School Watch
July 2022

Field Notes: The Question of Funding, Eltiqa, and Sada [Regroup], Documenta 15

Mateusz Sapija

Bassim Al Shaker (Sada), Barbershop, 2022. Video, 8 minutes. Photo: Mateusz Sapija.

Mohammad Al Hawajri (Eltiqa), The Animals Farm, 2012. Oil on canvas. Photo: Mateusz Sapija.

Ali Eyal (Sada), The Blue Ink Pocket, 2022. Video, 12 minutes. Photo: Mateusz Sapija.

Rijin Sahakian (Sada), Anthem, 2022. Video, 10 minutes. Photo: Mateusz Sapija.

The Question of Funding, A Book Like No Other, 2022. Publication and posters. Photo: Mateusz Sapija.

The Question of Funding, Dayra, 2022. Mixed-media installation and blockchain platform. Photo: Mateusz Sapija.

Sada [Regroup], installation view, 2022. Photo: Mateusz Sapija.

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.

The build-up to Documenta 15 entangled the exhibition’s curators and artists in tense debates over representations of Palestine and Israel in German public space. In the weeks preceding the opening, several racist incidents in Kassel and an online smear campaign targeted the Palestinian collective The Question of Funding, the latter of which was picked up by most German media outlets. The conflicts only worsened after an artwork by the Indonesian collective Taring Padi placed in the city’s Friedrichplatz included troubling anti-Semitic imagery. Documenta 15 was intended to “speak for itself,” [1]1
but even before opening, it fell victim to (self-)censorship, with talks on artistic freedom cancelled and offending artworks removed. [2]2
For more on the controversies surrounding Documenta 15’s opening, see Jörg Heiser, “‘Contested Histories’: on Documenta 15,” art-agenda, .

Focusing on equality and collaboration, Documenta 15 was modelled on the lumbung, a traditional Indonesian practice of storing resources and sharing surpluses. [3]3
Documenta 15 defines lumbung as follows: “Translated from Indonesian, it means ‘rice barn.’ In Indonesian rural communities, the surplus harvest is stored in communal rice barns and distributed for the benefit of the community according to jointly defined criteria. This principle stands for the living and working practice of ruangrupa and is used for an interdisciplinary and collaborative work on artistic projects.” Documenta 15, “Glossary,” 2022. See .
Hoping to challenge the dominant individualistic and capitalistic drives of the art world, ruangrupa invited fourteen collectives to participate, which led to a self-initiated and hyper-horizontal working process to identify the needs and self-limitations of knowledge distribution. Each artistic group received an equal and non-binding budget for its contribution and was expected to develop its idea in dialogue with the other collectives, reflecting the aim of arriving at an outcome that not only pertains to the group’s interests but contributes to what may be termed as a curatorial social sculpture. Similar to the Beuysian model of soziale Plastik, ruangrupa perceived its artistic-curatorial process as one of healing and overcoming the barriers between art and society rather than producing yet another murmur in contemporary art’s echo chamber. At the same time, contrary to what we often perceive as “social practice,” ruangrupa engaged (and encouraged their partners to engage) with already existing networks and communities that closely surround the collectives, rather than seeking to penetrate and connect with communities from an outsider position.

The Question of Funding, Dayra, 2022. Mixed-media installation and blockchain platform. Photo: Mateusz Sapija.

Within this framework, The Question of Funding explored collective resources to question and problematize the economic funding models that sustain cultural structures. Their work, however, was not strictly theoretical. “It is not about institutional critique; we already know it. The question is: how do we practice it? And how do we practice it outside of the art world?,” Yazan Khalili, one of the collective’s members, told me. Thus, departing from the phenomenon of NGOization that created a new form of colonial control and economic dependency on the Global North in Palestine, The Question of Funding proposed a model of re-embedding cultural practice into local communities and microeconomies. The group turned to the idea of community-governed funding and created Dayra, a blockchain technology for circulating, storing, and exchanging communal resources. Like several collectives participating in Documenta 15—and an extension, perhaps, of Documenta 14’s focus on Indigeneity—The Question of Funding made use of local cultural and economic practices, developing Dayra through the process of an-nqoot [dripping]. Often a custom at weddings, an-nqoot is based on the communal sharing of resources with the newlyweds, who repay the debt in the next generation. Similarly, Dayra is a platform on which users enter indebted to share and exchange any resources that the community is willing to accept. For Dayra, Documenta 15 is just a starting point from which the project intends to build a long-lasting tool for the cultural practitioners in Palestine to exchange resources inside and outside their environment.

