, since it is always a collective work,” continues Khaldi. “It is interesting to consider lumbung as a pre-colonial Indonesian practice that is also present in our cultural scene in the region.”

In addition to an artistic team, Ruangrupa has created an international lumbung network of 14 collectives (whose joint work will continue beyond Documenta), including The Question of Funding, a group of Palestinian cultural producers whose exhibition space in Kassel has recently been the subject of vandalism and fascist slogans.

Despite the widening reflection on geographical and political configurations – this year Ruangrupa announced the participating artists according to time zones – the organizers still have to deal with the complex political and cultural climate of Germany, a country affected in both by anti-Semitism and anti-Palestinian sentiment. It’s ironic because, as Amany Khalifa, a former community organizer at Grassroots Jerusalem and now a member of The Question of Funding, told Arab News: bogged down in identity politics. We are on the idea of ​​the collective. Since 2016, we have met informally in kitchens and gardens, trying to create different economic structures, models that have been left aside by civil society. It’s about who owns the means of production, and that doesn’t just apply to Palestine.”

SADA, freeze frame, Journey Inside the City, by Sarah Munaf in Sada, 2022. (Supplied)

Inspired by what they call the “NGO-ization” of Palestinian civil society in the 1990s, The Question of Funding was formed in 2019 by NGO workers and institutional representatives from the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center and the Center folk art, among others.

“We use this dilemma as a framework to think about community practices, and not just theoretically,” explains Yazan Khalili, artist and member of The Question of Funding. “The issue of funding is historic. It tries to avoid criticism of donor economics to rethink what funding can be, and learn from other economic models.

Khalili, became the president of the Sakakini Cultural Center, the first cultural NGO in Palestine, in 2015, after his MFA in Amsterdam. “Our strategy was to turn the economic crisis into a cultural crisis. We call this the total work of the cultural institution. It can be said that the main tool of cultural practices in Palestine is an institution which is not only a means of production but also an ideological structure. So how to practice institutionalism without recreating an institution? How do we form structures of production through the critique of the cultural institution as such? We are interested in creating works of art that look like they belong in an institution, while producing structures in which critique of the cultural institution can be practiced.”

Installation Borrowed Faces, editing practices by Fehras. (Provided)

If, as a whole, the exhibition emerges from a critical position – of institutions, of the art industry and of the art of the exhibition itself – Khalili argues that it is a positive stance. While the world is unstable – with pro-Palestinian and anti-apartheid thinkers and artists subjected to smear campaigns – spaces in the art world are being created for other ways of thinking outside the stage Politics.

“What frightens us the most is this accumulation of McCarthyism and collective fear,” says Khalili. “But we received support from German artists, academics and collectives in Kassel. There’s plenty of room to defend yourself.”

For Documenta, The Question of Funding organizes exhibitions and common spaces with other collectives, including the Eltiqa group for contemporary art in Gaza. With the help of writers and illustrators, they will also create a children’s book on economics and a new economic medium called Dayra, a form of cashless exchange using blockchain technologies.

El-Warcha Courtyard Project, Hafsia, 2019. (Supplied)

“Eltiqa is a unique example of a collective in Palestine,” says Khalili. “They produce paintings, sculptures and photographs in a collective space that also supports young artists in Gaza. And they managed to do that without becoming an NGO. During the May 2021 war on Gaza, a member of the group, Mohammed Hawajri, posted a comment on Facebook about the meaning of solidarity. He offered to go beyond the level of funding by showing the work of artists from Gaza. We need intellectual and artistic support, not just sending money. And so, how do you use Documenta as a resource to support another group that is also trying to produce something outside the given structures of cultural production?

With Berlin-based Syrian art collective Fehras Publishing Practices presenting ‘Borrowed Faces’ – a hybrid archival research project on Arab globalization and political agency, as well as a fictionalized story about female figures the Afro-Asian solidarity movement in Tashkent, Cairo and Beirut; Tunis-based El Warcha brings his studio idea to Kassel with a library and public art installation; and Sada organizes an exhibition of video works commissioned in Baghdad, Documenta 15 gives pride of place to collective actions and alliances from the Arab world.

It remains to be seen what artists in their role as researchers, collaborators and thinkers can come up with in a non-hierarchical format, but this looks like a game-changing shift in how the region’s practices and artists are presented on the global circuit. – non-essentialized, transdisciplinary and more collaborative.

This text is the translation of an article published on

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