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August 25, 2022

Field Notes: Zach Ngin on Asia Art Archive, The Black Archives, and Archives des luttes des femmes en Algérie, Documenta 15

Art & Education

The Black Archives, “Black Pasts & Presents: Interwoven Histories of Solidarity,” 2022. Installation view, Fridericianum, Kassel, June 11, 2022. Photo: Frank Sperling.

Archives des luttes des femmes en Algérie. Installation view, Fridericianum, Kassel. Photo: Zach Ngin.

On-Anong Glinsiri, Togetherness & The Way We Were: Phaptawan, 2008. Installation view, Asia Art Archive, Fridericianum, Kassel, June 11, 2022. Photo: Frank Sperling.

Archives des luttes des femmes en Algérie. Installation view, Fridericianum, Kassel. Photo: Zach Ngin.

Field Notes: Asia Art Archive, The Black Archives, and Archives des luttes des femmes en Algérie, Documenta 15
by Zach Ngin

Is a reading room in a ticketed exhibition a genuine invitation to read or more a spectacle of information? With so much to see in any given show—art and, increasingly, reams of archival materials—why pick up Staying with the Trouble or The Wretched of the Earth? Documenta 15 abounds with books and documents but mostly, thankfully, sidesteps the problem of texts for texts’ sake. There’s little of the usual mishmash of exhibition catalogs and trendy theory, which, for those interested, remains available in the ruruHaus bookshop. Emerging from geographically diverse contexts, archival practice takes many forms within the show: there’s a digital archive of Cold War-era publications from the Arab world, a diasporic Vietnamese seed library, an archive of popular painting from the Congolese city of Lubumbashi, a collection of photographs gathered along with inhabitants of a Palestinian refugee camp, and so on. The exhibition discourages general pronouncements about the ontology of “the archive” or capital-H history. Instead, it invites careful consideration of how and why groups of people come together to collect things and make them available to others.

The densest concentration of archival practice is a room shared by three collectives on the first floor of the Fridericianum. Asia Art Archive (AAA), based in Hong Kong, presents three historical displays drawn primarily from its holdings, showing how collective practice has shaped the recent art history of continent. The first presents a network of performance art festivals through ephemera and video documentation by historian Ray Langenbach and artist Lee Wen. Langenbach also shows footage of protestors in the streets of Bangkok and voters celebrating the Indonesian legislative election of 1999, suggesting a continuity between the collective aims of performance artists and the movement of everyday people to shape the political history of the 1990s. The second consists of artists connected to the Baroda Faculty of Fine Arts who studied and taught vernacular art practices in postindependence India; here, AAA presents a lively selection of Jyoti Bhatt’s floor paintings, Nilima Sheikh’s hand-cut stencils, and K.G. Subramanyan’s toys and children’s books. Finally, there is Womanifesto, a feminist collective that hosted workshops and residencies at a farm in rural Thailand in the 2000s. Along with printed material, the artworks on view index the collaborative spirit of the workshop: On-Anong Glinsiri shows sedge mats that incorporate printed portraits of fellow workshop participants, and Phaptawan Suwannakudt’s fabric sculpture records the memories of students who visited the farm. Across these three displays, collectivity is not only a historical fact but also a mode of attention that cuts against the monographic bias of art history.

Read more of Zach Ngin’s Field Notes review on Art & Education.

Field Notes is a new series of reviews from the next generation of art writers. Featuring texts on the 59th Venice Biennale and Documenta 15 contributed by students and recent graduates, Field Notes makes original connections between the work and the world and takes a closer look at what other observers might have missed.

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