Following a model of progressive horizontality, The Question of Funding also hosted Eltiqa, a collective based in Gaza. Eltiqa’s exhibition, which was shown in a space vandalized with racist slogans just before the opening, consisted of figurative paintings juxtaposed with documents and stories of individual and collective life defined by near-total isolation from the rest of the world. The Documenta-attending public could see and read about abandoning loved ones not allowed to leave Gaza, smuggling art supplies as contraband, dividing funds into a burdening plethora of installments due to financial measures imposed on Gaza, making paintings scaled to fit export regulations, or being unable to escape the political interpretation of their work.

Another resonant voice from the Levant is that of Sada [Regroup] (2011–15), a network of Iraqi artists who led and participated in educational programs for art students living in Baghdad. Sada conducted its programs online long before the Covid-19 pandemic, as most of the artist-teachers lived in exile and continued conflict in Baghdad made it too dangerous to travel. Initiated by Rijin Sahakian, Sada aimed to provide a space for critical thinking and artist-led experimental learning within the underdeveloped and informal local contemporary art scene. Sada’s used digital technologies to connect established artists with young art practitioners, and along with the way, this enabled and encouraged students to produce video and film works. This insistence on being seen can be understood as both a result of Sada’s pedagogy and an act of disobedience contesting the reality of the aftermath of Baghdad’s NATO occupation and the progressive radicalization of local politics that followed.

Sarah Munaf (Sada), Journey Inside a City, 2022. Video, 12 minutes. Photo: Mateusz Sapija.

A series of video works titled Sada [Regroup] presents the outcome of this precarious pedagogical project, which was largely halted by the Islamic State offensive in 2014. The five videos shown by the former members of Sada move from reality to fiction and from documenting art interventions in a Baghdad occupied by an extremist authoritarian regime to a narrative about a fictitious artist who produced paintings of different parts of his body that were dispersed and later found throughout the city. The works take on the period beginning in the 1990s, when Desert Storm propaganda filled Western screens and US soldiers recorded rap videos on their bases, and continue into the present, when looted Iraqi heritage is systematically acquired by its Arabian Gulf neighbors for their cultural megaprojects and ongoing conflict compels Iraqis to migrate to other war-torn countries. As is often the case, history has repeated itself, and most of Sada’s former students are now in exile themselves, with life in Baghdad too precarious and the city’s art scene scattered around the world.

Documenta 15 no doubt offers an important contribution to discourses on social and pedagogical practices, both in its refreshing curatorial framework and the range of pedagogical and community projects surveyed. At the same time, when “anti-imperialism” is mistaken for “terrorism” and “postcolonial” for “anti-Western,” the exhibition’s alternative perspective is hard to accept for many, particularly in Europe. As a result, the insightful and often demanding work of collectives such as The Question of Funding, Eltiqa, and Sada has been overshadowed by a largely inward-looking ideological proxy conflict taking place largely in Germany and the Western world. In this context—and after witnessing the disheartening bullying of several Global South (and particularly Arab) makers participating in Documenta 15 and the patronizing explanations of what “curating” and “art” are (unsurprisingly voiced with a tone of Western superiority)—one is tempted to ask a larger question: why invite someone to speak if their words will not be heard?

Mateusz Sapija is a researcher and curator. He graduated from the UCL Qatar MA in Museum Studies and the Goldsmiths College MFA Curating. At the moment, he is working on a PhD in History of Art at the Edinburgh College of Art titled “The Rise of Post-Democracy in Contemporary European Art.” He is the current recipient of the Anna Polke Foundation Scholarship. He has worked with numerous art institutions and projects, such as Haus der Kulturen der Welt (Berlin), Scotland + Venice (Edinburgh), Asakusa (Tokyo), Sharjah Biennale 12 and Documenta 14 in roles related to research, curating, and public programming.

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