documenta, the world’s most important international exhibition of contemporary art, has been held in the German city of Kassel every five years since 1955 and lasts 100 days. But in this latest edition, postponed by the pandemic, already two weeks before the opening, an unprecedented uproar has arisen. For the first time, the exhibition is curated by an Indonesian collective – ruangrupa – that summoned other collectives from the Global South that use art as a tool for transformation, capable of denouncing racism and structural colonialism in the heart of Europe.
“Inhabiting a brown, migrant body with a language barrier, I have experienced a double standard that becomes a very evident reflection of what German society is like. I have lived through many, many instances of racism. It is very easy to be sensitive and clear when it comes to the political stance taken towards situations of antisemitism, as opposed to other cases where the same logic of discrimination and violence against other communities is at work, but it seems that clarity has been lost,” states Consuelo Arevalos, who emigrated from Chile to Germany a year and a half ago. She lives in Kassel, a city of 200,000 people through which the Fulda River flows and where every five years since 1955 one of the most important events in the world of contemporary art is held: documenta.
In its fifteenth edition, the biennial is marked by the rejection of a work of art interpreted as antisemitic by the Indonesian collective Taring Padi, which is part of the exhibition: “The 8 x 12 meter banner People’s Justice was produced in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, in 2002, by many members of our collective. The banner was born out of our struggles of living under Suharto’s military dictatorship, where violence, exploitation and censorship were a daily reality. Like all of our artwork, the banner attempts to expose the complex power relationships that are at play behind these injustices and the erasure of public memory surrounding the Indonesian genocide in 1965, where more than 500,000 people were murdered,“ explains the Taring Padi collective in a statement published on the official documenta website.
The mural depicts, among many others, two figures: a pig-faced anti-riot policeman, wearing a scarf around his neck with a Star of David and a helmet with the inscription “Mossad”. Behind a clown is a caricature of an Orthodox Jew wearing a hat of the Nazi SS. The mural was removed, but the event had its reverberations: the German press, a large part of the political class and the general public called on documenta to take action. But to whom is this demand addressed? Who are they talking to?
This requires telling another story that runs through this exhibition. For the first time in 67 years, the curatorial proposal did not come from individual artists, but from an Indonesian collective called ruangrupa, who arrived in Europe with a very specific idea: To invite collectives from the Global South to the biennial based on the premise of lumbung. “An Indonesian word referring to a rice barn that houses and represents community work. The collective proposes it not only as a concept for this art event, but also as a practice, a way of acting and a shared, contagious attitude to be implemented,” stated the preface of Lumbung Stories, a book published especially for the biennial.1
Following the media uproar, ruangrupa issued a statement apologizing and taking responsibility for not having been able to recognize the depictions on the mural: “This imagery, as we now fully understand, connects seamlessly to the most horrific episode of German history in which Jewish people were targeted and murdered on an unprecedented scale. It comes as a shock not only, but specifically to the Jewish community in Kassel and in all of Germany which we consider as our allies and which still live under the trauma of the past and the continued presence of discrimination, prejudice and marginalization. It also is a shock to our friends, neighbors, and colleagues for whom the struggle against all forms of oppression and racism is an existential element of their political, social, and artistic vision,” says part of the document, which was also published on the official website of the biennale.
When ruangrupa says “neighbors, friends, colleagues,” it refers to the more than 60 collectives and individual artists who make up the lumbung community and whose works are spread across 32 venues throughout the city. Kassel’s landscape reflects the curatorial proposal that includes a program in public spaces and a stroll through the streets rich in contrasts: The Global South taking over the city, where the contemporary art world turns its special attention.
Kassel has a migrant population of 50 percent, mainly from Romania, Bulgaria, Syria, some African countries and Afghanistan. They work as cab drivers or in transportation companies, in restaurants, as cleaners in hotels and in construction, but the city that normally welcomes artists from the West, is being confounded by a scenery of brown, black, and southern artists and activists: “I used to come to documenta and see artists, now I only see collectives talking to each other. I don’t feel invited,” says a white woman speaking in English, referring to a walk by the collective Jatiwangi art Factory for their ritual “The new Rural Agenda,” a transnational summit of rural community networks conceived from below and from the margins, challenging standardized notions of progress and sustainability.
Fernanda Ortiz, an Argentine who has lived in Germany for 23 years: “Knowing documenta, I think that a situation of scandal or confrontation was predictable, it has always been a political art exhibition. The curatorial group is a non-Western collective that brings in other collectives from the Global South and proposes to question the form of Western art production established primarily through mega-exhibitions. I think that many of the artists who came to documenta have questions that deal with their territories, that have nothing to do with the German guilt of the past, with all the silence that is created around them, which is very difficult for people who do not live here. Antisemitism should not be tolerated anywhere in the world, nor should discrimination of any kind,” Fernanda explains.
The levels of complexity are increasing. In the face of this conflict, one of the proposals is to create a committee to review the work of the collectives, a request that comes from the various officials associated with culture. documenta representative Sabine Schormann [managing director of the gGmbH2, the only visible face of the biennial’s top hierarchy, requests that collectives review their works and ensure that they do not have antisemitic content. The curatorial team takes it up a notch: It does not consider that the dialogue should take place between the documenta representative and ruangrupa, but rather that the entire lumbung community should be asked to seek alternatives that will reduce the atmosphere of intimidation, mistrust and censorship that the collectives participating in documenta have been experiencing in their regions for a long time. With this strategy, ruangrupa continues with the ecosystem in which they had been working for years when they were asked to curate this edition of the biennale.
The questions and contradictions are as numerous as the rice in the barn: What will be the harvest? Will it be possible to open up spaces for uncomfortable dialogue? What does this artistic proposal, based not only on a concept but also on a practice, on a way of acting, consist of? What forms of collaboration and community do these collectives propose? A detail: documenta has a duration of 100 days and so far only two weeks have passed.
Euge Murillo is a journalist with Página 12 in Buenos Aires, Argentina
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